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It’s Australia v. the EU on uranium and carbon capture

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

As the old Flanders and Swann British climate ditty goes: ‘April brings the sweet spring showers – on and on for hours and hours’. So climate politics will reign supreme for the rest of this month as 40 world leaders (including PM Scott Morrison along with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping) have been invited by US President Joe Biden to a 22 April virtual climate summit. Aimed at galvanising efforts by the major economies to ‘tackle a climate crisis’, the world’s leaders are promised a Biden administration pre-summit announcement of a ‘sweeping carbon mitigation strategy’ to provide a lead-by-example template. But will the top-40 bite the bullet of nuclear power – the world’s cleanest non-renewable source of energy? There is mounting evidence that without nuclear energy there is no prospect of  meeting ambitious emissions targets that otherwise could only be met at enormous economic cost. Just to put the energy system on a trajectory consistent with obligations under the Paris Agreement, let alone the new targets, low-carbon electricity generation needs to triple over the next 20 years, according to Laszlo Varro, Chief Economist at the International Energy Agency. ‘The transition to clean energy will be much more expensive and difficult to achieve without nuclear power.’

This adds weight to the growing band of pro-nuclear politicians in Australia (two-thirds of Coalition MPs have backed lifting the legislative ban on uranium, which the Morrison government has shown no interest in removing, to help shift the nation to a carbon neutral future) like Senator Matt Canavan who asserts that we will never reach net zero carbon emissions on renewable energy alone. ‘Unless you’re willing to consider nuclear energy, you are not serious about tackling climate change.’

Also in April, the European Commission is due to release its delayed (by continuing internal EU national disagreement) climate section of its sustainable finance taxonomy that will define what can be labelled as a ‘sustainable investment’. EU bureaucrats have been  pressing a tough line that economic activities should only be labelled as ‘green investments’ if they truly contribute to science-based goals to fight climate change. ‘Green activities must support the goal agreed by EU leaders last December to cut net EU greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030’ – prompting ten EU governments, including Bulgaria and Poland, to demand  gas plants be allowed to meet a higher than proposed threshold to be deemed sustainable, while Denmark, Spain and three other countries last week urged the EU not to weaken any rules.

But these sustainable investment proposals are seriously damaging to Australia as they discriminate against both nuclear power (with Australia possessing one-third of the world’s proven uranium reserves and exporting about 10 per cent of global supply as the third-largest uranium producer) as well as with carbon capture and storage (CCS) from fossil fuels which the Morrison government has backed with a $50 million fund as one of five priorities to receive support under its low-emissions technology roadmap.

So the Minerals Council of Australia, which two years earlier had formally objected to the EU’s proposed anti-mining ‘sustainable development’ requirements in the draft of an Australia-EU free trade agreement, (‘Trade agreements are not the appropriate mechanism to measure countries’ climate change or environmental policies… The use of FTAs to impose the EU’s policy priorities on another sovereign nation, whether related to climate change, labour market conditions or otherwise, is inappropriate and should be rejected’) once again made a highly critical submission to the EU last month on these ‘sustainable investment’ tax proposals. The MCA’s concerns are that this EU taxonomy for sustainable activities is intended to shape investment under a European green deal by favouring solar, wind and biofuels over nuclear and CCS and so was unfair and inconsistent in how it dealt with clean technologies –  and damaging to Australia. The Guardian’s typical treatment of the MCA’s written objection to the EU’s deliberate omission of nuclear power and CCS from its proposed list of ‘sustainable’ activities to merit tax benefits, was the sub-heading ‘The Minerals Council of Australia has been accused of trying to export its negative approach to climate policy’.

On its nuclear objection, the MCA has found some unexpected allies. A group of 46 non-governmental organisations from 18 countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden, Taiwan, the UK and the USA) last month called for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the EU taxonomy for sustainable investments. The exclusion of nuclear, they say, would promote a strategy that is ‘clearly inadequate’ to decarbonise the region’s economy.

This letter from the NGOs follows last month’s written criticism by the leaders of seven EU member states – the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovak Republic and Slovenia of the anti-nuclear stance of a number of member states despite nuclear’s ‘indispensable contribution to fighting climate change, as well as the breadth of yet unexploited synergies between the nuclear and renewable technologies’.

In February, a group of 13 trade unions wrote to EC president von der Leyen that ‘the exclusion of nuclear power will not only have a negative impact on the European nuclear industry but also on electricity-intensive industries’.

And the icing on the MCA’s (yellow)cake is in last week’s leaked review by the EC’s Joint Research Centre to assess nuclear energy generation under the ‘do no significant harm’ criteria, considering the effects of the whole nuclear energy lifecycle in terms of existing and potential environmental impacts across all objectives, with emphasis on the management of the generated nuclear and radioactive waste. ‘The analyses did not reveal any science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies already included in the Taxonomy as activities supporting climate change mitigation,’ the JRC says in the report. ‘There is broad scientific and technical consensus that disposal of high-level, long-lived radioactive waste in deep geologic formations is, at the state of today’s knowledge, considered as an appropriate and safe means of isolating it from the biosphere for very long time scales’, As a result, the European nuclear industry has called on the European Commission to expedite the inclusion of nuclear energy in the EU Taxonomy on Sustainable Finance.

So in its stoush with the EU over uranium, the MCA looks to be on a winner. Pity it can’t do likewise with the Australian government.

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