COP22 and Nuclear Energy

By Lenka Kollar, International Youth Nuclear Congress and American Nuclear Society delegate to COP22

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Marrakech Morocco on 7-18 November 2016. This was the first time that nations met after signing and bringing into force the Paris Agreement. The purpose of this agreement is to uphold nations to take ambitious actions to limit a global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

At COP22, nations continued work to outline their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to limit global warming. As of now, 109 countries have submitted their first NDC, many of which indicate policies and targets to reduce emissions and incentivize a low-carbon economy. Many countries also commit to deep decarbonization by 2050, which will be needed to reach the 2-degree goal.

While many countries are introducing low-carbon energy target, some countries are also planning to implement carbon trading systems. In its first NDC, China proclaims that it will implement a nationwide carbon emission trading system that would be driven by market forces. China is also one of the few countries that specifically identifies increasing the role of nuclear energy in a low-carbon energy system and investing in research and development for advanced nuclear energy technology.

While the nationally determined contributions create a path towards implementing the Paris Agreement, most agree that the current provisions will not be enough to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Nations need to go down a path of deep decarbonization by 2050 in order to achieve this goal.

Nuclear Energy and Climate Change
During COP21 in Paris, France, last year, the goal of “100% renewable” was very well publicized and many countries and cities pledged to work towards obtaining 100% of their electricity needs from renewable energy, such as solar, wind, and hydro. However, the Paris Agreement does not specify technical solutions. This allows countries to include nuclear energy in their low-carbon energy goals.

However, among the hallways and country booths of COP22, there was very little mention of nuclear energy, even though it has already played a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity generation sector. The #Nuclear4Climate initiative, along with members of IYNC, hosted a booth to educated people on nuclear energy. Read more about the daily recap from IYNC members here.


During a press conference hosted by Russia, Agneta Rising, Director General of the World Nuclear Association (pictured above) gave the example that France, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Canadian province of Ontario have all achieve over 80% carbon-free electricity largely due to nuclear energy. Kirill Komarov of Rosatom also reinforced the ability of nuclear energy to provide low-carbon electricity in a cost effective and efficient manner.

United States Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz spoke at the COP22 Low Emissions Solutions Conference on technology innovation being the key to our approach to climate change. Mission Innovation was an initiative started at COP21 in Paris, France, last year where 19 countries pledged to double research and development into clean energy technology, including advanced nuclear technology. When asked about the ability of nuclear energy to contribute to climate change mitigation, Secretary Moniz answered with the following:

“We need every arrow in the quiver. The market share of different technologies will be different in different places, but nuclear is almost certainly going to have an important role, in my view. Now when you come to the innovation side, I think that one area I happen to like a lot is small modular reactors. That’s one kind of innovation. Going to small reactors that are economically competitive is part of this technology innovation and designs that are emerging have very good safety characteristics, for example. A very important part of the technology integration is going to be the financial engineering innovation because a small modular reactor can have a very different financing structure from a GW-plus plant.”

Another COP22 side event focused on nuclear energy and how early nuclear plant closured are impairing our climate change mitigation goals. Eric Meyer, Executive Director of Generation Atomic, spoke about how he is starting a movement of young people to save existing nuclear power plants in the United States and abroad. Nuclear power plants are almost always replaced by electricity generation from natural gas in the United States, thus increasing carbon emissions.

A United Nations side event on “Meeting the 2°C challenge: Nexus of Innovation and Clean Energy” also included speakers from various energy sectors, including renewables and nuclear. This side event brought together the experiences from United Nations organizations to reflect on possible innovative technologies in clean energy that ensures access to affordable and modern energy whilst keeping global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius. While some audience members were confused by the inclusion of nuclear energy in this panel, it did foster a worthwhile discussion on how the United Nations can take a leadership role in promoting all technological solutions to climate change, not only renewables.

Pragmatic Climate Policies

COP22 involved many high-level discussions of policies to combat climate change, but not many pragmatic solutions. Mandy Rambharos (Climate Change and Sustainable Development Manager at Eskom in South Africa) was one of the few people at COP22 to speak pragmatically about climate change and sustainable development issues. South Africa generates over 80% of its electricity from coal. It does not have water resources for hydro; it does have vast coal and uranium resources. The country is still developing and has a 45% unemployment rate. It needs cheap electricity to continue to develop but also realizes the very real threats of climate change.

Ms. Rambharos spoke pragmatically about the issues facing developing countries like South Africa in terms of being able to manage the competing issues of sustainable development and climate change. It is not only about the issue of climate change; it is also about poverty, clean water, development, jobs, and so on. Developing countries need low-carbon and low-cost solutions for power generation. Some of these countries and especially South Africa are looking at nuclear energy and carbon capture and sequestration, which both tend to be “unpopular” technologies.

While the nationally determined contributions provide a first step towards reducing carbon emissions, at this point, they will not be enough to reach the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, as set out in the Paris Agreement. In coming conferences, serious pressure will need to be put on countries to not only uphold their targets, but also to make them more aggressive towards a path of deep decarbonization by 2050.