November 4, 2021 - 7:00am

The world is on course to miss the 1.5°C target quite significantly. That will be bad. And Britain, although it is reducing its emissions, has not done so fast enough. Sir Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, rightly says that government failings ahead of COP26 have been “hugely disappointing”.

But at the moment, the British parliament is preparing for a second reading of a bill called the “Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill”. Under the current system, anyone wishing to develop a new source of nuclear energy in the UK has to put in all the money themselves and will not see any revenue until the plant starts producing electricity. These major projects take a long time and are inherently risky, so the companies only take on the project if they can expect very high returns.

Under the new bill, the British public would support some of the costs of building the plants, and some of the financial risk of the project failing. That would cost the taxpayer upfront, but would (at least according to the government’s own estimates) save us about £30 billion on each project over the long term, because developers could be given a more reliable, and therefore lower, rate of return. The nuclear industry has welcomed the bill.

Someone who hasn’t welcomed it, though, is Sir Ed Davey, and his Liberal Democrats. Despite their extraordinarily ambitious plans for dealing with climate change — 80% of energy from renewables by 2030! — the party has, along with the SNP, called for the second reading of the bill to be declined.

Partly their objections seem nonsensical, at least to me — it fails to “accelerate the deployment of renewable power or the removal of restrictions on solar”, or to support investment in “tidal and wave power, energy storage, demand response, smart grids and hydrogen”. It’s a nuclear energy bill. It doesn’t make any provisions for banning factory farming either. “This bill intended to do one thing does not do these totally different things that I approve of” is a weird position to take. In a slightly less random but still silly objection, they complain that it doesn’t address concerns about nuclear waste; well, no, it’s about the financing. There are different regulations for dealing with the waste.

But they do say that there is no “environmental case” for nuclear power stations. And that seems baffling to me. There is an obvious environmental case, which is that we would be able to produce more energy — which is good! — with hugely lower carbon emissions. Nuclear is comparable to wind and solar in terms of its carbon emissions over the lifetime of a plant; it’s about one-tenth as polluting as hydropower, and hundreds of times less polluting than any fossil fuel. It’s also one of the very safest forms of energy. If we can find a way of building nuclear plants more cheaply then that is an unmitigated good thing.

The Lib Dems should be one of the strongest advocates for nuclear power. They are committed to combating climate change and have ambitious-to-the-point-of-unrealistic goals for doing so (it’s easy to make big promises when you know you’ll never have to fulfil them). And I thought that they were committed to evidence, to science, to what works.

But despite all their rhetoric, and despite their leader’s pronounced disappointment at the government’s failure, their biggest contribution this week has been to attempt to block a way of making low-carbon energy easier to build. No matter what airy promises are made at COP26, progress will be difficult if this sort of grim Nimbyism carries on.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.