• English
  • العربية
  • 中文
  • Français
  • Русский
  • Español

You are here

COP27: Leading IPCC Scientist Joins Clean Energy Advocates in Calling for Nuclear for Net Zero

IPCC climate scientist Richard Betts spoke at an IAEA event on 10 November 2022 at COP27 in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt. (Photo: IAEA)

With rising emissions threatening to tip the world into catastrophic climate change, a leading IPCC scientist joined clean energy advocates at the UN Climate Change Conference to call for more creative, evidence-based outreach around the world to drive support for net zero energy solutions, including nuclear power.

Richard Betts—a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 4th, 5th and 6th Assessment Reports—and net zero advocates from Lesotho and the United Kingdom spoke at an IAEA event on using science to creatively engage stakeholders at the UN climate summit (COP27) in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

“Personally, I think we need to throw everything at this problem—I don’t like to rule anything out,” said Dr Betts, who was a friend of the late James Lovelock, the British scientist behind the Gaia theory that life on Earth functions like a vast, self-regulating organism. “He was one of the first environmental scientists to turn around and say, yes, we do need nuclear. He made a lot of us think: ‘Perhaps we do need a re-think on this’.

The need to use data and science to creatively engage both policy makers and the public is becoming more urgent by the day, said the speakers, including Marorisang Patricia Makututsa, a statistician and energy planner with the government of Lesotho, and Kirsty Gogan, founder and managing partner of TerraPraxis, a non-profit working for energy solutions to achieve both decarbonization and prosperity.

Recent reports by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) have underscored the urgency for action. Last month, UNEP said there is currently no credible pathway in place to limit global warming to 1.5 °C, the threshold past which the world may tip into climate catastrophe, unless there is “an urgent system-wide transformation”. The last eight years are set to be the warmest on record, amid rising emissions and accumulated heat, the WMO said as COP27 kicked off this week.

Nuclear power, which provides a quarter of all low-carbon electricity, has been an essential element in the decarbonization of the power sector in France, the Canadian province of Ontario, Sweden and Switzerland. Yet even amid increasing interest in the technology to meet climate and energy security needs, the speakers said much more outreach and engagement is needed to raise awareness of the scientific case for nuclear power and spur people and policy makers to action.

Gogan called for more “values-aligned communications” where the messenger may be as important as the message. Besides Lovelock, she pointed to when former NASA expert James Hansen and other scientists attended COP21, where the Paris Agreement was forged in 2015, and told a green movement focused on renewables that nuclear needs to be a key part of the climate solution as well.

“Hansen was seen as this godfather of climate change, a real leader, and to have him say something which was contradicting the world view within that culture, was very shocking,” Gogan said at the event at the #Atoms4Climate pavilion, the first venue in 27 years of UN climate summits to be dedicated to nuclear energy. “But it forced people to sort of reconsider their position.”

According to Dr Betts, the IPCC provided another watershed moment where science has driven change in 2018 with the publication of its special report on Global Warming to 1.5 °C. Among other things, the report provided illustrative model pathways for limiting warming to 1.5 °C which included increases in nuclear power of between 59 per cent to 501per cent by mid-century. The report was aimed at policy makers and informed the UN climate process, Dr Betts said, adding that several governments responded to the study by increasing their ambitions to slash emissions. But it also helped spark a global clamor for more climate action.

“Greta Thunberg’s Friday’s for Future movement started right after this report,” while civil society and climate activists around the world such as Extinction Rebellion “upped their message,” said Dr Betts, a professor at the University of Exeter and Head of Climate Impacts Research in the Met Office Hadley Centre in the UK. “David Attenborough was quoting it on the BBC, so that it raised a lot more awareness and then that gives policy makers the mandate to be more ambitious if they see that the public are calling for it.”

Despite increasing awareness of climate change and an agreement at last year’s UN climate summit to phase down the use of coal, global consumption of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel will increase this year as the energy crisis drives up prices of alternative sources such as natural gas, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In addition, the world continues to burn some 100 million barrels of oil per day, Gogan noted.

“There’s a reason for that,” she said. “It’s because we need the energy.”

To advance nuclear as a clean option to fossil, Gogan called for focusing on its key attributes: clean electricity, thermal heat that can be used to decarbonize industry and produce hydrogen for a variety of uses including synthetic fuels that can eventually replace oil; a high capacity factor which means it runs almost 24/7 regardless of weather or sunlight; and a small environmental footprint due to its extreme energy density.

As these are many of the same attributes of coal plants, that makes nuclear and small modular reactors a suitable replacement for the fossil fuel that provides almost 40 per cent of the world’s electricity, Gogan said. Building reactors on or near those sites “could be the largest carbon reduction opportunity on the planet,” Gogan said. The continuous innovation of the nuclear sector with cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and design automation “is enabling us to have really different kinds of conversations about the role of nuclear technologies to address our biggest decarbonization challenges,” she said.

Such conversations can come in many forms and different places.

In the African country of Lesotho, an economy run entirely on renewables is no longer able to meet electricity demand and has begun importing power, some from fossil fuels, said Makututsa, the energy planner who was at COP27 as the deputy president of the African Young Generation in Nuclear organization. What’s more, poorer rural residents are paying more for electricity from renewables-based microgrids than are wealthier city dwellers who get their power from the main grid, she added.

Nuclear advocates like her are now launching educational programmes among youth to underscore the need for an energy mix that is clean, reliable, sustainable and equitable, which means including nuclear. “We really want to go out into the streets, into schools, we can start from the grassroots and teach the children that there is this technology that is pegged with so many opportunities for the economy and the clean energy transition. And then they will take it up as they grow,” Makututsa said.

“We should also knock on the doors of policy makers and peg the facts around nuclear, and of course use data,” the statistician added. “You should show facts, that is the only way you are going to convince policy makers that this can really work.”

Still, facts alone often don’t suffice.

To keep raising awareness about climate change, Dr Betts talks to business groups, schools and local communities and takes part in music and science festivals, where comedy, poetry and other acts use science to get their message across creatively. “Bringing together the arts and sciences is really important,” he said. “People often don’t respond to facts; they respond to emotions. So, if you can touch them in other ways, touch them emotionally, get their feelings engaged, that’s a really good way of getting to the heart of it and promoting more action on climate change, which is what is urgently needed.”

Stay in touch