The recent welcome fall in wholesale gas prices offers a breathing space for energy policy makers. It should be seized as a chance to reflect on the danger of allowing geopolitical issues to block necessary action on climate change.
Fresh evidence of the need for an immediate massive acceleration in the clean energy transition appears almost every day. Despite this the insanity of tax deductible corporate spending on fossil fuel exploration and development continues unchecked. The world cannot safely consume all the recoverable fossil fuel reserves already identified but this still doesn’t stop energy companies searching for more.
Blame for this madness extends beyond a few misguided energy companies. Investors and lenders who blithely ignore the risk of being left with stranded assets and go ahead with funding these activities are equally culpable. Their willingness to back projects whose climate consequences are deadly contrasts uncomfortably with the reported difficulty of attracting private sector finance to help build the UK’s proposed Sizewell C nuclear plant.
In the wake of last year’s energy price spikes there was a strong case for targeting support on the poorest households to help meet their heating bills. However no conceivable justification existed for subsidising all gas consumers or for freezing fuel taxes. Any government claiming to be serious about net zero should have welcomed and indeed reinforced the price signals which created a huge incentive to reduce demand instead of trying to dilute their impact.
Focusing on energy security will boost investment in renewables, especially those whose supply can’t be suddenly turned off by an unfriendly dictator. Obstacles to the faster roll out of renewable energy technologies such as overly restrictive land use planning policies should be removed forthwith.
But even with continued expansion of renewables it’s becoming obvious that reaching net zero by 2050 is only possible with a big increase in global nuclear energy capacity. The fact that a decade or even longer is needed for a nuclear reactor to move from conception to being operational is an argument for getting started sooner rather than later.
This is where climate needs collide with politics. Harnessing all the best and most affordable nuclear technologies should be a top priority, regardless of their country of origin. Fears that a Chinese or Russian nuclear vendor might interfere with the operations of nuclear reactors after they have been constructed in other countries are exaggerated and irrational.
These anxieties can easily be addressed by insisting that operational control of newly built plants stays in the hands of the host country. An additional safeguard is to require that sensitive control systems and components are manufactured locally by a trusted partner under the scrutiny of national nuclear regulators.
There are obvious compelling reasons right now for not buying Russian and Chinese designed nuclear technologies. However we should recognise that ruling them out will make the wider deployment of nuclear power slower and more expensive to achieve.
Last year the internationally respected UK Office of Nuclear Regulation approved CGN’s design for the new reactor it planned to build at Bradwell in Essex. The Government then promptly stepped in to block the project from going ahead and effectively showed CGN the door.
Allowing dislike of China to trump the UK’s wish to stay in the forefront of the global fight against climate change has postponed the date on which the country will reach Net Zero and raised the cost of doing so - at the expense of British consumers.
None of this is intended to disparage the large and essential contribution which the American, Canadian, French, South Korean and Japanese nuclear industries are making to the growth of nuclear power capacity worldwide. It is simply to point out that by blocking the use of Russian and Chinese technologies today the world is handicapping itself in the fight against climate change.
Choosing to do this just when it is clear that progress towards decarbonising the energy industry is dangerously slow will look extremely odd to future generations. Hundreds of millions of people will suffer forced migration in the second half of this century if Net Zero isn’t reached by 2050. They deserve better from today’s leaders.