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8 Dec 2023

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Special Report: COP28 Features Nuclear Power & Lots of Oil Talk

Wait long enough, it is said, and old ties or shoes will come back in fashion. This has, astonishingly enough, apparently happened with nuclear power, which emerged as the main topic at the start of COP28 in Dubai.

The conference opening on November 30 came with a shock announcement that more than 100 nations had agreed to triple the use of nuclear power by 2030 – just six years from now. Nuclear energy currently supplies about 15% of the world's electricity from 436 plants, at a sustained rate of about 435GW.

The United States has 93 of those plants in operation, followed by France with 56, China with 55, Russia with 37, and Japan with 33. France is famously the world leader in its reliance on nuclear energy, with more than 60% of its electricity produced by its 56 plants. Several smaller European countries produce between 30% and 60% of their electricity through nuclear, while the United States sits at about 20% and China at 5%.

A tripling of nuclear power would bring more than a terawatt of potential electricity online, at a cost of perhaps $2 trillion, equal to 2% of the world's annual economy. I've seen no details on what percentage of this proposed new power could come from large-scale plants typically in use today that can produce as much as 2 gigawatts, or herald the revolution of small modular reactors (SMRs) that would produce about 300MW each.

Stopped dead in its tracks in the US after the 1979 Three Mile Island incident, ostracized globally since the far-worse Soviet Chernobyl disaster in 1986, then seemingly made extinct by the Fukushima disaster in 2011, nuclear power has nevertheless emerged in recent years in many quiet conversations as a potential emissions-free alternative to wind and solar power. Its ability to deliver a couple of gigawatts of power from a single plant brings an allure to practical decisionsmakers faced with the massive wind and solar fields needed to deliver electricity on that scale.

Now, in the opening days of COP 28, nuclear power has become fashionable again after decades of neglect. The plan outlined in Dubai is very ambitious, and frankly unlikely. But if enough nations and their global financiers stick to their commitment through delays and cost overruns, this announcement will be considered as one of the more important developments in the history of addressing climate change.

To Abate or Not to Abate
The opening week of the two-week COP meeting also saw a spirited give and take between COP28 president and host Dr. Sultan Al Jaber and many reporters. Prior to the event, leaks showed Dr. Al Jaber conversing with many nations – including the US, UK, Germany, and China – about the future of theirs and the UAE's oil business.

Dr. Al Jaber's day job is to head the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc). His appointmnt to lead COP28 had already been looked upon suspiciously by climate-change abatement advocates. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, and holds 95% of the nation's oil reserves. Its dependence on oil remains paramount, even as its fellow emirate, the more glamorous Dubai, has reduced oil revenues to 1% of its economy.

The pre-conference leaks were followed by a leak of Dr. Al Jaber arguing with abatement advocate and former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, saying there is “no science...that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what's going to achieve (the) 1.5 (degrees Celsius limit on global warming).” This remark was met immediately by a cascade of criticism of Dr. Al Jaber and his intemperate responses.

My take is this: Dr. Al Jaber is new to the game public geopolitics, and is unrefined in defending himself and the business he runs, as oil executives worldwide are. He characterizes his views, however, as practical and serious. And indeed, the latest climate-change abatement report from the autonomous, Paris-based International Energy Association (IEA) calls for a reduction in fossil-fuel demand of 20% by 2030.

This scenario also calls for new EV car sales to reach 65% of the world market by 2030 – highly unrealistic given that EVs make up about 8% of the global market today. The IEA's Net Zero goals are in place for 2050, albeit “in the aggregate,” meaning that fossil fuels are still anticipated to be in use.

IEA Executive Director Dr. Fatih Birol issued a joint statement with Dr. Al Jaber at the beginning of COP28, calling for “accelerating the energy transition and keeping 1.5°C in reach.” The statement calls for a phase down in fossil-fuel use, without specifying how much of a phase down is needed. It also encourages organizations and individuals to focus on reducing methane emissions, which account for 16% of GHGs with an affinity for trapping heat that is 28X that of CO2.

Developing Nations in Focus
Critically, the joint COP28-IEA statement mentions people in developing nations, which include 760 million without access to electricity and 2.3 billion (almost 30% of the world's people) “lacking access to modernn cooking facilities.” Thus, according to the statement, it's important “to make the energy transition “just and orderly. “Developed economies should move faster and support developing economies.”

Therein lies the crux of the matter and the rub. How do all the nations of the world cooperate to reduce GHGs and reach Net Zero by 2050, while at the same time achieve significant economic progress among developing nations?

Dr. Al Jaber addressed this issue in his argument with Ms. Robinson, asking, “Please help me, show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.” The “back into caves” trope is common in arguments against alleged negative effects of trying to replace fossil-fuel energy with renewables, but the issue of successfully reaching Net Zero while accelerating economic growth is valid.

Digital Readiness Index Examines Energy Challenge
IDCA Research considers this issue within its Digital Readiness Index of Nations, the first edition of which was released in December 2022. The report examines the technological progress and socioeconomic conditions for 147 nations. Research for the Index finds not only the well-known disparities in income among the nations of the world, but a profound disparity in electricity use and even larger gaps between developing and developed nations in their data center infrastructure. As data centers drive digital infrastructure, new digital infrastructure sets the conditions for socioeconomic progress.

The Index provides an overall ranking, as well as rankings in the categories of the Economy, Environment, Social conditions, and Governance. Unlike with traditional reports, the Index's algorithms examine each nation on a relative basis, determining how well each nation is progressing given its current technological, social, and economic conditions. That said, the rankings are not meant to be a competition, but rather, an in-depth way to look at the particular conditions of each nation and how to develop a successful path to creating a national Digital Economy.

In the area of per-person electricity consumption, IDCA Research finds more than 50 nations with electricity grids that provide 4% of less of the per-person power experienced by the developed world on average. The disparity iin data servers and centers is even far greater than this, representing a gap of as much as 1,000 between the most highly and least highly developed.

The cost to equip the least highly developed countries with electricity grids that reach 25% of the developed-world level – approximating Egypt – would require an investment approaching $1 trillion. This group of nations includes many of the world's most populous – India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. To bring the developing world up to 40% of the developed-world level – approximating Turkey – would require an investment approaching $2 trillion.

Investment Levels Not Really the Problem
COP28 and IEA note in their joint statement that “climate finance and clean investment” will require $4.5 trillion per year by the early part of the next decade.

In the context of a global economy that reaches $100 trillion annually and an estimated level of all global assets of $1.5 quadrillion (about 15X the global GDP), investment levels in the low trillions of dollars do not seem unreasonable. But the complexity of properly identifying projects, convincing those with the assets to invest in this cause, maintaining close cooperation among the world's nations, and actually getting things built and operational may beyond the abilities of human beings.

COP28 announcements also included announcement of a $720 million compensation fund for nations that have claimed direct damages from climate-change events already. About $17 million of this was pledged by the United States, which has had a policy of never accepting the idea of reparations for past damages. This drop in the bucket is in contrast to the much larger promise for guilt-free climate investment – an original annual goal of $100 billion annually. After a slow start, this funding will reach almost $90 billion this year.

Food has also been in the news in Dubai. There were 134 signing a declaration on sustainable agriculture, resilient food systems, and climate action, which calls for nations to include food production emissions as part of their stated emissions allowance. The need for sustainable and healthy diets were cited in another declaration, a development that is considered to be a breakthrough.

COP28 continues through December 12, perhaps longer if enough nations wish to continue discussions, negotations, and working on declarations. This year's event will long be remembered as the one that was held in an oil nation, presided by an oil executive, but replete with loud debates about the future of energy use, including the shocking commitment to nuclear power. As this report was being posted, Dr. Al Jaber noted that the final days “will be the hard part,” spoken just as the Saudi oil minister's plane was touching down in Dubai. Indeed.

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