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The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) nervously awaited climate report has just been released. It concludes that current attempts to mitigate climate change are failing. The world is on track to overshoot its global warming target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial levels, as agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Having already warmed 1.1 degrees since pre-industrial levels, the IPCC estimates that we are on track to exceed 2 degrees of warming by 2100.

Alarmingly, in 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least two million years, largely due to fossil fuel consumption. Widespread and rapid changes are affecting weather systems and causing climate extremes across the world, resulting in losses to biodiversity and life.

The IPCC effectively dictates that, if climate mitigation measures are not undertaken imminently and if countries do not bring forward their net zero plans by a decade, global temperature rises will be catastrophic.

The UK Government’s response is that despite being a world leader in pursuing net zero, our country must still go “further and faster.”

This latest IPCC report and its fatal findings should make the following clear for all sceptics: net zero must be achieved, and it must be achieved as quickly as possible.

Net zero targets rely on transitioning from fossil fuel to zero-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar energy. But, as the Chancellor pointed out in the Budget, “because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, we will need another critical source of cheap and reliable energy. And that is nuclear.”

Like renewables, nuclear energy emits negligible levels of CO2. In the United States, for example, nuclear energy is the largest source of clean power, generating nearly 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year – enough to power over half of US homes – and producing over half of the nation’s emission-free electricity. Additionally, more than 470 million metric tons of carbon are avoided in the US annually by using nuclear energy, representing the equivalent of removing 100 million cars from the road.

Similarly, France can generate over 70% of its power through nuclear energy. In 2020, Ukraine generated 51% of its electricity from nuclear energy, Sweden 29.8% and South Korea 29.6%. But the UK fell far behind with only 14.5%. Britain remains dependent on non-renewables, with natural gas typically accounting for 40% of British energy – a shameful statistic for the self-proclaimed leader of the green industrial revolution.

Currently, most of Britain’s nuclear power sites are at the end of their life. However, the Government is aiming to deliver eight more reactors by 2030. Hinkley Point C in Somerset is now under construction and Sizewell C in Suffolk has the go-ahead. These two facilities alone are forecast to be able to power 12 million homes in the UK.

Yet, constructing large nuclear power plants is a lengthy process and these two sites will not be ready for several years.

This, however, does not put an end to our nuclear aspirations. Alongside the construction of new large nuclear plants, the Government intends to fund the development of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) which work in the same way as large reactors but are smaller and quicker to construct. A typical SMR has the ability to power 400,000 homes.

Theoretically, SMRs pose a strong strategy for shorter-term nuclear energy provisions while the larger stations are in construction. Following Sizewell C’s and Hinkley Point C’s construction, SMRs and large plants can be used alongside each other in a way that can exceed the Government’s target of 25% of electricity generated by nuclear power by 2050.

Unfortunately, the IPCC sees the lack of private sector engagement and finance as preventing climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Chancellor seems to share such concerns. So, to encourage private sector investment, nuclear power will be reclassified as environmentally sustainable by the Green Technical Advisory Group which oversees the UK Green Taxonomy, subject to consultation.

With investors more inclined to look for sustainable investments under their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) frameworks, defining nuclear energy as environmentally sustainable should help direct private investment towards it.

By scaling up our nuclear energy programme and ensuring that it gets the level of funding it requires, Britain can continue its leading role in the global fight against climate change. IPCC scientists must surely get some relief that Britain is looking to decisively scale back our use of non-renewables in favour of this sustainable alternative.

Thomas Nurcombe is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Lukáš Lehotský]