Carbon Critical

April 15, 2021

Exit Means Exit

Phasing out a particular fuel source can prove tricky. The experiences of the United Kingdom with coal and Germany with nuclear power are harbingers of fuel exit debates to come.

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A graph showing the declining share of nuclear (in Germany) and coal (in the UK) of electricity production
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A number of countries are discussing phasing out certain forms of electricity generation in the future, but so far these fuel replacements have been very unusual occurrences. Germany and the United Kingdom are two of the few countries that have (almost) phased out a fuel for climate or environmental reasons. And they are discovering that the work doesn’t stop when domestic consumption ends.

“Completing the Nuclear Phase-out”

Germany has nearly achieved the main objective of its nuclear phase-out. A total of 13 nuclear plants have been shut down already—11 of them since the Fukushima disaster of 2011—and the last six will go offline by the end of 2022. Whatever you think of the merits of shutting down a low-carbon source of electricity amid a climate crisis, it is encouraging that Germany was able to remove unwanted power plants in a coordinated process and avoid the blackouts some energy industry critics had predicted.

For the country’s environment ministry, though, the job is “far from done.” In a March position paper, it said “The nuclear exit isn’t finished at the end of 2022. There are still nuclear risks that require resolute action.” The first step is closing two “nuclear factories” in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, one that enriches uranium and another that produces nuclear fuel, at this point mostly for France and Belgium. It is time “to put an end to an unbearable situation whereby foreign nuclear power plants close to the border are being operated with German fuel elements,” the ministry says.

The paper also emphasizes the need to find long-term storage for Germany’s nuclear waste. After previous false starts, Germany has begun a new phase in this controversial, tortuous process: the government now hopes to select a site for a storage repository by 2031 and begin filling it with nuclear waste by 2050, where it is meant to be secure for a million years. This part of Germany’s nuclear exit won’t be finished for a long time.

Coal's Place of Birth and Death

The UK is phasing out a different fuel: coal. Having provided 40 percent of the UK’s electricity as recently as 2012, the fossil fuel is responsible for less than 3 percent of it today. The official deadline for the UK’s coal phase-out is October 2024, but coal power is already insignificant: just three coal plants remain active in the UK electricity system.

“Completing the exit” here means dealing with the rump of the British coal industry. Coal mining has been in a steep decline since the 1960s, and it isn’t selling much coal to British power plants anymore. However, British manufacturers still use coal, for example for blast furnaces in the iron and steel industry, and there are still a handful of surface coal mines operating across the UK. What should be done with them, and what about new mines?  

The current debate centers around a new coal mine planned for the town of Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast in the north west of England, which would be the first new deep coal mine to open in the UK in 30 years. Since the mine would produce coking coal for the steel industry, where there is no national phase-out date for the use of coal, advocates from industry argue that the coal phase-out in electricity is irrelevant. Other supporters point out that the UK currently imports most of the (coking) coal it uses for steel production from the United States, Russia, and Australia, and argue that producing it at home would create a few hundred British jobs as well as reduce transport emissions from imports—the local planning office in Cumbria even made the dubious claim that the mine would be “carbon-neutral” for this reason. Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, initially decided not to block the mine, calling it a local decision.

For opponents of the project, it would be absurd for the UK to open a new coal mine in 2021 and thus undermine its reputation as a climate leader months before it hosts COP26 in Glasgow. The chair of the government’s climate advisory body, Lord Deben, recently wrote to Jenrick to warn that the mine would increase the UK’s carbon emissions and do nothing to help the UK transition to cleaner steel-making technologies that use electricity and hydrogen. Jenrick changed course in March and ordered a public inquiry into the Whitehaven mine; it would be a surprise were it to go ahead now.

Step 1: Stop the Burning

Efforts to finish up the phase-outs in Britain and Germany are harbingers of fuel exit debates to come. Trailblazer countries will stop using a fuel to generate electricity, and then trickier questions will arise about what a phase-out means. What about industrial uses for the phased-out fuel? Should the country import products and electricity produced using the fuel abroad, and how should these imports be taxed? Should citizens invest in projects that will burn the fuel in other countries? How to ensure that old mines and wells are safely cleaned up, and that the industry’s workers find other jobs?

There are foreign policy considerations at play too because neighboring countries sometimes disagree about which fuels to phase out. In 1970 Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands signed the Treaty of Almelo, which commits them to cooperate on uranium enrichment facilities like the one in Gronau in North-Rhine Westphalia. This means the German government will likely have to negotiate with companies and other countries in order to close the facility down. European Union member states are also struggling with this question now in the context of the EU Sustainable Finance Taxonomy, which determines which investments get a green label: reportedly the EU will classify certain lower-emission fossil gas plants as green and, assuming it follows the advice of its scientific advisors at the Joint Research Centre, determine that nuclear power is sustainable too. Few member states will agree with both decisions.

For now, most countries are at the early stage of fuel phase-outs. They can, to paraphrase the former British Prime Minister Theresa May, say “exit means exit” and leave the details for later.

Noah J. Gordon is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY's climate columnist.

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