Our politicians have a hard time with climate change. How to squeeze the long-term considerations of the energy transition into the short-termism of the “direct” democracy, the latest evolution of a political system that the Enlightenment imagined as a representation of the people, today more and more a mere collection of individuals, more or less influenced by the social media, adept of the “if it bleeds, it leads” motto?
Consider this, today on the agendas of the powers that be.
According to IPCC, CO2 emissions have to drastically reduce, if not stop altogether, net zero being called for by 2050. Meaning fossil energy has to go, sooner than later, coal and oil first. Natural gas, seen at the onset of the 21st century as a convenient, and already in place, transition to low-carbon energy, may face a much shorter window of opportunity, either from geopolitical considerations, thanks to Russia, or from the sudden acceleration of climate change negative consequences on the weather, pushing for a quicker transition.
It just took a few years, around 2020, to make all-out electrification the silver bullet of the required energy transition, with the caveat that 100% of the power production has to be low-carbon. The IEA may take solace from a “lower than expected” CO2 emissions growth in 2022, attributed to a surge in clean energy technologies. Those should be running on renewable electricity, but do they, really? Moreover, at 37 Gt, we are nowhere close to net zero emissions, the capacity growth in renewable electricity production merely helping global electricity demand increase not to rely on extra coal, the energy of reference in Asia.
So, renewable electricity production has become the key problem of the forthcoming decades. Renewable, but why not just low-carbon? Ideology, of course. Misplaced: If the existential issue is to lower CO2 emissions, every technology that produces electricity with limited carbon emissions should be promoted, period, which implies to accept that other risks have a lower priority. Especially if the low-carbon technology in question is not intermittent, a prominent feature, and drawback, of solar- and wind-based power generation.
Enters hydrogen, the second silver bullet. Today produced from natural gas with a significant carbon footprint, this energy vector, an essential intermediate for key industries, like petrochemicals and fertilizers, can be low-carbon, obtained from low-carbon electricity and water through electrolysis, at a cost though. And then be directed to its present end-uses, be an intermediate for the synthesis of e-products, like methane, ammonia, methanol, synthetic fuels, or become a direct transport fuel, for cars, trucks, planes, ships. Last, but not least, hydrogen can also be used to alleviate the intermittency of renewable power generation: Store electricity when there is too much supply and generate electricity when there is too little. A versatile energy vector that could complement electricity where this magic solution shows limitations, intermittency, or is just a non-starter, long-haul air travel.
Alas, in the EU, ideology strikes again, in the eligibility of the low-carbon electricity that will make the hydrogen the low-carbon solution described above. We already suffered from an acrimonious battle on the Green Taxonomy, the regulation that should orientate financial support to sustainable solutions, and we are on the warpath again, two blocks in a fierce battle to qualify or disqualify nuclear-based electricity for clean hydrogen.
In one block, you find the countries that have a massive program to build renewable electricity generation capacity, like Spain and Portugal, blessed by wind and sunshine, and Germany, which repudiated nuclear energy after the Fukushima accident in 2011, to favor Russian natural gas and lignite, the worst kind of coal. And a few other anti-nukes countries, where Green Parties, historically strongly supported by the USSR in its anti-NATO stance during the Cold War, have strong-armed center-left parties in coalitions to govern, in exchange of an ideological opposition to nuclear energy. Not to forget some heavyweights of the European Commission, like Frans Timmermans, in charge of the Green Deal, and Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition, who lobbied to exclude, so far, traditional nuclear energy from the Net-Zero Industry Act.
In the other block, you find France, the European champion of nuclear energy generation for the last 50 years, and many countries from Central and Eastern Europe, which see nuclear energy as an integral part of their energy portfolio and development to catch up Western Europe.
Not only is this battle about hydrogen, it also takes hostages in other negotiations about key regulations, like the Renewable Energy Directive recast.
Ain’t it a bloody shame that ideology takes center stage when driving CO2 emissions downward, as quickly as possible, should be the absolute priority? Environmental NGOs and Green Parties criticize the governments for insufficient climate action, take them to court in some cases, but also support ideological battles that negate the urgency to act. As French essayist Philippe Manière recently brilliantly wrote, “climate activists never distinguish themselves by their realism or their capacity to realize that public policies could have other objectives than those they are obsessed about”.
Strong words that could be complemented by a suspicion: climate activists may have a strategy to make climatic events worse and force a green revolution, based on de-growth and frugality, rather than on techno-solutions to make our planet more sustainable in the future. A piece of good news: It seems new members of the French Ecologist Party, younger for many, are less negative about nuclear energy than the old guard, with a rather pragmatic reasoning, like the one exposed at the beginning of this chapter. Maybe pragmatism can prevail, we obviously need it big time after reading the March 2023 IPCC 6th Synthesis Report.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).