It would be a folly to think that there is no hope of tackling climate change without nuclear power
Making the case for new nuclear this week, George Monbiot admitted that, what with the proposed nuclear waste dump in Cumbria being rejected and Centrica pulling out of new nuclear in the UK, the facts are not exactly working in his favour. But his argument raised two crucial questions.
First, what is actually happening as a result of Germany’s nuclear phase-out? Is Angela Merkel now barrelling down a catastrophic, high-carbon coal path, or is the reality more complex?
It’s true that there has been a spike in coal burning, but this is largely because the EU carbon price has collapsed and gas prices have risen – meaning that burning coal and lignite is cheaper than burning gas. Right now, Germany’s renewable energy boom is displacing gas, rather than coal.
Moreover, since the country’s decision to phase out nuclear, no new coal plants have been proposed and some have even been cancelled. So it is a massive oversimplification to state that Germany’s decision to go nuclear free means more reliance on coal – either now or in the future.
The German government has made clear that it remains committed to its carbon reduction and renewable energy targets – which are more ambitious than ours – and are driving investment and creating jobs in the sector.
The renewables sector in Germany is significant, already providing 25% of electricity and resulting in lower market prices. Crucially, a recent study by the German engineering association VDE found that Germany’s switch to renewables could “obliterate” the need for baseload power from coal and nuclear altogether.
Second, is there really no hope of tackling climate change without nuclear power? This is certainly what the nuclear industry wants us all to think. But analysis using the government’s figures shows that we don’t need nuclear power to meet climate goals and keep the lights on.
Renewable energies, together with combined heat and power, energy efficiency, smart grids, demand management and interconnection, are the building blocks of an alternative energy future. The path we take is a matter of political choice, not technological inevitability.
As for coal, the emissions performance standard in the energy bill should rule out all new unabated coal, although it needs strengthening to ensure the operation of any fossil fuel plant is compatible with the decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030.
Importantly, we also need to stop subsidising the fossil fuel industry. Coal, oil and gas have enjoyed decades of support that the renewables sector can only dream of.
And with the energy bill set to deliver a backdoor subsidy for nuclear, truly sustainable renewables like wind, solar, waste digestion, wave and tidal are in danger of being sidelined once again.