Since 1880, the average global temperature has already risen by almost 1°C. About 0.6°C of this rise in temperature has occurred in the past three decades. This week leaders from 195 countries have come to Paris for the Conference of the Parties or COP 21, hosted by the United Nations (UN), with the goal to reach a deal aimed at reducing global carbon emissions and limiting global warming to 2°C by 2050. The large number of attendees serves as evidence of the fact that governments around the world have finally recognized the challenge posed by climate change and are now ready and willing to find a solution that works.
To be successful in achieving their goal, the negotiators in Paris will have to reach an agreement that encourages a transition to a low carbon society. For this transition to be possible we must use all available low carbon energy technologies that exist today, including nuclear options.
Nuclear along with other mitigating options like wind and solar can be used within an energy mix to address the energy and climate challenges that we currently face.
World leaders at COP 21 should be encouraged to develop policies that foster investment in nuclear energy. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), we need 1000 gigawatts of electricity (GWe) of new nuclear capacity by 2050 to efficiently combat climate change, which will require effective regulation and markets that value low carbon emissions and reliable supplies.
Rich developed countries like the United States, Canada, France, UK, Japan and others have two major responsibilities, one, they need to do more to cut emissions, having polluted for much longer, and two, to make available financial assistance as well as various technologies to developing countries in a fair manner to help them build the necessary infrastructure to cut carbon emissions. And if the rich industrialized countries are truly committed towards building a low carbon energy society then they must not discriminate in offering assistance to developing countries based on geopolitics.
The official International Energy Agency (IEA) figures on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions argue that nuclear energy has already avoided the release of around 56 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 since 1971 and that is because nuclear power is a low carbon energy source emitting only 16 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour (kWh), which is a very small fraction of the carbons emitted by oil, natural gas, and coal.
A normal household running on nuclear energy for a year produces only 56 kilograms (kg) of CO2 per year, as compared to 2620 kg of CO2 emitted from using oil, 3503 kg of CO2 from coal, and 1736 kg of CO2 from using natural gas.
In addition to only producing a fraction of the carbon dioxide for its use, nuclear also requires the least amount of natural resources. Only 7 grams of uranium is required to run an average household that consumes about 3500 kWh of energy per year, as compared to 890 kg of oil, 1100 kg of coal, or 1000 cubic meters (m3) of natural gas.
Wind and solar energy are also low carbon energy sources but are not available at all times. Nuclear energy, unlike wind or solar is available uninterrupted around the clock, making it a more reliable source of energy.
As the population around the world increases, so does the demand for electricity. Wind and solar energy alone cannot help meet this growing global demand for energy. Fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas produce very high levels of CO2, jeopardizing the future of our entire planet because it contributes to climate change, and also puts our health at risk because of the poisonous effect that rising presence CO2 in the environment has on human beings.
For this reason environmental scientists say that we must keep temperatures under 2°C by 2050. The large turnout of world leaders in Paris this week proves the urgency of the matter at hand. There are high hopes that this conference will not be a failure because leaders around the world, for once finally seem in consensus that we must act now.
Looking at the facts already presented in this article, increasing the share of nuclear energy globally in the overall energy mix seems like the only option we have that is environmentally friendly and will help us transition to a low carbon energy future.
During his address to other world leaders at COP 21, Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said, “we stand on a cliff edge. Either we stand united and agree to combat climate change, or we all stumble and fall.”
At COP 21 this year, all countries must agree to make nuclear a permanent part of the solution to combat the electricity and climate challenges that we are facing, because it is the only solution that makes sense.
The writer is an assistant professor at NUST in Islamabad.