Nuclear energy for climate change, trend or real solution?
According to a draft seen by The Guardian, the European Commission would be working on the first EU-wide “climate law”. A mix of policies that aims to reach net-zero carbon by 2050 and to halve the continent’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
However, a quick look at the graph above tells us how unrealistic these goals might be.
The pace at which our emissions decrease isn’t significant enough. More alarming, these past 5 year, EU’s greenhouse gas emission has remained stable.
For now, it’s really hard to figure out how Brussels would meet its target and deal with our constant growing need of electricity.
If Europe greenhouse gas emissions of 2018 were 23% below the 1990 level, it’s due more to a change in producing than consuming the energy.
Basically, we produce 25% more electricity than 30 years ago.
But, for a same amount of energy, we reject twice less CO2 pollution.
The cut in the use of coal and lignite (-12% of electricity generation) and the increase of renewable energies (+15% of electricity generation) explain how the emission intensity of our electricity fell down, but not only. Nuclear energy (-4%), considered as low-carbon, has been playing a key-role in order to keep reasonable CO2 emissions.
However, Nuclear energy also implies radioactive wastes, water pollution, …
… and disaster risks.
Those 2 big concerns, radioactive wastes and accidents, led to the beginning of the “Nuclear Power phase-out” debate in the early 1990s’. Since then, most western European countries have been progressively shutting down their nuclear power plants.
However, the debate has recently taken a new direction. According to a United Nations report released on 8 October 2018, a sharp increase in nuclear energy production is needed to keeping global warming below 1.5°C by 2100. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report apparently impacted the EU that now recommends to its members to reconsider a early shut down of their nuclear power plants.
EU’s agenda is quite clear and published in a set of documents presenting its analysis of options for long-term climate policy in the European Union (EU).
COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION (28.11.2018) “ A Green Planet for All “: Today, more than half of Europe’s electricity supply is free from greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, more than 80% of electricity will be coming from renewable energy sources. Together with a nuclear power share of ca. 15%, this will be the backbone of a carbon-free European power system.”.
The COP 25 context.
The 25th Conference of Parties (December 2019) was, thus, the right time for EU to show support to the United Nations. The postponement of the Nuclear shut down is a different debate in every country and it involves many actors at different levels. Together at COP25, UN and EU intend to convince the largest audience possible (from activists to other official bodies, nations, media, businesses or financials) that nuclear energy is a necessity, at least, on the short term.
In order to sound out people’s opinion about the topic and gain insights about each involved party’s stance, I used “nuclear power/energy”, “postpon*”, and “COP25” as keywords in a networks analyser for Twitter.
I collected 1074 tweets from 30–11–2019 until 16–12–2019.
Posts over time.
Thanks to the collected data, we get the confirmation that the COP 25 played a key role in order to relate the Nuclear shut down debate to the Climate Crisis debate online. Indeed, after the conference, the topic wasn’t as much discussed anymore.
Also, this graph already points out that the debate is divided into two camps with identified figureheads. The 2 days with the most posts are both due to an important news or announcement coming from respective camp leaders. It also suggests that nuclear enthusiasts generate more discussions than their opponents.
The tweet’s content.
The analysis of the tweets’ content led to similar findings than the posts over time: nuclear enthusiasts generate more discussions and more favourable opinions than others. However, those numbers are biased by agendas. Individuals with no agenda account for only 14% of those nuclear enthusiasts while they account for 47% of anti-nuclear tweets.
Therefore, if we only look at tweets from individuals with no agenda, we get a whole different picture.
However, it’s hard to know the exact truth. Nuclear Energy is not only a ‘yes or no’ question and its answers differ a lot from a country to another. The only aspect that we can be sure of is the increase in support for nuclear. OECD’s latest report on ‘Public attitudes on Nuclear power” (2010) proved the trend was real in almost every country for, at least, the past decade.
COP 25: Symbol of the increase in nuclear support?
The tweets collected showed that still many people stand against nuclear energy (60% of the data’s individuals), but their voice gets lost in the middle of the Twitter jungle.
The over-representation of nuclear enthusiasts emphasises the decrease of nuclear protesters.
These 3 figures confirm the previous assumption.
Even though people are quite evenly divided on the topic, pro-nuclear opinions are over-shared (only nuclear-related accounts among Top 10 posters) and it leads to an uneven debate online.
Additionally, the debate also gets unfair because those same posters are, for most of them, highly influential. Nuclear agencies, the most consistent posters, can rely on a particular status that gives an extra relevance and media coverage to their speech.
The most followed accounts raising the topic are also, for the vast majority, favourable to nuclear energy. UN News Centre (438k followers) and International Atomic Energy Agency (116k followers) are by far the 2 most followed authors and contribute to an efficient communication strategy. Indeed, they have massively spread around Twitter the hashtag #timeforaction (287 records). While their opponents haven’t reached a consensus on a clear hashtag denouncing nuclear energy (#spainarticle7 ; 80 records, #notmyeu ; 80 records, #greennewdeal ; 19 records).
United Nation’s support and the relevance of its voice as organiser of the COP25 empowered the pro-nuclear opinion and partly led to an unfair and uneven discussion online. However, somehow, under-represented communities seem to hold Europe as responsible for the current course of events (hashtags relate to EU decisions/laws).
Nuclear Energy could be a reliable and relevant solution to meet short term CO2 emissions objectives. However, the national nuclear shut down laws and debates are still quite fresh in many people’s mind. Therefore, UN & EU have been portraying the nuclear energy postponement as a step backward that would enable a 100% renewable energies world in the future. On Twitter, they have been over-sharing their position which has led to a massive proportion of pro-nuclear tweets although it doesn’t really reflect the offline reality.
However, these findings might be biased by the datasets used and the agenda that the COP25 implies. Further researches during a different and longer time-frame, that would focus on each’s side position rather than on the global picture, would be relevant in order to reflect more accurately the evolution of the nuclear energy opinion online.
Harvey, F., & Rankin, J. (2019). Proposed EU-wide “climate law” would set net-zero carbon target by 2050. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/29/first-eu-wide-climate-law-to-set-net-zero-carbon-target-by-2050
Eurostat. (n.d.). Database — Environment and energy [Dataset]. Retrieved January 10, 2020, from https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/energy/data/database
E. Payne, J., Menyah, K., Wolde-Rufael, Y., & Apergis, N. (2010). On the causal dynamics between emissions, nuclear energy, renewable energy, andeconomic growth. Ecological Economics, 69, 2255–2260. Retrieved from https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S0921800910002399?token=67E8CA4FF032CC8E44EAD97E28D4EECD1B8CD2E97A2F02760BA52E14E280943D4A68AE99153D613EF199483474A16465
European Commission. (2018). A clean planet for all (COM(2018) 773 final). Retrieved from https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52018DC0773
IPCC, 2018: Global Warming of 1.5°C.An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)]. In Press. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/06/SR15_Full_Report_High_Res.pdf
Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD). (2010). Public Attitudes to Nuclear Power (6859). Retrieved from https://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2010/6859-public-attitudes.pdf
Monbiot, G. (2011). The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/apr/05/anti-nuclear-lobby-misled-world