Monday March 04, 2024

Fighting climate change

October 13, 2021

One of the most imminent threats currently faced by the world is a disruption in the ecosystem due to climate change and global warming. Millions of people around the world have been forced to migrate because of the scarcity of resources induced by the rapidly changing climate conditions.

To address the challenges posed by climate change to achieve the goals established in the 2015 Paris Agreement, nuclear power has been identified to have great potential to contribute to the 1.5 C climate change/global warming mitigation target. During the 65th IAEA General Conference which concluded on September 24 this year, the director-general of the nuclear watchdog, Rafael Mariano Grossi, discussed the vital role of nuclear energy in the fight against climate change and also the obligation of the agency to promote safe and secure use of nuclear technologies.

Pakistan, the eighth most-affected country due to adverse impacts of climate change, has decided to deal with this threat with a range of measures including environmental-friendly nuclear energy as one of the top options. Under its new nuclear energy vision 2050, Pakistan envisaged a nuclear power generation capacity of 40,000 MW. It is noteworthy that nuclear power provides about 10 percent of the world's electricity from about 445 power reactors. It is the second-largest source of low-carbon power generation. Interestingly, the US has a total installed nuclear capacity of 98.2GW from 96 reactors in operation across 30 states, while France is second with 58 nuclear reactors and a combined net capacity of 63.1GW.

The threat of climate change leading to environmental degradation at such a massive scale has compelled various countries to adopt new policies and guidelines to reduce the emission of Green House Gases (GHG). According to a report, climate change is "a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world", meaning, an unstable climate will intensify conflicts and tensions around the world. Due to the rising temperature, climate change can be expected to shave 11-14 percent off global economic output by 2050; in particular, South Asian nations could have one-third less wealth. To deal with these non-traditional threats, many countries around the world are trying to decarbonise their energy systems. In this regard, the role of nuclear power becomes inevitable as the energy source with low carbon emission.

Pakistan is one of the countries which operate a number of nuclear power plants for energy production. For the last four decades, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) has been able to maintain a world standard safety record. The IAEA has on multiple occasions expressed satisfaction over Pakistan’s nuclear safety and security arrangements. The international agency works closely with Pakistan on safe, reliable, and sustainable operations of the power plants. According to an estimate, the nuclear power contribution in Pakistan has gone up to 8.2 percent.

‘Nuclear’ is not just confined to the energy security in Pakistan; it has rather broad applications in socio-economic development. Pakistan is utilising nuclear technology in various spheres including agriculture, medicine, and scientific R&D, besides a number of industrial applications. The PAEC runs 18 medical centres spread across the country, and one under-construction in Gilgit-Baltistan, which will use nuclear technology to treat fatal diseases such as cancer.

The utility of nuclear technology in Pakistan’s agriculture sector, particularly the development of high-yield stress-tolerant crops, reflects the country’s commitment to the peaceful usage of this technology. Most recently, IAEA and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have jointly conferred awards on Pakistan’s Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB) and five Pakistani scientists for their exceptional research work in plant mutation breeding and related technologies.

According to Pakistan’s foreign office statement, "Extensive civilian nuclear applications in Pakistan are directly contributing to the well-being of the people and national development in the areas of public health, medicine, agriculture, industry, and nuclear power generation."

While there is a global consensus that nuclear energy can play a vital role in reducing the rising global temperature, there is also a contradiction in global powers' policies to deal with climate change. Though the global community aims to fight climate risks with collective efforts, it has barred countries like Pakistan from benefiting from global nuclear technology. Unlike India, Pakistan has been restricted from getting global nuclear assistance whereas a country like India with poor safety standards enjoys unconditional access to the global nuclear market. These double standards not only harm Pakistan’s effort to become a major player in the nuclear field but also restrict Pakistan’s potential to utilize nuclear energy for peaceful applications.

It is high time the international community decided that country-specific exceptions are counterproductive in global efforts to mitigate risks related to the environment. Pakistan is a responsible state utilising nuclear technology in a safe and secure manner for the last four decades, and thus deserves to be treated fairly. Pakistan, on several occasions, has demonstrated that its nuclear programme is for the socio-economic development of the country, and it has both the capacity and the human resources to share its expertise for the global good. If climate change requires a global combined effort to counter, then it is equally a global responsibility to share nuclear technology fairly and squarely.

The writer is a senior research officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies.