Nuclear Science Helps to Adapt to Climate Change, COP26 Participants Hear

More intensive droughts and floods. Re-occurring wildfires. Dangerous pest and crop diseases. Nuclear science and technology is helping countries and communities to adapt to and cope with climate impacts - and international experts at a side event on the side lines of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) highlighted how.

The event, organized by the IAEA and titled Contribution of Nuclear Science and Technology to Climate Adaptation, was organized on 6 November as one of the COP26 nature and land-use side events. It demonstrated how governments, farmers and others can increase resilience to the impacts of climate change and achieve more sustainable management of land and water by protecting and restoring nature and reforming the food and farming systems using nuclear science and technology.

Experts discussed the ability of nuclear and related techniques in boosting agricultural resilience to climate change, in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and in increasing agricultural productivity - altogether known as climate-smart agriculture.

"With the power of atoms, we have the tools to increase our resilience to the global change," said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, following the release of an IAEA report setting out how nuclear techniques can help the world adapt to a changing climate and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events.

"The IAEA is here to help countries and farmers establish climate-smart agriculture practices, improve food security, locate groundwater, understand the impact of global warming on zoonotic diseases, and fight pests like the mosquito and fruit fly," Mr Grossi said, opening the event. "We turn nuclear science and technology into climate action."

Atoms for climate adaptation

Experts from Austria, Germany, Mali, Mexico, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and the IAEA discussed adaptation options for agricultural and land management activities. Governments and farmers need to make science-based decisions on how to cope with changing climatic conditions, speakers said. Nuclear techniques using stable isotopes - a non-radioactive forms of atoms - can also help identify the exact amount and origins of GHG, thus contributing to fact based decision making on how to lower emissions.

The need for a new approach is clear, event speakers said. 690 million people, or 8.9 percent of the world's population, are hungry today, up by nearly 60 million in the last five years. This can in part be attributed to the increased frequency and duration of extreme weather events. "Unmitigated climate change will strongly reduce agricultural potential globally," said Guy Midgley, Professor at the School for Climate Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contributor.

Thanks to IAEA assistance, countries can utilize irradiation techniques that help scientists develop new crop varieties for farmers - varieties that can resist disease and extreme weather events - in a process called mutation breeding. "We have modernized and optimized programmes for effective breeding," said Prince Matova, Research and Agronomy Manager and Maize and Legumes Breeder from the Crop Breeding Institute at the Ministry of Agriculture in Zimbabwe. In 2017, Matova's institute released the country's first cowpea variety, developed with support from the IAEA in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). "The new varieties are tolerant to droughts, heat and poor soil conditions of arid areas of Zimbabwe," he added.

Nuclear techniques such as food irradiation of certain food such as fresh fruits and vegetables can be used to improve food safety, to prevent the spread of invasive insects across borders, and to destroy bacteria causing, for example, food poisoning. The panellists also discussed the sterile insect technique, a type of an insect birth control used to control insect populations without harming other insects and the environment, as is the case with pesticides.

Drawing attention to water scarcity caused by the changing climate, IAEA experts spoke about isotope hydrology techniques that help countries monitor valuable groundwater resources hidden from the human eye, and estimate their age and location. This kind of information can support decision makers in developing sustainable water use policies for generations to come.

Using these and other nuclear techniques, the IAEA helped 102 countries and territories to adapt to the impacts of climate change through 481 targeted technical cooperation projects, with total disbursements of approximately €112 million, during the period 2012-2020.

The precision nuclear science offers in understanding and addressing the effects of climate change on oceans was also highlighted. Speakers from the IAEA explained how the organization helps countries tackle ocean acidification, marine pollution, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, and how the oceans could serve as a nature-based solution by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions, known as the Blue Carbon.

"Millions of people depend on the land and on the water for their livelihoods. Many of them are already struggling, and more will be affected due to climate change," concluded Martin Krause, event moderator and Director in the IAEA's Technical Cooperation Department. "Nuclear techniques are reliable and available to help. Scientific innovations such as these must play a role in future climate solutions for governments, businesses and farmers."


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