Viewpoint: COP26 pivotal point in perception of nuclear energy

19 November 2021

While pledges made during the COP26 climate change conference show that governments are committed to limiting the rise in global temperature, the nuclear industry is ready to play its part in achieving those objectives, says World Nuclear Association Director General Sama Bilbao y León.

"Now that the dust has settled on the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, I wanted to give my thoughts on what happened over those two weeks, and what it means for the future.

I think we have seen that governments are committed to achieving the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, although the pledges governments made in Glasgow still will not limit climate change to less than 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5. They may have not done enough yet, but the momentum is there.

The global nuclear industry, as one of the major providers of round-the-clock clean, low emission energy today, stands ready to play its part in delivering the increase in ambition that came out of COP26.

A significant development, although watered down in the final hours of the conference, was the call on parties to 'phase down' their use of coal-fired generation, and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. This is the first time fossil fuels - and coal in particular - have been mentioned in a COP agreement.

But equally as important, and little reported, was what the Glasgow Climate Pact said about what countries should be doing to replace fossil fuels. It has taken a technology-neutral approach. It calls on Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation.

Nuclear energy is clean power generation and must play a much larger role if we are to succeed in consigning coal - and gas - to the history books, as surely we must do.

Early on we saw coalitions of governments announce pledges that go far beyond what was agreed collectively at COP, on topics such as protecting forests, phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles and reducing methane emissions. And a 190-strong coalition of countries and organisations went beyond the final COP26 agreement, by announcing commitments to phase out coal power.

The COP26 negotiations also made progress on finance. This is a key issue for the clean energy transition. Government pledges of billions of dollars for mitigation or adaptation will count for little if the frameworks are not in place to mobilise that finance. This applies not just for the billions pledged by governments, but also for the trillions of dollars committed through private finance.

In many ways, future COP meetings will no longer be where governments come together to collectively decide what they are going to do, they will be where governments report on what they each have done, and what they each plan to do.

And we also saw exciting announcements from the UK, France, the USA and Romania committing to develop a new generation of nuclear reactors, adding to the major contribution of the current generation of nuclear reactors that has produced clean, low carbon energy for more than 60 years. To date they have helped avoid the emissions of over 70 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. And today nuclear reactors generate more than a quarter of the world’s low-carbon electricity.

We must maximise the contribution this abundant existing clean energy resource can make, as well as pressing forward with ambitious plans for rapid expansion of global nuclear generation.

Although I have participated at many COPs before, this was my first COP representing World Nuclear Association and the global nuclear industry. I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak at so many events leading the efforts to ensure that the voice of nuclear energy is heard.

There has been a change in how nuclear is perceived at this COP. More than anything, the positive policy announcements from governments, and the opportunities to speak on country pavilions, showed that those who support nuclear energy are no longer taking us for granted.

As many eyes are already turning to Egypt and COP27 next November, we must continue to reach out and work with our member companies, with other nuclear associations, with other clean energy businesses, the finance community, trade unions, governments and non-governmental organisations to ensure that nuclear energy can play its full part in achieving a clean energy future."