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The China/U.S. Deal and Its Nuclear Portensions

The greenhouse gas deal reached by the United States and China promises to be exceptionally consequential. Reining in China’s emissions has always seemed a difficult, practically impossible goal because the huge country is very quickly trying to develop an industrial sector while providing electricity to a widely scattered and mammoth population. Despite a large commitment to nuclear energy, China has had a larger one to fossil fuels. The ghastly, and widely reported, air quality found in Beijing and other urban centers has been a result – and a symbol of China’s reluctance to change course.

Now, it will change course.

Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to cap China's emissions in the future — a striking, unprecedented move by a nation that has been reluctant to box itself in on global warming.

To be more specific:

China, whose emissions are still growing as it builds new coal plants, didn't commit to cut emissions by a specific amount. Rather, Xi set a target for China's emission to peak by 2030, or earlier if possible. He also pledged to increase the share of energy that China will derive from sources other than fossil fuels.

That doesn’t feel all that consequential, does it? What it does is split the difference  between the twin needs to electrify the country and control carbon dioxide, which is further than China has been willing to go up to now. The lack of such commitment from China has had a deleterious impact on attempts at a global pact. This move makes that much more plausible.

And the U.S?

The U.S. set a new target to reduce its emissions of heat-trapping gases by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. That's a sharp increase from earlier in Obama's presidency, when he pledged to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

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Does nuclear energy win in this scenario? That’s a pretty crass way to get to the point. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s headline is much more high-toned about it:

Natural gas producers, nuclear, win in U.S. climate deal with China

The paper’s view on nuclear energy is actually pretty sour:

As more coal plants retire because of carbon emission regulations, grid reliability will be strained. Until more gas- fired power plants can be built, there won’t be enough generation to pick up the slack. That gives nuclear plant owners like Exelon Corp. and Entergy Corp. more leverage to ask for subsidies to keep their existing plants running longer.

Or maybe the plants’ value as emission-free energy sources will become more strikingly apparent. The San Francisco Chronicle closes in on this a little better:

But reaching the goal may require using more nuclear power and carbon-sequestration technologies in addition to wind and solar, he said.

“With any energy technology — coal, oil, gas, nuclear — the more you build, the cheaper it gets,” Cohen said. Costs are falling precipitously for solar and wind energy, he said.

The “he” in both cases is Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit based in Boston with offices in China.

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Early days and a lot more analysis to come. I was struck though by the latest energy forecast by the International Energy Agency.

By 2040, world energy supply is divided into four almost equal parts: low-carbon sources (nuclear and renewables), oil, natural gas and coal.

Nuclear power plays an important strategic role in enhancing energy security for some countries. It also avoids almost four years’ worth of global energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2040.

The forecast zeroes in on four countries that will drive electricity growth in the next 25 years.

In an in-depth focus on nuclear power, WEO-2014 sees installed capacity grow by 60% to 2040 in the central scenario, with the increase concentrated heavily in just four countries (China, India, Korea and Russia).

All of which, we should note, are heavily committed to nuclear energy. The IEA by its nature hedges all its bets, since the Outlook provides a snapshot of the future based on what is happening today. But some previous years’ Outlooks have been exceptionally dim on nuclear energy’s prospects and this one – while still a bit dimmish – shows it returning to the fore. This was published prior to the U.S.-China deal, so the 2015 Outlook should be even more interesting than this one.

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