There are many reasons to criticise a conference dedicated to solving the issue of climate change, especially if it hosts almost 80,000 participants, many of them flying into Dubai from the remotest corners of the world. Nonetheless, the so-called Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change does provide a glimpse as to where the debate on the future of energy is heading. First, two winners emerged from COP28: Nuclear and natural gas.
Twenty-Two nations pledged to triple nuclear power by 2050, infusing additional energy into the accelerating renaissance of nuclear energy. Such an outcome would have been unimaginable at previous COPs, where nuclear barely got mentioned as a potential pathway to decrease emissions.
The second winner was natural gas, demonstrated by a pledge by Exxon Mobile, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco and 48 other oil and gas producers: They plan to stem releases of Methane by 2030, but also made clear that they will not cut production of either oil or gas. The industry is increasingly optimistic about the commercial viability of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies that can significantly reduce CO2 emissions from the combustion of natural gas.
The importance of this is in the fine print: There is a growing consensus that a quick and efficient way to fight emissions is the switch from coal to gas, a playbook that has already been successfully executed in the United States following the shale revolution that turned the country into a gas superpower. This also means, however, that natural gas will play a bigger role in the future, most likely dwarfing the contributions of wind and solar. Currently, 35 per cent of the world’s electricity come from coal, compared to 23 per cent from gas, 9 per cent from nuclear and 14 per cent from renewables (excluding hydropower, which provides 15 per cent of the world’s electricity). The consensus emerging from COP28 seems to be a newfound focus on gas and nuclear, while only paying lip service to renewables.
The oil and gas industry called the bluff of the environmentalists. Supposedly, the climate alarmists are primarily concerned with emissions, and if carbon capture and sequestration can reduce Greenhouse gases while maintaining the production of fossil fuels, everyone should be happy. As has become clear, however, activist groups around Greta Thunberg and others don’t care about emissions half as much as they do about their Malthusian, anti-humanist agenda. Otherwise they would embrace the newfound commitment to nuclear and the growing optimism towards CCS that prevailed at COP28.
Not surprisingly, environmental activists and NGOs are outraged. An open letter to the President of COP28 has been signed by over 300 organizations, demanding an end of voluntary pledges and a “rapid phase out of fossil fuels.” The panic shows that the environmental and climate movement is sensing that the winds are changing. Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China clarified from the outset that they would not agree to any call for the immediate phase out of fossil fuels, and even among Western nations, there is more hesitancy than in the past.
Energy prices in Europe are still too high for the old continent to remain competitive, and the the offshore wind industry is in financial trouble, and a recent report by the Bank of America concludes, “Solar and wind look more expensive than almost any alternative…. Nuclear appears to be the cheapest scalable, clean energy source by far.”
Furthermore, the world has been watching the German energy transition that has not only made energy more expensive, but is also a main cause of the country’s ongoing deindustrialization.
Even if COP28 will not have any direct consequences, it is an indicator that the narrative around climate change is shifting. Energy security and economic growth are now equally important as CO2 emissions, and both of those goals cannot be achieved without nuclear and fossil fuels.