Zero Emissions

Tom Greatrex

12 June 2019

In what may turn out to be a rare positive move that Theresa May will be remembered for after she leaves Downing Street in the next few weeks, the Government’s commitment to legislate a target for achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 shows the UK is serious about tackling climate change. They have effectively adopted the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations from their recent net zero report, and that is to be welcomed. Of course, legislating for a target is one thing. Achieving it is another, as the likelihood of missing current carbon budgets shows.

The implications of this seminal moment are widespread. Foremost for those across power generation, the “soon-to-be-published” Energy White Paper becomes the focus. The expectations of the White Paper have changed overnight, if it is silent or vague on how net zero will be met, it will be a missed opportunity to demonstrate the need to make significant and sustained progress such a target implies.

For decades, nuclear has consistently provided reliable, large scale, low carbon energy and so has an integral part to play in reducing our long term emissions to meet net zero.

Even after a massive expansion in variable output power from wind turbines and solar panels, half of the clean electricity generated in the UK comes from our nuclear fleet, most of which is rapidly approaching retirement. By 2030, all but one of that fleet will stop generating electricity. We know how long these reactors have left, and we know how long it’ll take to replace them, we have done for some time. Without swift decision making we’re heading for a significant gap in our clean generation capacity that simply can not be reliably filled without increasing, rather than reducing, emissions levels.

For 50 years, nuclear has done the heavy lifting of supplying clean, firm power to the grid, and when we go for runs of time with no coal generated electricity on the grid, that is thanks to nuclear as much as it is to wind or solar. Displacing fossil fuels will need more of all genuinely low carbon ways of generating power. When one of the oil companies, BP, publish an energy report showing that emissions from energy have gone up, not down, because of the demands caused by the weather impact of climate change, it becomes clear that there is no hiding place from the urgency of accelerated efforts to minimise our reliance on fossil fuels.

Nuclear isn’t just a one-trick pony, alongside the low carbon power come the additional benefits of balancing our grid, providing security of supply, highly concentrated power produced from small sites, tens of thousands of high skilled jobs in all parts of the country, and ultimately, without it the burden on the consumer will undoubtedly be greater.

As we have seen this week at the NIA’s summer conference, NNB 2019, the industry has voiced its desire and readiness to step up to the plate and continue to be part of meeting that challenge. Quite how big, or far away, that plate is remains unclear, but will have to be set out soon and the policy instruments to enable the investment to happen also need to be addressed. A lot has been done already, but government need to do even more if we are serious about net zero being more than a parting shot from a Prime Minister who has almost run out of road.

The UK is a country of firsts, be it civil nuclear reactors, declaring climate emergencies, leading the way on fusion, and now the first G7 country to legislate for net-zero. Achieving that goal is a challenge with a scale and scope that requires all low carbon industries to pull together, and one we know nuclear can be an integral part of making happen.