After a historic COP28, it’s what happens next that matters

December 14, 2023, 12:00PMNuclear News
Applause at the conclusion of COP28. (Photo: Kiara Worth/UN Climate Change)

The United Nations' Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, closed on December 13 after debate on a “global stocktake” pushed negotiations a full day past the scheduled end date. Though advocates hoping for a phaseout of fossil fuels were ultimately disappointed and must settle for “transitioning away,” another first—after 30 years of global climate conferences—is the inclusion of nuclear energy among the zero-emissions and low-emissions technologies that still could, if deployment is accelerated, support deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

A final agreement that points away from fossil fuels and toward nuclear—however halfheartedly—shifts the balance on these two energy sources for the world to see. And since the final text is likely to be carried forward into future negotiations and documents—including global funding mechanisms—the inclusion of nuclear, despite opposition from traditional antinuclear advocates and from fossil fuel interests, is an achievement that will stick.

The American Nuclear Society participated in COP28 as a nongovernmental organization with UNFCCC observer status, and Executive Director/CEO Craig Piercy attended along with a delegation of over two dozen nuclear engineers and scientists. Piercy applauded the nuclear-inclusive climate deal on behalf of ANS members around the world. “Seventy years after President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech before the United Nations, COP has officially embraced nuclear energy as a solution to climate change,” Piercy said. “The final COP28 text acknowledges the key role that carbon-free nuclear energy plays in putting the brakes on climate change. We can only meet our net-zero emissions target by 2050 with a swift, large-scale deployment of new reactors worldwide.”

From pledges to reality: At a “sideline” meeting ahead of the COP28 negotiations, the United States was joined by more than 20 nations recognizing the key role of nuclear energy in achieving global net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and pledging to triple global nuclear capacity by 2050. Separately, the United States, Canada, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom announced they would mobilize at least $4.2 billion in government-led investments to build out uranium enrichment and conversion capacity over the next three years and establish a resilient global nuclear fuel supply chain.

The official inclusion of nuclear energy in a COP agreement as an alternative to fossil fuels, along with pledges from the sidelines by nuclear nations, means nuclear scored a definite win at COP28. Given the momentum behind nuclear energy in public opinion in the last two years, that win is not a surprise, but a validation. And at the Nuclear Energy Summit sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency—planned for March 2024 as the highest-level meeting ever exclusively focused on the topic of nuclear energy—the discussion will continue. The agenda: “to highlight the role of nuclear energy in addressing the global challenges to reduce the use of fossil fuels, enhance energy security and boost economic development.”

The “global stocktake”: Completing an assessment of where the world is making progress toward the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and where it’s not—the first global stocktake—was the primary assignment of the official COP28 delegates. The process and its product were intended, according to UN Climate Change, “to ratchet up climate action before the end of the decade—with the overarching aim to keep the global temperature limit of 1.5°C within reach.” But first it ratcheted up the tension at the meeting, after a draft proposal issued December 11 reportedly pleased few.

The final 21-page document contains every element under negotiation at COP28—which means it contains the words “fossil fuel” (twice) and “nuclear” (once). Section 28 says in part that the Conference of the Parties “recognizes the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5°C pathways and calls on parties to contribute to the following global efforts, in a nationally determined manner, taking into account the Paris Agreement and their different national circumstances, pathways and approaches.” Those “global efforts” include “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science,” and “accelerating zero- and low-emission technologies, including, inter alia, renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and utilization and storage, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors, and low-carbon hydrogen production.”

The statement on “transitioning away” from fossil fuels was not in the draft of December 11. When it was added to the final document, so too was a new provision that “transitional fuels”—that is, natural gas—"can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.”

The stocktake recognizes the science that indicates global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut 43 percent by 2030, compared to 2019 levels, to limit global warming to 1.5°C, and it notes the parties are not on track to meet their Paris Agreement goals. But the document falls short of specifying the amount of additional nuclear power and other low-carbon capacity that will be needed, although those figures were provided in the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). That lengthy document was condensed into a 42-page summary for policymakers—the section most people read—that, according to one expert reviewer for AR6—failed to provide a quantitative description of the clean energy sources, including nuclear, that would be needed to replace fossil fuels and cut greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently.

What’s next? Azerbaijan will host COP29 in November 2024, and Brazil gets COP30 in 2025. In the meantime, according to UN Climate Change, nations are “encouraged to come forward with ambitious, economy-wide emission reduction targets, covering all greenhouse gases, sectors and categories and aligned with the 1.5°C limit in their next round of climate action plans (known as nationally determined contributions) by 2025.”

At COP29, governments must establish a new climate finance goal, and at COP30 they must come prepared with their nationally determined contributions, covering economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions and “fully aligned” with the 1.5°C temperature limit.

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