By Gerard Wynn
LONDON, Sept 19 Developed countries are
increasingly bold in planning to reduce nuclear power but
hesitant in announcing clear plans to cut greenhouse gas
emissions, leaving themselves wriggle room to replace low carbon
nuclear generation with fossil fuel gas.
It is particularly tempting to be vague about timetables for
cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions as countries have failed
to explain how lost nuclear capacity could be matched by a
ramp-up in carbon capture and storage (CCS), which remains
untested on gas and coal-fired power.
The temptation to delay decisions - and development of CCS -
is especially strong as the consequences of phasing out nuclear
will be felt mostly after 2020 as ageing plants are retired.
Several developed countries have announced plans for
shifting away from or phasing out nuclear power, including
Germany, Japan, Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland, but none
have formal, binding CO2 targets after 2020.
The most probable outcome is that interim CO2 targets will
continue to be weak or to be broken, as unabated gas and coal
power generation is used to replace lost nuclear capacity.
The European Commission said last December that all fossil
fuel power plants should be fitted with expensive CCS from
around 2030, if the European Union is to slash emissions by the
middle of the century.
"CCS contributes significantly towards decarbonisation in
most scenarios, with the highest penetration in case with
nuclear constraints," it said in its "Energy Roadmap 2050".
CCS is meant to trap carbon emissions from fossil fuel flue
gases and pipe them underground, but is still untested at a
commercial scale on power plants partly because it adds at least
$1.5 billion to the upfront capital cost per gigawatt of
electricity generating capacity.
The alternatives are either to eliminate fossil fuels except
as back-up for renewable energy, or else to relax medium-term
carbon emissions targets, most of which are only aspirational
and therefore politically feasible to downgrade.
The impact on unabated gas-fired power of ambitious carbon
emissions targets is being debated in earnest only in Britain,
which is alone in having legally binding CO2 targets beyond
Other countries are content to announce firmer plans for
nuclear power in the 2020s and beyond, but not for carbon.
Coal-dependent Poland in June even voted against allowing
the European Commission to propose a 2030 carbon emissions
target, alone against the EU's other 26 member states.
The Commission will now prepare a discussion paper which has
no timeline yet, although Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger
suggested last December that a decision should be made by 2014
on 2030 goals.
CARBON TARGET FOR 2030
French President Francois Hollande last Friday called for
deeper cuts in European Union CO2 emissions as he confirmed
plans to scale back nuclear power to half of the country's power
generation, by 2025, from three-quarters now.
Hollande recommended a target for a 40 percent cut in
European Union carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2030, but did
not specify a French national target.
That echoed a European Commission impact assessment,
attached to the energy roadmap last December, which suggested
energy-related carbon emissions cuts of 38-41 percent by 2030,
below 1990 levels.
Japan's government has backed a withdrawal from nuclear, if
not a complete exit, by applying a 40-year limit on the lifetime
of reactors, which means most would shut down by the 2030s.
Tokyo also last week suggested a goal to cut greenhouse gas
emissions by 20 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.
That is less ambitious than Japan's present target to cut
emissions by 25 percent a decade earlier, by 2020, which was
conditional on a global climate deal that is now out of sight.
Unlike European countries, therefore, Japan may be happy to
acknowledge that reducing or phasing out nuclear will come at
the expense of climate targets.
Germany was the first country to react to Japan's Fukushima
crisis, deciding completely to abandon nuclear power in a
step-by-step process that is to culminate in 2022.
Berlin has voluntary targets to cut carbon emissions by 55
percent by 2030 over 1990 levels.
NUCLEAR VERSUS CARBON CAPTURE
Both the European Commission and the International Energy
Agency have made it clear that most fossil fuel power generation
would have to apply CCS from around 2030 to meet ambitious
greenhouse gas cuts, especially in a scenario with less nuclear
But the EU is way off the target to deploy 10-12
commercial-scale CCS power plants by 2015, as originally
envisaged, with none under construction yet and plans announced
in July for just two to three using a fund raised from
auctioning emissions permits.
In the "low nuclear case" set out in its World Energy
Outlook late last year, the International Energy Agency modelled
an arbitrary scenario where the world's nuclear capacity was
barely half that expected under present policies.
It found that staying on track to meet ambitious targets for
reducing carbon emissions would still be possible, but only
where CCS was "very widely deployed by 2035".
Britain will provide a first test of these energy choices,
in a country that has encouraged new nuclear power, with the
government promising a gas strategy before year-end.
Its climate advisory panel, the Committee on Climate Change,
has proposed emissions cuts of 60 percent by 2030, plus an
almost zero carbon grid, and gas-fired power limited to
operations which cut carbon using CCS or as back-up to renewable
The Committee last week wrote to Liberal Democrat climate
and energy minister, Edward Davey, saying: "Extensive use of
unabated gas-fired capacity ... without carbon capture and
storage technology (CCS) in 2030 and beyond would be
incompatible with meeting legislated carbon budgets."
Davey replied: "After 2030 we expect that gas will
increasingly be used only as back up, or fitted with Carbon
Capture and Storage technology," not quite meeting the
Meanwhile, Conservative finance minister George Osborne
appears much less keen, announcing gas investment tax cuts in
July, and adding: "The government is signalling its long-term
commitment to the role it (gas) can play in delivering a stable,
secure and lower-carbon energy mix."
The signs therefore are of a fudge, where the government
will avoid fixing a date to mandate CCS with gas-fired power, or
a target for grid carbon intensity in 2030.
That would be consistent with global trends where such
decisions are avoided for a decade or more, implying more gas
and coal, and therefore more carbon dioxide.