In the arms control community, the third pillar of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) — the right to peacefully use nuclear energy — is like the ugly duckling, marginalized while the other two pillars — non-proliferation and disarmament — are more loudly championed.
Nonetheless, the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy technology is an equal pillar of the treaty, and an increasingly important one as the international community struggles to grapple with climate change.
The United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change today released a report that clearly outlines how a carbon-based energy market contributes to climate change:
At the global level, the energy system – supply, transformation, delivery and use – is the dominant contributor to climate change, representing around 60 per cent of total current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are major contributors to the unpredictable effects of climate change, and to urban air pollution and acidification of land and water.
The report also emphasizes that the energy industry will have to be at the forefront of reform towards more sustainable, responsible, environmentally-friendly technology in order to mitigate against climate-change causing greenhouse gas emissions:
Reducing the carbon intensity of energy – that is, the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy consumed – is a key objective in reaching long- term climate goals. As long as the primary energy mix is biased towards fossil fuels, this would be difficult to achieve with currently available fossil fuel-based energy technologies. Given that the world economy is expected to double in size over the next twenty years, the world’s consumption of energy will also increase significantly if energy supply, conversion and use continue to be inefficient. Energy system design, providing stronger incentives for reduced GHG emissions in supply and increased end-use efficiency, will therefore be critical for reducing the risk of irreversible, catastrophic climate change.
Especially after the failure of COP15 and the resulting Copenhagen Accord to provide binding commitments on the part of States Parties to mitigate against rising greenhouse gas emissions, affected nations might look for rigorous support of nuclear energy at the NPT RevCon.
Moreover, the UN report adds that the push for cleaner energy technologies also comes at a time when the Millennium Development Goals call for universal energy access, especially lacking amongst the world’s poor:
Worldwide, approximately 3 billion people rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating, and about 1.5 billion have no access to electricity. Up to a billion more have access only to unreliable electricity networks. The “energy-poor” suffer the health consequences of inefficient combustion of solid fuels in inadequately ventilated buildings, as well as the economic consequences of insufficient power for productive income-generating activities and for other basic services such as health and education. In particular, women and girls in the developing world are disproportionately affected in this regard.
If the international community designs to both decrease greenhouse gas emissions and expand energy access, then nuclear energy emerges as the least-bad currently available option en route to sustainable energy and away from fossil fuel consumption.
Yes, there are proliferation risks involved in peaceful nuclear energy use. Yes, there are environmental concerns. The international community should make every effort to secure nuclear energy facilities while also hastening the move towards other alternatives.
But nuclear energy expansion can be a stepping stone towards those cleaner technologies, a necessary evil that nonetheless should be emphasized and supported as a way to mitigate against climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions, reduce our dependence on fossil fuel consumption, and broaden energy access to all.
The end goal is still clean technologies that don’t carry proliferation risks, like hydro, solar, and wind. However, given our competing priorities – tackling climate change, reducing energy poverty, and providing security against proliferation risks – nuclear energy as a necessary evil en route to a global economy that can fully support renewable energy might be our best option.