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IAEA Event at COP25 Climate Change Conference Explores Decarbonization Strategies


How can the world rapidly decarbonize the energy sector to meet both climate goals and a growing demand for energy? At an IAEA event yesterday on the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid, thought leaders and sustainable energy experts discussed the role of low carbon energy options including nuclear power in national decarbonization strategies.

With around two thirds of the world’s electricity still generated through burning fossil fuels, global emissions of greenhouse gases hit a record high last year, according to the latest UN Emissions Gap Report 2019. “Despite growing investment in low carbon energy sources, progress remains too slow and unevenly distributed to prevent the most severe impacts of climate change,” said Wei Huang, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Planning, Information and Knowledge Management.

To reverse that trend and limit the rise in global average temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius to meet climate goals, electricity production will need to be rapidly decarbonized. That will require greater deployment of a diverse energy mix including not only wind, hydro and solar, but also nuclear power and energy storage solutions.

“It is crucial that national strategies and regulatory frameworks be optimized to facilitate the rapid financing and implementation of low carbon electricity systems, so that the global community can meet its climate goals,” Wei Huang said. “Nuclear electricity contributes to climate mitigation every day and must be part of the equation, in combination with renewable energy.”

Nuclear energy accounts for around 10% of the world’s electricity production and for around one third of global low carbon electricity.

A world hungry for clean energy

The need to transition to clean energy comes as global energy demand is rising. Around half of the world’s population lacks access to enough electricity and almost 1 billion people have no access at all, according to Kirsty Gogan, Executive Director of Energy for Humanity, a UK-based environmental group.

“Not only do we need to replace our entire fossil fuel infrastructure—heat, power, transport—but probably double or triple it to meet rising global energy demand,” she said at the IAEA event. “All credible studies have concluded that to have a serious chance of success, we need all the low carbon solutions we have available to us, and, given the scale and urgency, should be pursuing all the fast, cost effective, most feasible pathways to decarbonize.”

Rapid decarbonization must be linked to raising living standards worldwide, according to Eric Ingersoll, Managing Director of Lucid Catalyst, a global energy consultancy. 

“We need prosperity and decarbonization,” Ingersoll said.

Additional “climate scale” energy options will be needed to complement the “massive buildout of renewable energy” required over the coming decades, he said. While innovative nuclear reactor designs, coupled with heat storage capability, will be viable alternatives to gas-based electricity in the medium term, “designs must be targeted at hard to reach sectors, such as fuels, heat and flexible dispatch, and developing country markets,” Ingersoll added.

But nuclear new builds need to be cost effective and on schedule to be able to significantly contribute to the clean energy transition. According to Gogan, the construction of several nuclear power reactors in parallel, based on existing designs and coordinated supply chains have proven to be economically sound in several markets, most notably in China. By contrast, the construction of one off designs often leads to delays and cost overruns. Read more on the topic in this article.

The UN Climate Conference will feature a high level discussion next week on how the global community can meet Sustainable Development Goal 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) by accelerating the energy transformation in support of sustainable development and the Paris Agreement. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, who assumed office earlier this week, will take part in that event on 11 December, along with the heads of several other international organizations.

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