The changing global climate threatens life-sustaining resources. Fresh water reserves and arable land are shrinking. Weather-related catastrophes, such as heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts, are becoming more frequent and destructive. Climate change imperils livelihoods, presenting one of the most difficult global challenges confronting the international community.
Mitigating Climate Change
A broad scientific consensus predicts that climate change will worsen dramatically when the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere rises above 450 parts per million. At the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, convening in Copenhagen from 6 to 17 December 2009, negotiators are working on proposals to cut these emissions quickly. Cuts in GHG emissions are needed as soon as possible to meet the long-term target of halving 1990s-level global emissions within 40 years, and thus prevent catastrophic consequences.
Understanding Future Weather
Nuclear applications are powerful tools in understanding the drivers of climate change. By recreating past climate events through nuclear reconstruction, the scientists can estimate the effect of future developments. The IAEA Laboratories, for instance, use nuclear techniques and isotopes to map increasing ocean temperatures and acidification, as well as shifting ocean currents, which are growing threats for marine biodiversity and sustainability, as well as potent influences on weather and storm patterns.
Avoiding Greenhouse Gases
The gasses that force climatic changes can be reduced, if the appropriate technologies are applied. For instance, power generation accounts for a third of all GHG emissions. Experts estimate that electricity generation will remain the fastest-growing source of GHG emissions for at least the next two decades. Nuclear energy now supplies about 16% of world´s electricity needs, yet is a nearly carbon-free energy source. Nuclear energy is already reducing the impact of climate change and has in the past half-century helped to avoid as much in carbon emissions as hydropower. Today, nuclear power plants reduce the annual global CO2 burden by two gigatonnes, or two trillion kilograms (2 x 109). Over a nuclear power plant´s life cycle, nuclear energy emits roughly the same amount of CO2 per unit of electricity generated as wind and hydropower, and less than renewable sources such as biomass or solar. Significantly, it does so at an equal or lower cost per unit of electricity generated.
The IAEA helps Member States to build national capacity in conducting independent energy and environmental analysis and in developing strategic national energy plans. This assistance involves transferring analytical and planning tools, and training national experts in their use to support the conduct of energy and electricity demand and supply studies, as well as the analysis of cost effective GHG mitigation options. Through these and other activities, the IAEA advises countries and helps them to identify the most suitable and feasible national energy mix, whether or not this includes nuclear power.
In recent years, over 60 countries have requested IAEA assistance to help them study the possible introduction of nuclear power, and it is expected that some of these countries will add nuclear power to their national energy mixes in the future. To ensure that newcomers use nuclear energy peacefully, safely and securely, the IAEA assists Member States with energy planning and the development of the key elements of nuclear energy infrastructure. Accordingly, this includes assistance in drafting nuclear legislation, building human resources, establishing independent and effective safety regulators, and adhering to international safety, security and non-proliferation standards and agreements.
In agriculture, CO2 and other GHGs, such as nitrous oxide (N20) are also released. The IAEA is developing and evaluating land management practices designed to capture atmospheric CO2 in soils and reduce N20 emissions to mitigate climate change, while improving crop growth. The causes for soil degradation can be detected using environmental nuclide tracers. Isotopes can then be used to assess land use practices and soil conservation measures. This analysis helps in managing soil remediation. The IAEA also is working to develop crop varieties able to absorb additional CO2 from the atmosphere and to utilize soil nitrogen more effectively.
Coping with Consequences
Food security is compromised by climate change. Nuclear techniques can help increase crop yields and nutrition. Plant breeding using mutation techniques produces crop varieties that can thrive under difficult conditions by adapting to drought and higher salt levels and a wider range of temperatures. Already drought-adapted rice and wheat varieties have been released.
The changing climate allows diseases and insect populations that afflict herds, destroy ripening crops or infest stored foods to migrate to new regions. Nuclear applications like the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) and ionizing irradiation can help control trans-boundary animal diseases, as well as control pests and food-borne microbes.
By promoting more sustainable agricultural production and water resource management techniques, the IAEA is helping Member States to effectively conpensate some of climate change´s most damaging effects. This assistance, also includes training courses, technology transfer, the promotion of scientific exchange and networking, and applied research.