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IPCC bets on the renewables revolution

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a landmark report warning that global warming must be kept to 1.5˚C, requiring "rapid and far-reaching" transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities.1

The world must invest US$2.4 trillion in clean energy every year through 2035 and cut the use of coal-fired power to almost nothing by 2050 to avoid catastrophic damage from climate change, according to the IPCC. To put the US$2.4 trillion figure in context, about US$1.8 trillion was invested in energy systems globally in 2017, of which about 42% was invested in electricity generation and about 18.5% in renewables.2

Unsurprisingly, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) used the IPCC report to promote nuclear power. WNA Director General Agneta Rising said the IPCC report "makes clear … the necessity of nuclear energy as an important part of an effective global response" to climate change and that it "highlights the proven qualities of nuclear energy as a highly effective method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as providing secure, reliable and scalable electricity supplies."3 In a separate statement, the WNA falsely claimed that nuclear power increases under all of the IPCC scenarios compatible with limiting warming to 1.5˚C.4

Almost all of the WNA's claims are false or exaggerated. The IPCC report raises numerous concerns about nuclear power (discussed below). In general terms, nearly all of the scenarios presented in the IPCC report envisage a decline in nuclear power generation to 2030 followed by an upswing.5 No logical rationale ‒ or any rationale at all ‒ is provided to support the upswing from 2030 to 2050.

The points that jump out from the IPCC's low-carbon 1.5°C scenarios are that nuclear accounts for only a small fraction of energy/electricity supply (even if nuclear output increases) whereas renewables do the heavy lifting. For example, in one 1.5°C scenario, nuclear power more than doubles by 2050 but only accounts for 4.2% of primary energy whereas renewables account for 60.8%.6 In another 1.5°C scenario, nuclear nearly doubles by 2050 but its contribution to total electricity supply falls to 8.9%, compared to 77.5% for renewables.7

The IPCC report notes that: "Nuclear power increases its share in most 1.5°C pathways by 2050, but in some pathways both the absolute capacity and share of power from nuclear generators declines. There are large differences in nuclear power between models and across pathways … Some 1.5°C pathways no longer see a role for nuclear fission by the end of the century, while others project over 200 EJ / yr of nuclear power in 2100."8

Nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger has a very different take on the IPCC report to the WNA … and most of his claims are false as well.9 Shellenberger takes the IPCC to task for stating that nuclear power risks nuclear weapons proliferation.10,11 That is "unsubstantiated fear-mongering", he claims, although Shellenberger himself has written at length about the manifold and repeatedly-demonstrated connections between nuclear power and weapons.12 "No nation has used its civilian nuclear plants to create a weapon", Shellenberger now claims ‒ which is garbage.13

Shellenberger seems troubled by the IPCC's claims about a possible connection between nuclear power and childhood leukemia ‒ but he doesn't explain why. The IPCC's comments are modest: "Increased occurrence of childhood leukaemia in populations living within 5 km of nuclear power plants was identified by some studies, even though a direct causal relation to ionizing radiation could not be established and other studies could not confirm any correlation (low evidence/agreement in this issue)."10 In fact the evidence of a link is stronger than the IPCC suggests.14,15

Shellenberger complains about "biased and misleading cost comparisons" in the IPCC report though the report simply notes that nuclear power provides an example of "where real-world costs have been higher than anticipated ... while solar PV is an example where real-world costs have been lower".16

Shellenberger claims that solar and wind contributed 1.3% and 3.9% to global electricity supply in 2017 ‒ the true figures are 1.9% and 5.6%.17 He fails to note that all renewables combined supplied 26.5% of global electricity supply in 2017 (2.5 times more than nuclear) or that renewable supply has doubled over the past decade while nuclear power has been stagnant.


1. IPCC, 2018, 'Global Warming of 1.5°C',

2. Reed Landberg, Chisaki Watanabe, and Heesu Lee, 8 Oct 2018, 'Climate Crisis Spurs UN Call for $2.4 Trillion Fossil Fuel Shift',

3. World Nuclear Association, 8 Oct 2018, 'The IPCC 1.5C Special Report: nuclear energy’s important role for effective action to mitigate climate change',

4. World Nuclear Association, 8 Oct 2018, 'UN report shows increased need for nuclear',


6. Table 2.6, p.2-55 in

7. Table 2.7, p.2-55 in


9. Michael Shellenberger, 8 Oct 2018, 'Attacking Nuclear As Dangerous, New IPCC Climate Change Report Promotes Land-Intensive Renewables',



12. Nuclear Monitor #865, 6 Sept 2018, 'Nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger learns to love the bomb, goes down a rabbit hole',

13. See section 7 in: Nuclear Monitor #804, 28 May 2015, 'The myth of the peaceful atom',

14. Nuclear Monitor #812, 15 Oct 2015,

15. Ian Fairlie, 25 July 2014, 'Childhood Leukemias Near Nuclear Power Stations: new article',


17. REN21, June 2018, 'Renewables 2018 Global Status Report',