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Q&A: What’s Next After COP21?

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David Shropshire informing delegates at the IAEA’s stand at the COP21 climate conference in Paris. (Photo: L. Stankeviciute / IAEA)

The international climate negotiations in Paris last week produced a global agreement to limit global average temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial period by 2100. The IAEA and others have argued that nuclear power should be recognized as a sustainable source of energy and be considered on equal footing with other low-carbon energy sources in climate mitigation.

What has been achieved in Paris and what is the role for nuclear under the agreement? David Shropshire, head of the IAEA delegation at COP21, has answered our questions.

Q: Will the Paris Agreement save the world from the worst effects of climate change or was it a fudged agreement without an enforcement mechanism, as some critics say?

A: The Paris Agreement marks an important start of a coordinated global process to address climate change. 196 countries have actually come to an agreement in principle, which didn’t seem achievable before. The agreement has aggressive targets requiring immediate attention and action. It includes the framework, processes and time scales necessary to ratchet up actions in step with increasing national ambitions, data on actual Earth warming and the latest forecasts on climate change. It encourages nations to re-evaluate plans in consideration of the increased ambition necessary to meet the goals of the Agreement, and it ties climate change to other UN Sustainable Development Goals, encouraging the development of more integrated solutions.

Negotiators have agreed on pragmatic measures to be able to reach the agreement putting the responsibility for action to the national level, where countries have the latitude in deciding how to meet their goals via low-carbon technologies, carbon offsets, or other actions.

Q: The IAEA had argued that nuclear energy should be recognised as a low-carbon source of sustainable energy and be treated on par with renewables. Has this happened?

A: The Paris Agreement neither defines energy technologies as low-carbon, nor specifies any energy technology. Instead, it describes “technology” in terms of research, development and demonstration, transfer, capacity building, needs assessment, action plans and project ideas, mechanisms, centres, committees and networks.  All these are applicable to nuclear. Consequently, all energy technologies, low-carbon and fossil, are on the table.

Through IAEA participation at COP21 we contributed to increase awareness of the potential for nuclear power as a tool for mitigation of climate change. We could also provide information on how nuclear applications help to measure the effects of climate change in, for instance, ocean acidification, and its impact on polar and mountainous regions, and how nuclear technology can assist with adaptation in, for instance, climate-smart agriculture.

Countries are free to specify nuclear to reduce their emissions in future updates of their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.
David Shropshire, Head of the IAEA delegation at COP21

Q: Will countries be able to use nuclear to offset their emissions under the Agreement?

A: Some countries have specifically included nuclear in their mitigation portfolios: China, India, Japan, Argentina, Turkey, Jordan and Niger. Many countries were non-specific about which technologies they would use and simply indicated low-carbon or used similar terms. Countries are free to specify any technology, including nuclear, to reduce their emissions in future updates of their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

The agreement also establishes a new mechanism to “contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development.” The rules, modalities and the procedures for the mechanism are yet to be finalised and agreed.

Q: What is next for nuclear and climate change mitigation?

A: Currently, nuclear is second only to hydro in avoiding carbon emissions to the atmosphere, by avoiding approximately 2 billion tonnes of carbon annually. The IAEA’s latest projections for nuclear power in 2030 show an increase in global nuclear power capacity of 2% in the low case and 68% in the high case scenario. The high case assumes changes in country policies toward climate change and continued economic and electricity demand growth, especially in Asia. The contribution toward mitigation from nuclear would need to double from today’s level over the next 25 years in order to support the 2˚C scenario. This would require the addition of 20 GW of nuclear power capacity a year, the rate achieved during 1970s-80s.

The Paris Agreement calls for climate action that at the same time supports sustainable development. There is strong agreement that nuclear power is a low carbon technology. However, nuclear power is also favourable across many sustainability indicators, an argument that should potentially receive greater attention in the future.

Q: What is the role of the IAEA?

A: The IAEA can inform Member States and the public about the importance of nuclear technology in helping to solve the climate crisis. We can further explain the sustainability benefits and potential of innovative nuclear technologies. The IAEA can assist Member States on pre-2020 actions to re-evaluate plans in consideration of the increased ambition necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

It can further define the relationship between the Sustainable Development Goals on climate change (#13) and energy (#7), and other UN Sustainable Development Goals, so that more integrated solutions can be developed.

We can also step up our efforts to keep Member States and the public informed about how nuclear technologies can help measure climate change, and help vulnerable communities adapt to new climate realities.

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