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Nuclear science is climate science: IAEA, UNEP sign practical arrangement to address climate change

eroding soil Pakistan

Quickly eroding soil in Pakistan (Photo credit: IAEA}

As the IAEA develops and expands its efforts to protect humankind and the environment, it has increasingly found common cause with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a specialized agency which coordinates and establishes the guiding policies for environmental activities around the world. With their mutual interest for environmental protection in mind, the two organizations have entered into a Practical Arrangement (PA) with the intention of solidifying and formalizing their already productive relationship.

The IAEA and UNEP share a long history of partnership, across a number of intersecting disciplines and fields of activity. The first project undertaken together was initiated in 1974, and centred on the Agency's Laboratory for Marine Radioactivity Studies in Monaco. With financial support from UNEP, the IAEA was able to conduct studies to determine the concentration of selected radionuclides, trace elements and hydrocarbons present in samples of Mediterranean seawater. In the intervening 40 years, the two agencies have expanded their collaboration to include new, emerging subjects of interest or concern.

Following a meeting held in May 2013-between Mr Kwaku Aning, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Technical Cooperation (TC), and Mr Ibrahim Thiaw, then-Director of the UNEP Policy Branch-the fields of activity which overlap UNEP and IAEA mandates were elaborated and identified.

The areas of common interest between the two organizations include: Climate science and climate change adaptation, ecosystem management, sustainable production and consumption, waste management and disposal, and scientific inputs to environmental policy-making.

More generally, the Practical Arrangement seeks to "develop working relationships that promote sustainable environmental management for the well-being of present and future generations." By supporting capacity building efforts among the affected Member States, who will in turn implement measures to conserve resources and ecosystems, the PA provides the tools needed to adapt to the impacts of climate change and variability.  

Expanded cooperation is also envisaged through the planning and design of natural resource management projects, which would fall within the framework of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). These projects would benefit from a comparative advantage, as UNEP and the IAEA have complementary, specialized roles in the GEF.  

An interregional project1 which counts 23 countries among its participants is already leveraging the specialized capabilities of both organizations. Initiated in 2014, the project seeks to identify and address the effects of climate change, which the UNDP described as "the defining human development challenge of the 21st century" in their 2008 Human Development Report.  

Nowhere are the effects of manmade climate change more evident than in the Earth's polar and mountainous regions, where changing precipitation and rising temperatures are causing ice glaciers to melt. As a result, farming communities relocate to higher altitudes, often in more delicate ecosystems, causing further land degradation and affecting food security. Reports published by UNEP highlight a growing need to provide local policy-makers and stakeholders in these regions with accurate, long-term information regarding atmospheric carbon concentrations and changing average temperatures.

By conducting C-14 carbon dating and performing stable isotope analyses of the soil at the foot of retreating glaciers, experts can discern what the future portends for local farmers and rural communities, both in terms of soil composition and future meteorological trends. 

The IAEA is providing close technical support to all the participating Member States-through expert missions and training events, the project will strengthen capacities in the implementation of the appropriate nuclear techniques. Complementing the Agency's work, UNEP will not only raise awareness for climate change generally, but will use the data generated by the interregional project to justify further interventions to slow, prevent or adapt to climate change. With the Practical Arrangement signed and in effect, future collaboration between the IAEA and UNEP will doubtlessly continue, and will build upon the links already established in the past 50 years.

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