Faster, smarter, cleaner: getting to net-zero without nuclear and gas

The first week of July can be the turning point for the EU’s energy agenda. Voting on the veto to include nuclear and gas into the EU taxonomy, MEPs have the chance to save the European green project. According to the new EEB brief, accelerating the clean energy transition without nuclear and gas is a political and ecological necessity, backed by scientific evidence and economic sense.

Energy security and carbon neutrality can be achieved through smart sufficiency options that are more cost-efficient and sustainable than uranium and gas. The new EEB brief highlight six priority areas to make this happen, building on the research by the H2020 LOCOMOTION project. Now, we need Members of the European Parliament to keep nuclear and gas out of the EU taxonomy so that the EU can focus on the solutions we need.

Getting past outdated energy solutions

The climate crisis is tied to the energy we use. And our energy choices depend on the mindset we adopt. Today, we are in a unique moment for a mindset shift, as scientific evidence, economic rationale, and geopolitical context make the transition ever more urgent and likely. Everything considered, there is no sound reason to expand on nuclear and gas, and there is every reason to move forward with renewables. Foremost, nuclear is not a sustainable solution. It takes more than 10 years to build, causes billions in cost overruns, and can be 19 times more expensive than renewable when costs to human health, the environment and the climate are considered. Growth in nuclear waste makes the risks omnipresent while soaring costs of decommissioning are to be paid by the future generations. For example, in Belgium, taxpayers would have to pay €3,500 per capita if nuclear plants were decommissioned today. Extending dependence on gas, when methane emissions have global warming potential up to 82.5 times higher than CO2, is also not an option. Linkages of gas to human rights violations, displacement and conflict, are other key reasons to avoid it.

Labelling either of those sources as sustainable would undermine the transition, increase the number of stranded assets, degrade energy security and create a false perception of what is right. The EU’s new REPowerEU plan does not need to sacrifice climate ambition and future generations. On the contrary, it is a unique chance to scale up the much-needed change.

For a few years, renewables have been the most cost-effective option on the market. Our Paris Agreement Compatible energy scenario, developed together with CAN, indicates that Europe can achieve 100% renewable energy by 2040 without any additional nuclear or gas capacity. Another recent study published by a global energy think tank, Ember, estimates that by phasing out ~95% of fossil fuels by 2035, Europe would save an estimated €1 trillion, with multiple benefits to climate, health, and energy security. 

And yet, this will be only a milestone in a journey towards a sustainable energy system.

Five ideas for a quantum leap

Russia’s war against Ukraine has recast the light on issues of sufficiency and security. It reminds us that we must plan over the long term and deeply question where today’s choices might lead us. As the EU grapples with the energy and climate crisis, the H2020 LOCOMOTION’s forthcoming  next-generation integrated assessment model (IAM) will help policymakers tread the path toward a low-carbon, just and sustainable economy. 

The new brief published by the EEB based on the work conducted by the project team outlines five key recommendations on properly channelling efforts for a holistic energy transition.

  1. Reduce energy use. Among the three policy scenarios featured in a recent paper by the research team, only post-growth delivered sufficient reductions in GHG emissions and inequality. Other scenarios always suggested undesirable compromises. Thus prioritizing sufficiency over excess, managing demand, and increasing efficiency will be essential for timely transition.
  2. Measure what’s hidden. In the world of international trade, in the words of Neil Young, there is more to the picture than meets the eye. When researchers calculated consumption-based emissions, they found an 18.5% increase over standard estimates among 10 countries leading the Human Development (HDI). It is finally time to integrate hidden energy flows into energy accounting and restrain from displacing carbon-intensive practices abroad. 
  3. Accelerate the transition. We must actively promote policies and actions that build our capacity to run the system on renewables, from electrifying industry and investing in energy storage to expanding finance for climate innovation. We also need to lower bureaucratic barriers for faster deployment without compromising social justice, nature, and biodiversity protection.
  4. Respect the limits. Following the green growth path, we would run out of key minerals for renewables such as tellurium, indium, tin, silver and gallium by 2060. Achieving the ambitious level of 85% recycling will partially help. Innovative design approaches and a 65% reduction in absolute consumption will be needed to ensure we use our fair share. While expanding renewables, we need to prevent deforestation and biodiversity decline. Mandatory due diligence should give communities the right to say no, and extractive industries should not be allowed into protected areas. 
  5. Promote energy justice. Just transition ideas have enjoyed strong support in the EU, but we need to expand these beyond the current narrow framing. A real just transition means actively promoting human rights and expanding the possibilities of those who have often been marginalized through accessible and affordable clean energy. We also need to recognize how people from diverse professions and genders contribute to sustainability and societal wellbeing (such as care and education) beyond the standard framings of green jobs.

The scope of the required changes is immense, yet as energy debates become increasingly central to our lives, so should our efforts to support sustainable energy pathways.

Building ground for a shared future

Now, we are at the crossroads: clinging to the short-termist comfort zone leading to climate collapse or going full speed towards a renewable, resilient, and responsible future, at no extra cost and without compromising the security of supply. The upcoming vote can influence our pathways for decades, and it is crucial to make the right turn. 

The EU needs to lead on a sustainable energy transition, and the EU taxonomy can become a trusted source for the definition of what is sustainable, even if it is targeted mainly at the investment community. Including nuclear and gas in the list of green investments would be a disastrous mistake that could undermine many of the crucial efforts outlined above. We cannot sacrifice sustainability to fairy tales of green growth, loopholes for business as usual or false notions of security. A clean and just energy transition will require strong stances and strategic choices. One of those choices should be demotivating any further investment into nuclear and gas in favour of sustainable long-term solutions.