The Real Madrid Playing Field

As this year’s U.N. climate change conference in Madrid comes to a close, the mismatch between global aspiration and actuality is glaring and growing. The annual two-week conversation began with a bleak report on the growing emissions gap and closes with an alarming assessment that the previously inert arctic now is spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the permafrost warms.

Despite the red-hot rhetoric about the need to go faster and further in cutting greenhouse gasses, they actually have grown over the last decade. According to the U.N. report, these emissions must decrease by 7.6% every year over the next decade. This reversal will require incredible – and heretofore lacking - political and social fortitude. Instead, a new analysis indicates that governments are planning to produce 50-120% more fossil fuels by 2030 than is consistent with the Paris Climate Agreement targets of limiting global warming to 15.-2.0 degrees Celsius.

While many of the Madrid diplomats, experts, and activists keep advocating for more urgent action, the reality is that most nations haven’t even made adequate pledges to meet the Paris agreement objective. According to one analysis, the major emitting nations, China, the U.S. and India, have made “insufficient” emissions reduction pledges.

As every sports fan knows, the ability to win the big contest is only as good as the players put on the field and the coaches that design the strategy and plans. On the climate playing field, it is clear that neither the preferred technologies nor the strategy are strong enough to win.

The International Energy Agency’s director, Fatih Birol, has made clear that in his view, the global community does not have the luxury of choosing a favorite technology when the focus is on a “climate emergency”.
The two grizzled global veterans of zero carbon emissions are hydro and nuclear power. They are aging and scarred. They work well but are largely unloved. But, in a real crisis effectiveness matters more than political popularity.

The newest technologies, wind and solar power, get all the zero-carbon attention. But, at present, these rookie power sources need strong back-ups because they can’t yet compete at the highest levels. Advances in battery storage and hybrid renewable-clean continuous power sources are two paths that can strengthen their contribution. But, it’s not clear how long it will take for this support system to mature.

The new Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, speaking in Madrid, said, “We should not see nuclear power and renewables as being in competition with one another…We need to make use of all available sources of clean energy.” He noted that nuclear power can provide the back-up power that renewables require and “unlock” their full potential.

One approach to this new energy mix is next generation small modular and advanced reactors. Their promise is significant, but their development is still embryonic. By using non-traditional fuel cycles and coolants, these reactors can be deployed in interior and arid landscapes close to wind farms and solar fields to provide the backup power to those sources.
But there are a number of challenges to be addressed by the developers of the new technologies, national governments, and the IAEA. Foremost among these is ensuring that the next generation of nuclear does not pose a nuclear weapons proliferation danger or elevate security and safety concerns.

The role of next generation nuclear power is a challenge Grossi should tackle with gusto if he is truly concerned about the climate crisis and the sustainable role of nuclear energy in addressing it. It will help distinguish him as a “break the mold” maverick among bland, risk-averse international administrators. Getting all zero-carbon technologies off the bench, out of the penalty box, and onto the playing field is the ultimate prize in this global contest.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security