‘Together with a nuclear power share of ca. 15%, [renewable energy sources] will be the backbone of a carbon-free European power system.’ This sentence from the European Commission’s strategic vision for climate-neutrality by 2050, A Clean Planet for All (2018), concisely summarises the argument put forward in this article. Nuclear energy has a crucial role to play in providing flexible baseload to a predominantly renewable-based low-carbon energy mix, which makes the recent airings of anti-nuclear opinions by Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg (and the environmental committee of the European Parliament) wholly irresponsible vis-à-vis the EU’s long-term climate objectives.
This article builds on part one of this series, which argued that the nuclear sector offers an efficient, reliable, available, and clean source of energy to balance a sustainable energy mix consisting largely of intermittent renewables in many parts of Europe.
Tilting at windmills: Germany risks missing its and the EU’s climate targets
The ideological opposition of the nuclear sector by Member States, such as Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, is profoundly irresponsible. Germany’s involvement in the efforts to exclude the nuclear sector from sustainable financing measures have been particularly damning, given its general weight in EU decision-making and its simultaneous attempts to keep the European Investment Bank (EIB) from stopping investments into natural gas projects. As a result, the world’s largest multilateral lender – aiming to become “Europe’s climate bank” by 2025 – did initially fail to agree on a new energy lending policy that would end financing fossil fuel projects by the end of 2020. In a Board of Directors meeting a month later, the EIB did however manage to approve a new lending policy that will cut the financing of fossil fuel projects from the end of 2021 onwards – assisted by a German decision to abstain.
Moreover, Germany’s signature was notably absent from a letter signed by a number of EU Member States to the European Commission demanding that the EU raise its 2030 emissions reduction target from 40% to 55%. Until the June 2019 European Summit, Germany had actually sided with Poland and Hungary in opposing the proposed ambition to reach climate-neutrality by 2050. In addition, the German environment ministry’s recent report on long-term climate targets actually removed a mention on any specific 2040 emissions reduction target and lowered the control mechanisms for compliance with climate targets – perhaps not the image Germany really wants to give to the rest of the EU. To be fair, however, the aforementioned report did keep Germany’s commitment to 55% emission reductions by 2030 despite the refusal to support the letter encouraging an EU-wide target.
Germany has not reduced its annual carbon footprint in 20 years despite increasing the share of renewables in the country’s electricity production almost six-fold within the same time period. It is simply not possible to provide a reliable, flexible baseload with intermittent renewables using current or foreseeable technology, and thus the country depends on imported fossil fuels and has had to heavily subsidise its own fossil fuel sector (second highest subsidies in the EU after the UK) to make up for the difference, while gradually closing its nuclear energy capacity at the same time. (Meanwhile, the low cost of nuclear energy has made France the world’s largest net exporter of electricity.)
Germany is an undisputed global leader in clean energy technology and supports its renewables sector with more public money than any other EU Member State, but its political aversion to nuclear power is significantly thwarting its climate impact potential and even threatens the country’s 2030 emission reduction targets. On top of this, household electricity prices in Germany are higher than anywhere else in the EU.
Germany is obviously entitled to organising its energy mix in whatever way it wishes. The country gets many things right in its energy and climate policy too, and the public sector support to the renewables sector has made Germany a global leader in many sustainable technologies. The country should, however, make sure that it is on course to meet its own targets before trying to impose its own agenda onto other EU members – which should be equally free to decide upon their own forms of energy production within the common EU emission reduction targets. This is especially important in Central and Eastern Europe, where dependence on carbon-intensive coal power generation is the highest and reliable alternatives are badly needed.
Urgency necessitates the use of all available solutions
Given the urgency of climate action, Europe needs feasible, efficient, and cost-effective solutions to facilitate the deployment of renewable energy technology. Nuclear energy is both scientifically proven and commercially available form of energy production for this purpose. It would also reduce Europe’s dependence on imported fossil fuels, which are currently needed to cover over 50% of the EU’s energy demand.
It is crucial that no viable clean technologies are pointlessly excluded from consideration. The Commission estimates that the investments required to reach even the 40% emission reduction target by 2030 will take €180 billion a year – more than the EU’s total annual budget– so there is absolutely no reason to intentionally make the clean energy transition any more expensive that it is already going be.
“We do not have the luxury to exclude any of the available technologies”, said Dr Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency (IEA) at the launch of the World Energy Outlook 2019 in Brussels this November. Even the UN International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 report on limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5C by 2050 acknowledges that the role of nuclear energy in global electricity generation, so “listen to the scientists” as Greta Thunberg says.
Simply put, we must get real on the climate crisis.