Nuclear energy and climate change

To control carbon dioxide emissions and associated climate change, the world must rapidly reduce its dependency on fossil fuels. Nuclear energy is low carbon, and can be deployed on a large scale in the time frame required. Its expanded use – as part of a portfolio of clean energy technologies – is essential.

Climate change – an accelerating global problem

The United Nations recognises climate change as “the most systemic threat to humankind”1. Despite this, global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions continue to rise – reaching 32.6 billion tonnes in 2017, a record high, and up more than 40% since 20002.

Nuclear is low carbon

Nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gas emissions during operation. Over the course of its life-cycle, nuclear produces about the same amount of CO2 equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind3.

Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions

Source: IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, Annex III3

Because nuclear power is reliable and can be deployed on a large scale, it can directly replace fossil fuel plant, avoiding the combustion of fossil fuels for electricity generation. The use of nuclear energy avoids emissions roughly equivalent to removing one-third of all cars from the world’s roads3,4,5.

France generates over 70% of its electricity from nuclear power – the largest nuclear share of any country globally – and its electricity sector emissions are one-sixth of the European average6,7.

A portfolio of technologies is needed

Modern society is increasingly 'fuelled' by electricity. Since 2000, demand for electricity has grown two-thirds faster than total energy – increasing from 15% to 19% of final energy consumption – and this trend is expected to continue.

Electricity is clean at the point of use, but the power sector currently produces over 40% of all energy-related carbon emissions5. Decarbonising the power sector, whilst providing affordable and reliable electricity to a growing global population, is central to climate change mitigation strategies.

Concerted international efforts over the past 20 years have increased the amount of electricity generated by wind, solar and other renewable sources, but have failed to displace fossil fuels from the mix. In 2017, fossil fuels produced more electricity – in relative and absolute terms – than ever before.

Electricity generation – growing fossil fuel dependency

Source data: IEA, World Energy Outlook 2018

Time is critical

The Paris Agreement’s central target is to keep the rise in global temperatures to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, and to aim to pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5°C. Scientific consensus is that limiting the rise to 1.5°C or less would substantially reduce the risks associated with climate change.

In its 2018 report, Global Warming of 1.5°C8, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the planet is likely to breach the 1.5°C threshold by as early as 2030. In most of the pathways consistent with keeping global temperatures below 1.5°C set out by the IPCC, nuclear power’s share of electricity generation increases significantly.

Almost all proposed pathways to achieving deep decarbonisation suggest an increased role for nuclear power, including those published by the International Energy Agency5, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative9, US Energy Information Administration10, and World Energy Council11.

Harmony

The nuclear industry recognises the scale and immediacy of the challenge, and the important role that all low carbon energy sources have to play. Harmony – the industry’s vision for the future of electricity supply – sets a target for nuclear power to provide 25% of electricity by 2050 to help avoid the worst consequences of climate change.


References

  1. United Nations Secretary-General, Secretary-General's press encounter on climate change (29 March 2018) [Back]
  2. International Energy Agency, Global Energy & CO2 Status Report 2017 (March 2018) [Back]
  3. Steffen Schlömer (ed.), Technology-specific Cost and Performance Parameters, Annex III of Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014) [Back]
  4. Office of Transportation and Air Quality, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle (March 2018) [Back]
  5. International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2018 (November 2018) [Back]
  6. International Energy Agency, Electricity Information 2018 (July 2018) [Back]
  7. EDF (2018), CO2 emissions (no date) [Back]
  8. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5C (October 2018) [Back]
  9. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative, The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World (September 2018) [Back]
  10. U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2018 (July 2018) [Back]
  11. World Energy Council, World Energy Scenarios 2016 – The Grand Transition (October 2016) [Back]

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