Starting on this day and continuing until the 10th, COP24 side events were organized into thematic days. The theme for December 4th was Research into Practice Day; as our delegation was sent on behalf of a scientific society, I thought I would check out how the work of researchers (and chemists, if I found any) was shaping climate policy and vice versa. I attended two side events, the first of which was titled “Inclusive energy mix – only effective way to reduce carbon emissions”. This event was organized by the European Nuclear Society and featured a panel of guests who each gave a different perspective on how nuclear energy could form a key component of efforts to make our electricity generation more sustainable. The first speaker, Valérie Faudon of the Société Française d’Énergie Nucléaire (French Nuclear Energy Society), framed nuclear energy as an efficient and cost-effective method for fighting climate change, as the technology is readily available for new plant construction and nuclear energy has a carbon intensity equal to or lower than many renewable energy sources, at around 12 g of emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh of energy produced. She also cited France’s large nuclear energy infrastructure as a reason for the country having the lowest per capita emissions in the Group of Seven (the group of countries with the seven largest advanced economies). The second speaker, Kirsty Gogan of Energy for Humanity, approached nuclear energy in a different way, proposing that it could provide developing countries with another method of delivering electricity to energy-poor areas with the advances in smaller-scale reactors. She pushed back against the proportion of energy coming from renewables as a measure of sustainability, preferring to use carbon intensity, which is more directly related to emissions. A large part of her presentation addressed the concerns of many about the high cost of building and making operational new nuclear energy plants, especially in the United States. She showed data on project completion time and cost from a number of nuclear energy projects which demonstrated that projects that were completed efficiently were neither country- nor technology-specific. Project completion time and cost relative to budget were largely a function of the use of best practices in planning and experience in building previous plants. Costs in the U.S. were therefore unusual globally and could be expected to go down as more are constructed and as more guidance is sought from nations with more established nuclear infrastructure. Gogan also touted the lower land use required for nuclear energy relative to that for wind farms and solar arrays. She finished her slideshow with a reminder that “renewables didn’t start cheap” and rather that concerted focus on technological advances and better project management allowed renewable energy to reach its current level of competitiveness.
The third speaker was Hal Turton of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who gave briefer remarks on nuclear energy’s potential as a catalyst for sustainable development. He urged the need for capacity building in energy policy, in that developing countries may not have the expertise, resources, or infrastructure to successfully implement nuclear energy a)s a part of their energy mixes. The assistance of developed countries could assuage these high initial capital costs and make it easier for countries seeking such low-carbon energy sources to put them into practice as soon as possible. The next speaker, Eric G. Meyer of Generation Atomic, who — how could I forget? — began by belting a brief operatic ditty, spoke of his experiences in working with a youth-centered organization to develop energy policy. He mentioned the nuclear engineering students he had met who were getting their degrees because of their concern for climate change (and definitely not the Big Bucks™). With respect to nuclear energy itself, he too had many positive things to say about its role as a continuous energy source that could provide a background current for when renewables (in a mixed energy system) are producing low output due to their intermittent nature. The continuity of nuclear was also juxtaposed with the anticipated increased energy demand due to rising populations and reduced poverty (fingers crossed on that one) and the need to decarbonize our energy mix as fast as possible, given the new predictions of the IPCC Special Report on the rapidly approaching 1.5 °C benchmark. If only he’d sung the whole thing! The final speaker, Daniel Yi-Chiang Liu of the Japanese Atomic Industrial Forum, focused more specifically on Japan’s nuclear energy operation. Unsurprisingly, it’s not been working so well since the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster in 2011. All of the nuclear energy plants in Japan ceased operation in the aftermath of the meltdown, and each must undergo an extensive review process of several months before energy production can commence again. Only a handful have been approved so far, and the process is expected to take several years before the several dozen plants in Japan can all be fully operational once more. As a result, Japan’s Strategic Energy Plan has shifted more towards renewables although nuclear still has a place, albeit smaller.
The panel discussion led to some interesting back-and-forth between the panel and the audience. As environmental NGOs run the gamut of positions on nuclear energy, which is low-carbon but environmentally catastrophic in the event of a disaster, there was some disagreement on the central premise of nuclear having an essential role in an “inclusive” energy mix. Meyer stressed that values and desired outcomes are common between pro- and anti-nuclear NGOs, and that all options must be considered, “even the ones that aren’t our personal favorites”. The panel all seemed to take on their own brand of uncomfortable when one audience member asked about the environmental and human safety threat posed by the challenge of radioactive waste disposal. Faudon responded with something of a defensive tone, emphasizing that she knew of no examples of nuclear waste hurting the population in France and citing the high degree of public trust in the government’s nuclear safety commission. There were also concerns raised about the compatibility of nuclear energy with the less-developed grid infrastructure in smaller economies. Nuclear reactors currently don’t exist in a form that produces little enough energy not to overpower grids of insufficient size, and the energy security benefits of nuclear for developing countries depends strongly on finance, capacity, and existing infrastructure. Meyer speculated that in the future, “factory-made” smaller reactors could accomplish the task of distributing nuclear energy production capacity over space for less energy-intensive communities. He also made the daring foray of attempting to address the challenge of dealing with nuclear energy in a mixed nuclear-renewable system when renewables output is high (the sun is shining and the wind is blowing). He proposed that new energy storage technologies (ooh look, chemistry!) could allow for storage of the excess energy produced, perhaps unwittingly opening his argument up to “why can’t this technology be used to solve the intermittency problem in a renewables-only system?” But don’t worry, dear reader, I’m sure they’ll finish arguing before Miami is underwater.
The second side event I attended was organized by the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO) and An Organization for Socio-Economic Development (AOSED, because OSED was taken, I guess) and titled “Enhancing ocean/climate observing in developing nations with low-cost technology/capacity building”. Knowing full well that more slashes in the title means more fun, I took my seat near the front ready to learn! And learn I did from Mizanur Rahman Bijoy and Mohammad Mahbubur Rahman from the Network on Climate Change, Bangladesh (NCCB), as they talked about the very focused effects of climate change on small-scale salt farmers in their home country. As local salt production relies on evaporation ponds, volatile weather can hurt productivity by the redissolution of salt by unexpected rains prior to the typical monsoon season. Whereas salt farmers could once predict the onset of the rainy season with better accuracy, the increased frequency and intensity of rainfall events due to global warming and sea level rise now cause damaging losses for the amount of salt that can be harvested. Losses in productivity mean less salt to sell, bringing more of these already low-income workers into further poverty. This specific effect of climate change may seem undramatic, but the speakers argued that it is the sum of smaller effects that hurt the most people in highly specialized local economies and more attention ought to be paid by policymakers to the many and varied ancillary effects of warming. Shamim Arfeen of AOSED also honed in on climate change in Bangladesh. The country is highly vulnerable to many of climate change’s effects due to its low elevation and dependence on coastal industries like salt farming and seagoing fishing. It is estimated that by 2050, one quarter of Bangladesh could be underwater if emissions continue to grow at current rates.
The presentations then shifted towards oceanic observation more broadly with the introduction of Alessandro Crise of the Instituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale (OGS), who addressed the need for greater observation of coastal waters in developing countries. One of the limiting factors, he explained, is access to user-friendly, flexible, and affordable oceanographic instrumentation. Crise leads the OpenMODs (Open Access Marine Observation Devices) project, which seeks to develop and provide such a platform with the capability of accommodating many types of sensor. In addition, the project is engaging with industrial partners through workshops to prepare for widespread implementation of these devices further in their development. Capacity in ocean and climate science was further addressed by Eva-Maria Brodte of the Alfred Wegener Institute, who emphasized the importance of education in marine science to sustainable ocean maintenance efforts. She went on to detail a program run by the Nippon Foundation and POGO to provide education and training in observational oceanography to students who undergo a ten-month intensive program. This program, the NF-POGO Centre of Excellence, provides training on scientific presentation, statistics, and experimental design, as well as specific courses in modelling, remote sensing, and ocean-atmosphere interactions. Students are also taught to use instrumentation, collect samples, and follow analytical protocols, with their studies culminating in an independent research project. And you get to be on a boat!
As I was at COP24 under the auspices of the American Chemical Society and (in the words of Norman Osborn) I’m something of a scientist myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to see the work of researchers take a spotlight, amid a conference largely focused on policy and language. Ah, what a luxury to be in a room where policymakers are debating how to deal with climate change, not whether it exists. Maybe someday I won’t need to leave my country to have that privilege.