Ministers gear up for COP26

06 April 2021

The post-COVID economic recovery and the clean energy transition present a huge opportunity from which all nations can benefit, delegates at the IEA-COP26 Net Zero Summit agreed. Over 40 countries, covering more than 80% of global GDP, population and carbon emissions, took part in the event on 31 March to identify how to work together to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. They included the USA, which re-joined the 2015 climate accord earlier this year.

(Image: IEA)

The live-streamed summit was co-hosted by International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol and COP26 President Alok Sharma. Ministers joined the plenary session, while civil society groups, private companies and government institutions took part in the webinar's five panel discussions.


Birol described the summit as a critical milestone on the road to COP26 in Glasgow this November. In the nearer term, he said it will help inform the IEA's Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, which will be published on 18 May.

"Half the energy world needs to transform itself to reach the net-zero target," Birol said. "The Roadmap shows there is a lot of work to do but that it can be done."

Laura Cozzi, chief energy modeller at the IEA, gave a "sneak preview" of the report.

"We're currently analysing more than 100 technologies and looking at all the power plants and factories in the world. We're making use of the most powerful energy and technology models here at the IEA to design an orderly transition, and identify milestones for governments, industries and citizens. The prize at the end of the journey is really huge: A clean, prosperous and resilient global economy in 2050, which achieves our most ambitious climate goals. But to get there we need to transform our energy system at a speed and scale that we've never seen before; from how we fuel our vehicles, to how we heat our homes, cool our offices and power our factories."

Return of the USA

Birol welcomed back the USA, saying, "We are all heartened by the Biden Administration's bold actions, including the clean energy infrastructure bill" that was published later the same day.

John Kerry, US presidential special envoy for climate, began his statement with the fact that the USA, China and Europe together account for more than half of global emissions.

"We had a famous bank robber in the United States of America, his name was Willie Sutton. When he was asked, 'Why do you rob banks?' he said, 'Well that's where the money is.' I think we need a corollary to that: Go where the emissions are."

Kerry stressed that the climate talks have always been led by scientific evidence. "This is not politics, this is not ideology, this is not a pet project of one, two or three countries. This is a reality that the scientists for years have been telling us," he said, and referred to American scientist Jim Hansen's Congressional testimony on climate change in 1988.

On its current path, however, the world is headed for a global temperature rise above 4 degrees, far beyond the 1.5-2 degrees target set by the Paris Agreement, Kerry said.

"Some countries are resisting despite the fact we're looking at the biggest jobs market the world has ever known. Four to five billion people today are users of energy. That will go up to nine billion in the next 30 years. It will be a multi, double-digit trillions of dollars of market. This is the greatest economic opportunity that we've ever had."

At the Leaders' Summit on Climate on 22 and 23 April, the USA will announce an ambitious 2030 emissions target as its new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, Kerry said. "The United States is really anxious to get this done," he said, "and to collaborate to help bring the finance to the table, to help with the transition technologically, through working partnerships all across the world."

Greening trade rules

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), illustrated how climate change can "seriously undermine" global trade.

"Sea level rises and extreme [weather] events could affect the transport, communication and distribution logistics networks underpinning modern day supply chains," she said.

The logjam the Ever Given container ship created in the Suez Canal last month was not a climate change event, but such disruption could become commonplace if actions aren't taken to curb global warming, she said.

"Having WTO members support the crafting of trade rules that can underpin the greening of our planet is crucial," she said, and encouraged ministers to support their "WTO ambassadors" at COP26. Members of the WTO, moreover, must "converge on their positions" ahead of the Geneva-based organisation's Twelfth Ministerial Conference in early December, she added.

So far, 53 of the WTO's 164 members have come together, she said, to examine rules on trade in environmental goods and services. It has also started an initiative on plastic pollution, she said, noting that without climate action, plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050, up from 5% currently. It is also looking at the possibility of "border tax adjustment" and also at incentives for countries to maintain forests.

"We know that we need to scale up green investments, both public and private, to disseminate climate technologies," she said. "Trade can certainly play an important role in facilitating all this and making sure that we provide the framework, the context and the push we need for lower carbon emissions and the greening of our planet."

Access for all

Trade in green bonds now includes the continent least responsible for global emissions but the most impacted by them, said Amani Abou-Zeid, commissioner for energy and infrastructure at the African Union, as she referred to Egypt last year becoming the first nation in the Middle East and North Africa to sell such bonds. A low-carbon and climate resilient pathway provides Africa with a win-win situation, she said, by simultaneously addressing its Agenda 2063 development strategy.

"Clean energy for Africa is the best opportunity for us to expand energy access, to reduce poverty and to create jobs, while at the same time contributing to the global objectives," she said. "It is in our best interests to join the global efforts to transition to net-zero emissions in order also to mitigate future impacts and to reduce the cost of adaptation."

Africa has abundant renewable energy resources and yet about 600 million of its citizens do not have access to energy.

"People seem to forget that this is the continent with the two largest solar power plants in the world," she said. "In the whole region of East Africa, geothermal energy provides almost 40% of the energy there." The continent aims to have 100 GWe of new capacity by 2030 and also 54 GWe from hydropower systems by 2040, she added.

The biggest challenge for African nations, she said, is how to address the "persistent barriers" to energy development - technical, financial and regulatory.

"We need to accelerate and refocus our existing partnerships to be more transformative, collaborative, mutually beneficial and innovative. We need to close the financial gap to make it attractive and conducive to investors, both from public and private entities, within the continent and from outside, to exploit to the full the fantastic innovations brought to us by digitilisation." But such modern systems contrast with the fact that 400,000 people in Africa are injured or killed each year because they have no alternative to the "hazardous fuels" they use for cooking, she said.

Shared destiny

China's aim to reduce its use of fossil fuels is "in recognition of our shared destiny with the international community", said the country's minister of energy, Zhang Jianhua. "The whole world is pushing forward a green recovery in the economy and we have reached consensus on carbon neutrality," he said.

Referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping's announcement in September last year that China will strengthen its 2030 climate target (NDC), peak emissions before 2030 and aim to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, Zhang said: "This is an important promise that China has made for global efforts on the climate and environment."

China is in first place globally for the size of wind, hydro and solar installed capacities, he said. More than 90% of its wind power equipment is sourced domestically and of the world's top 10 solar PV module producers, seven are from China, he added.

Brent Wanner, lead of World Energy Outlook Power Sector Modelling & Analysis at the IEA, said last month that China will have the world's largest nuclear power fleet within a decade. The country has 49 reactor units in operation and 17 under construction to help it replace coal-fired power generation, which accounts for almost 70% of its electricity mix.

Near-term targets

Raj Kumar Singh, India's minister of power, new and renewable energy, said that short-term goals are also needed and not simply 2050 targets.

The share of clean energy in India's installed electricity capacity mix stands at 38.5% and is expected to increase to 60% by 2030, which will be 20% higher than its original goal, he said.

"We plan to put about 450 gigawatts of solar and wind and about 70 gigawatts of hydro by 2030. And we're adding nuclear as well," he said. India has 23 nuclear power units in operation and up to eight under construction. "We're the only major economy whose actions in the energy transition are consistent with keeping the temperature rise below 2 degrees and by 2030," he added.

India has said it expects to achieve a 35% reduction in emissions over 2005 levels well before 2030, but Singh said that, for as long as there are countries with emissions up to 12 times the world average, then the recent spate of commitments to 'net-zero-by-2050' remain fanciful, he said.

"2050 sounds good, 2060 sounds good, but it's pie in the sky. What we want to know is: What are you going to do in the next five years? When are you going to bring your emissions down to the world average?"

Future battles

Birol described Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the European Commission, as a "stubborn champion" of the environment. A co-architect of the European Green Deal, Timmermans said it is only possible to convince the international community to take action on climate change if achievements can be demonstrated "domestically".

"If we don’t act in the next couple of years, our children will be at war with each other over water and food. So we need to act with a huge sense of urgency," he said. "We're coming out of this pandemic in the middle of an industrial revolution, with a climate crisis and a biodiversity crisis on our hands. We need to make the investments to create sustainable societies. We have no choice. We're mobilising so much capital right now, but capital not spent well will mean we create stranded assets very soon, and we will put unbearable financial burdens on the shoulders of our children, which is unacceptable. And if we don’t invest now, given the length of investment cycles, we will never get to climate neutrality by the middle of this century. We will overshoot our targets and end up with an at least 3-4 degrees increase in the world's temperature - with apocalyptical consequences."

The EU relies on nuclear power for one-quarter of its electricity. It has 106 units in operation, four under construction and seven planned. Nuclear energy is the largest (26.7% in 2019) single source of low-carbon energy in the EU, ahead of hydro (12.3%), wind (13.3%), solar (4.4%) and other (0.5%).

France has the biggest nuclear fleet in the EU and its president, Emmanuel Macron, joined the leaders of six other Member States last month in writing to the European Commission on the role of nuclear power in EU climate and energy policy. In their letter, they said the development of the nuclear sector in the EU is contested by a number of Member States "despite its indispensable contribution to fighting climate change". They referred to the IEA's Big Ideas speaker series last October, when Timmermans said that the Commission “would not stand in the way” of EU Member States that support nuclear power.

Just transition

At last week's summit, Timmermans said the transition to clean energy must be a "just" one.

"We need to get rid of coal but we need to do that in a way that gives an opportunity to those regions to grasp the incredible opportunities of the new economy and to create new jobs for the people who are still working in the mining sector. And that can be an example to many others around the world."

Poland is one of the EU countries planning a "just transition" away from coal, which includes the adoption of nuclear power. It aims to build 6-9 GWe of nuclear capacity that would account for 18% of its electricity production, with construction of the first of six reactors to start in 2026.

Its minister of climate, Michał Kurtyka, told the panel Ensuring People Centred Transitions: "Based on the extremely brutal and complex transition that my country experienced in the 1990s and 2000s, in terms of closing mines and industries, we provided a plan, a 20-year comprehensive, detailed and coordinated plan, to synchronise a decreasing share of coal, going from 70% to 11% in 2040, with rising production from alternative sources of energy. This is why we want to be developing offshore wind in the Baltic Sea and, in having the lion's share of the seashore, this is a very interesting potential; we want to go for nuclear - no technology should be put on the margins of this change - and we are experiencing a real boom in terms of consumers - half a million Poles now have rooftop solar PV and they are becoming active players in the energy market."

From Paris to Glasgow

Sharma stressed that COP26 is not an isolated event, but the culmination of initiatives, partnerships and meetings throughout the year. Upcoming opportunities for dialogue include the Leaders' Summit on Climate hosted by the USA later this month, the G7 in Cornwall, in June, the Pre-COP in Milan and the G20 in Rome, which are both in October.

These events are "critical moments along the way, when we can step up and demonstrate action", he said. "As a presidency, we want to see that green thread of climate action woven through each of these international moments in the year ahead. We owe that to our generation and to future generations."

Emphasising the importance of reflecting on the goals of Paris Agreement, Sharma asked Barbara Pompili, French minister for the ecological transition, for her perspective on what has been achieved since then.

The December 2015 accord, which has been ratified by 191 parties, was a turning point, she said, because it was the first time the international community had expressed its determination to lead a global response to the threat of climate change.

"The Paris Agreement was thereby born under the star of a science-based, effective and just multilateralism. Five years later, the spirit of Paris still remains. It's our compass for international action," she said. But from "an era of expectations", the world had since entered "an era of consequences".

Collective efforts are growing, she said. For example, France is involved in 47 coalitions across the teams of the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action, which supports implementation of the Paris Agreement by enabling collaboration between governments and the cities, regions, businesses and investors that must act on climate change.

Pompili referred to the stalemate of COP25, held in December 2019 in Madrid. Those climate talks had been supposed to work out rules for a new global carbon market and instead ended with agreement to postpone a decision on the sixth article of the Paris Agreement to COP26.

"This year, a major step needs to be taken collectively," she said. "We need to update the NDCs, publish long-term strategies and close Article 6. The net-zero target by the mid-century also gives us a collective goal that has to be reflected in the NDCs, but what is important here is the trajectory to reach this goal. The global stocktake in 2023 and a new NDC to be delivered in 2025 are the first milestones after Glasgow not to be missed."

Proven technologies

Christiana Figueres, founding partner of climate think tank Global Optimism, said statements made by participants in the IEA-COP26 Net Zero Summit proved that progress had been made since Paris.

"What I'm concluding from today is that there is clearly widespread agreement on the need to transition and, frankly, that was not there five years ago. It is now very well rooted. But in addition to that, what I've also heard is widespread agreement about the urgency, about acceleration and the fact this transition needs to occur in a timely fashion, or else it will be absolutely no good to us," she said.

The "golden key", she said, is to put the IEA's Roadmap to Net Zero as the central scenario of this year's edition of the agency's World Energy Outlook. Doing so would "open the portal" to both national policy development and capital deployment, she said, adding that, the Roadmap would have to "paint a proven path that is people centred and that does not dangerously rely on unproven, unpredictable technologies".

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi highlighted the often overlooked fact that nuclear energy is not only a proven technology, but a longstanding source of clean electricity.

As a member of the panel titled Catalysing Near-Term Implementation, Grossi said nuclear power is "a present solution" because it already accounts for one-third of clean energy globally. It is also present, he said, because of the large number of countries that are considering the adoption of nuclear power as a low-carbon part of their electricity mix. And it is "a future alternative", he said, through small modular reactors and micro-reactors, since these new technologies will make nuclear energy available to more countries. Moreover, it "unlocks the potential" of renewables by providing grid flexibility and stability in energy distribution "like no other" form of energy can, he said.

Diverse mix

Japan's energy minister, Hiroshi Kajiyama, said nuclear energy is one of the 14 "critical areas" in the country's Green Growth Strategy. "There is no sole optimum solution and each country needs to select its own best mix," he said.

Japan currently needs to import about 90% of its energy requirements. Up until 2011, the year of the Fukushima accident, the country was generating some 30% of electricity from its reactors, and this was expected to increase to at least 40% by 2017. The plan is now for at least 20% by 2030, from a depleted fleet.

"We need to utilise all energy sources and all technologies to bring about a realistic and diverse approach," the minister said. "We need to have stable supply of energy, an expansion in access to energy, and energy security matters very much in the energy transition. We need resilience against natural disasters and cyber-attacks. We need to have diverse power sources, to introduce renewables to the maximum, and also to go for energy efficiency, but also for decarbonised fossil fuels and for nuclear energy as well. Using all clean energy technologies, including clean hydrogen, will speed up the transition to net zero and will also reinforce energy security."

Of the upcoming IEA Roadmap, Kajiyama said, "I strongly hope this includes a realistic and diverse approach."

René Neděla, deputy minister of industry and trade in the Czech Republic, said his country "cherishes" its collaboration with the IEA, the IAEA and the OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency. He told the panel Accelerating Technology and Innovation in Key Sectors, that the advice of these organisations had been "of immense benefit" to his country.

The Czech Republic has six nuclear reactors generating about one-third of its electricity, and government policy calls for a substantial increase in nuclear capacity by 2040. This includes the construction of large units as well as investment in new nuclear technologies.

Neděla said: "We are monitoring the on-going development of small modular reactors with great interest. Our research institutions are developing a molten salt reactor and the Allegro gas-cooled fast reactor. We also see the potential of nuclear in hydrogen production."


Commenting on the range of high-level participants in the summit, Sama Bilbao y León, director general of World Nuclear Association, said: "I commend the leadership of Fatih Birol and the IEA to convene this group of eminent speakers to discuss optimum ways to reach net zero. It is unfortunate, however, that we continue to do the same thing and be shocked when get the exact same result."

An economist and an engineer, Bilbao y León took the helm of World Nuclear Association in November last year. Prior to this, she held senior roles at the OECD/NEA and the IAEA.

"The reality is that, despite enormous investment in renewable energy we have barely moved forward in our decarbonisation achievements, as the percentage of global low-carbon electricity today is almost exactly the same as it was 20 years ago. Plus, global electricity systems are weaker, making them less reliable and with more volatile prices," she said.

"Given the magnitude and the urgency of the climate challenge we face, we are going to need to make use of all low-carbon energy sources available to us, and nuclear energy can play a huge role decarbonising electricity, as well as other hard-to-abate economic sectors through the use of zero-carbon heat."

A recording of the summit is on YouTube.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News