The second annual Global Impact Conference sponsored by Rosatom was held on December 1. It brought together sustainability experts from around the world. The Conference announced the establishment of the Impact Team 2050 reporting to Alexey Likhachev, Rosatom CEO. Journalist Sophiko Shevardnadze met Alexey Likhachev to discuss the COP26 Glasgow climate conference highlights, the global confidence crisis, and the role of the younger generation in a greener future.
Q: In your speech, you mentioned the key sustainability event of the year, the COP26 summit. COP26 is criticized a lot, they say that its declarations and UN prescriptions are still voluntary: adhering to them is a matter of good will. No really bindings decisions. The same was said about the G7 and G20 (Rome) summits. Politicians constantly meet at forums and summits, discuss issues, but nothing changes. In fact, it was Guterres [Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General since January 1, 2017. – editor’s note] who said that he was leaving Rome with unfulfilled hopes. It seems that the acuteness of the problem itself is increasing geometrically, the buzz around it too, but the decision-making is a kind of constant that does not change. Why does it never come to decisive steps?
A: We can start with an assessment, if you don’t mind. I believe the summit’s results can be assessed both positively and negatively. Naturally, there’s a certain understatement in the conclusions and incompleteness of the decisions. It is a fact and it’s not good. However, on the other hand, the same fact can be considered positively. This also applies to the G7, G20 and COP26 summit. Because if all the media wrote that the summits became a thumping victory of all progressive humanity and that we could relax now, it would probably be a worse trouble. First, it would be lies. Second, we see that humanity does not have a consolidated position on troubleshooting. There are many technological reasons here. Countries are at very different stages of technological development. Another reason, no doubt, is the challenge itself, which lacks a proper and profound consideration. Since the politicians were different, there was a lot of simplistic, sometimes – I’m sorry – even a vulgar interpretation of environmental challenges. Third, it is about the declining trust in the economic, political and geopolitical sense, which is now taking place globally.
All these components do not make it possible to work out an agreed solution on a number of issues. This applies not only to environment, but also to economic policy. What has been happening in the last ten years with the World Trade Organization, the World Customs Union, is actually a reversal from the decisions taken in the 2000s and 2010s. As to migration policy, this, as a rule, is just shifting responsibility.
In my opinion, the world political realm is currently experiencing one of the most difficult moments since the mid-1940s. This confrontation – so far cold confrontation – is frightening in nature. So how, with such a crisis of trust and interaction, could we agree on environmental issues? Of course, we couldn’t, and everyone understands this fact very well.
But there is good news as well. After all, a number of decisions were articulated and signed at COP26. Moreover, the parties became closer after the summit – albeit not legally, but perhaps politically. This also applies to the formal side. I mean a number of declarations that have been signed by most – more than a hundred – countries: such as the declaration on forests or green funding. Groups of countries now have a clearer idea of the levels of coal consumption, target methane emissions. So, there are certain results indeed. Nobody expected a full consensus – much less a solution to the problem – in Glasgow. This is a problem that does not yet have a solution on the scale of humanity.
Q: You say that the history of nuclear energy is split into that of before and after COP26. This is a strong statement. And what will fundamentally change after this summit?
A: Much has changed right at the summit. Let me take a step back for a moment. The 2010s are colored by the events of 2011. These are Fukushima and the decisions taken by a number of countries amid these events to abandon nuclear energy, reduce it and abandon its development. This is a serious drama involving more than just nuclear energy aspects, but also the promotion of other green technologies, and a tough competition between transnationals for government support. But one way or another, the 2010s are about a movement away from nuclear energy. Those COPs, which took place several years ago, very clearly and completely excluded both nuclear companies and the topic itself from the agenda. I can’t say the participants who upheld nuclear energy were totally unwelcome, but they were definitely pushed aside.
Which fundamental changes happened on the eve of COP26? We at Rosatom were actively involved in this. First, we have reached agreement to put the nuclear energy promotion, our invaluable (I am quite serious) contribution to the development of green generation, on the IAEA agenda. The IAEA has ceased to be only a controlling organization; it has begun to promote this ideology. [Rafael Mariano] Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has organized the Vienna Club, a very interesting forum that brings together almost a dozen leaders of the nuclear market. These are US-based Westinghouse and NuScale, Europe’s EDF, EURENCO, Rolls-Royce, China’s CNNC, Kazakhstan’s Kazatomprom and, of course, Rosatom. We agreed on joint actions and purposefully entered this conference – through national delegations and individual events – with a positive agenda. Importantly, we reached more than just approval: a number of countries, which do not think of a carbon transition and the development of a green world energy without nuclear energy, made their statements. The articulation of this fact, the official agenda of the countries – that’s the revolution that has taken place.
I completely agree that this did not happen de jure, in declarations or statements. There is a huge fly in this barrel of ointment. The strangest thing happening in the world is Europe’s rejection of nuclear power taxonomy. Despite the fact that the countries of the world have decided everything a long time ago, with the exception of Germany, where the matters are also quite complicated. But I cannot understand how the EU (comprised of France with its 75% of power generation, the Balkan countries, where nuclear accounts for more than half of it, Finland, Poland, which just recently signed up to the creation of an entire atomic program) cannot at least categorize nuclear as a means for ensuring a European energy mix. Therefore, I say that one of the reasons for the political failure of COP26 is that difficult questions arise as soon as we stop simplifying and begin actually calculating the correct (I’m talking about wind power only) energy mix of a country or the European Union, say, the 2060 mix. After all, we have to replace coal with real generation, calculate how much it costs, what the creation and operation costs are, how it will depend on the price of fuel, in case of gas power. We are only talking about the electric power industry, but there are also transport and industrial enterprises besides the electric power industry. Did anyone calculate their СО2 equivalent, carbon and methane emissions? I think that electricity accounts for about 30% of the anthropogenic greenhouse effect, while manufacturing and transport supply chains account for 60-70%.
Q: If speak plainly and in general about the green transition, the first tier countries can afford it. But what about poor countries? They may be willing to do so, but how can they physically cope with it? You say that countries are different, as well as their technologies and economies. When I think about it, I have the feeling that all our efforts to end global warming are just doomed.
A: Let’s take a step back. Russia may be quite close to the EU due to centuries-old historical traditions. But the countries that are a little further away and noticeably more populated – not just China and India, but also Bangladesh and Pakistan – are actively cooperating with other countries, building up nuclear capacity. China is doing this at a faster pace, India is also unwilling to lag behind. Of course, there will be export taxes, there will be a carbon tax, and they will deal with European suppliers. They simply cannot imagine the development of their energy system without nuclear. This also applies to the Central Asian countries: those who are seeing a dynamic development of the economy and consumption – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – are seriously discussing at the level of their elites such questions as where, when and what capacities to build, rather than to build or not to build. The fact is that nuclear power plants can run for at least 60 and at most 100 years. Therefore, we need to take into consideration all their metrics at this long life horizon.
The sourced fuel stuff accounts for 2-3% of a nuclear power plant’s cost. So, even if the price of uranium goes up fivefold, electricity consumers will hardly feel it. Well, there is no need to explain what happens when gas and coal become more expensive. In this sense, the economy of a nuclear power plant is very attractive. However, a nation’s leadership should have enough wisdom and political courage to calculate and take into consideration long horizons. As soon as the leadership of a country ceases to think in terms of one presidential term, they quickly decide to build a nuclear power plant. I am confident that there is no alternative to the world’s technological development without the development of nuclear. This also applies to transport, deep space exploration, radio medicine, and the study of matter, that is, digging deeper into the fundamental laws of nature. The picture we live in – protons, electrons, neutrons – is a picture of the beginning of the last century. The new physics implies a much deeper knowledge of matter, which can’t be gained without nuclear technologies.
Q: Let’s talk about a green future. Is an ideal green future a utopia? When a doctor prescribes a course of treatment, he warns that any medication has side effects. Does a green future have side effects, or is it ideal?
A: There is a cynical joke on this topic from the 1990s, when a rich man returns home after a visit to a doctor and says the doctor prohibited the consumption of fat, hot foods and alcohol. “How are you going to live now?” Well, I had to pay two grand to lift the ban and live a normal life, he replied. In this sense, we do not have to pay two grand to be allowed to live a normal life. I would say that it is a huge challenge and toil for the world elites and the leaderships of the countries to create these [sustainability, carbon footprint reduction – editor’s note] programs. You know, the US and Australia did not sign the COP26 coal declaration, because a scrupulous calculation of the cost of power generating capacities in the territory of the countries, shifting this economic burden onto consumers and businesses imply large economic programs and major government investments for decades. This is the very side effect that you can at least expect. There must be fundamentally calculated programs for decades ahead, a change in the power generation paradigm, a change in the principles of transportation – both automobile and commercial, including marine. This is about changes in the principles of large industrial manufacturing, because they have a stronger anthropogenic impact than electricity generation.
In a sense, this “recipe,” recommendation or “a course of treatment” should be stretched over decades. It will have side effects such as a burden on the budget, addressing social issues in those industries, energy sectors, which should reduce their presence. People must be engaged in other production cycles, cities must be reoriented to other goals and objectives. Basically, nothing is impossible and sooner or later it will have to be done. The sooner we start, the more efficiently and cheaply we can do it. The very challenge related to the climate agenda is also not fully comprehended. We don’t even understand a lot of processes. I’ll give you an example. Rosatom is the operator of the Northern Sea Route, we build nuclear-powered icebreakers, but a number of stakeholders declare that Rosatom promoted the idea of a large nuclear icebreaker fleet in vain. “Look how everything is getting warmer here,” they say happily. Indeed, there is such a trend too, but it is just one of a dozen. This year’s Siberian wildfires seriously affected the atmosphere in the Arctic. The sun couldn’t break through to melt the Arctic regions during the summer. Despite warming, winter came to the Arctic three weeks earlier. Nobody was able to predict it, although it seems like they should have. The chain is simple: heat – wildfires – smoke – no ultraviolet radiation – not warmed up enough – got frozen earlier. We are currently conducting a rescue operation to take out 14 ships. Each of these aspects related to climate, temperature changes, has a lot of subtleties and nuances.
The technological structure that we need in the energy sector, power generation, transport, industrial enterprises – I am afraid no country has a comprehensive picture of it. The actual COP26 task is to make nations agree on the principles of these pictures and on the stages, because it is impossible to build a thriving green tomorrow in any single isolated country.
Q: People often say “sustainable development,” “green future.” No offense really, but the very phrase “sustainable development” is so hackneyed that it seems to be depreciating. Many corporations are now adopting ESG practices because it’s good for their image. What does it mean to run a truly sustainable business?
A: I may now cause some irritation among the authors of the seventeen sustainable development goals, which is the global canon for rating organizations that rate our sustainability, the activists of this movement. I am from a completely different category. For me, sustainable development is when a human being is placed at the center of everything in an organization, corporation or city. For me, the quintessence is to build all activities around people. If any of my KPIs in economics or some else should harm people, then these are the wrong KPIs. Moreover, I consider people far beyond the payroll. These include their salaries, the environment they live in, the ecology, the air they breathe and the water they drink, their mental health and self-fulfillment. My task is to make sure that tools do not suppress people’s personality, do not turn a person into an official, but – on the contrary – encourage all the hidden talents and innovation, be it business, science, social issues. We are doing a great job on the social agenda in Russia.
Q: Achieving sustainable development goals requires all generations to team up. Greta Thunberg’s generation, which is hailed by our leaders as a collective image, say that older people are hypocrites, they have ruined the world in which young people live. Young people have a feeling that previous generations left them with a huge number of serious problems. It will be difficult to gain their trust now.
A: Indeed, the generation that made the atomic project in the 1940s and 1950s left us with some problems, the generation of the 1960s and 1970s left other problems, including Chernobyl. Our generation leaves behind third problems, because it was necessary to rapidly develop countries, to catch up and overtake. When we got into the millstones of sanctions, we had to deal with the agriculture sector issues, digital technologies, because otherwise it was impossible to maintain our sovereignty. Each generation leaves behind some problems, but if I now begin to curse the people who were engaged in the atomic project … this will be the last day of my job, any job. We should be grateful that they gave us knowledge and technology. Indeed, certain problems have accumulated in the process that need to be addressed. The same applies to the link between our generation and the next gen. Most of us are normal people of good will who serve their homeland.
It’s a matter of trust. If you don’t trust, any dialog would be meaningless. If you do trust, problems should be addressed in a cooperative way, because the generation of 20-year-olds will not solve all of them either, something will also be left behind them, and the next generation can make claims as to why the planet is not so clean. This is a matter of paradigm and approach. If, given the generation gap in terms of everyday life and lifestyles, we understand that we are one family, then we have common tasks and troubles. We try to do our best to leave as little negative legacy as possible to the next generation, they must pick up this baton and pass it on further. What is my task? To engage these guys in our work at the earliest possible stage. So, we deal not only with youth, but also with juniors, with school and university students.
Hopefully, the majority of people in private businesses, scientific community, public companies, corporations or authorities will ensure this continuation, a person-centered approach, improvements in the country and nature. Perhaps this is the key challenge for the current leaders: to make the most of the budget, technology, and economy to improve the health of their country, their planet, and their organization, to engage young people as much as possible, to actively involve the next generation in addressing problems right now. Then they will correct us, and they will be more competent when they take the helm of state.
Q: Rosatom is a partner of the Global Impact Conference. I recently interviewed a huge number of foreigners and our young guys, all of them are innovators, green energy enthusiasts. There was a lot about trust between generations. One said an important thing, “We must be willing to be friends to ensure trust between us and this adult generation. We must be willing to be friends with them, and they must be willing to be friends with us, because friends respect each other’s point of view, even if it’s different and you don’t accept it. You respect it and try to understand, and then something common happens.” I liked the idea: to be friends, not just accept.
A: Absolutely agree. I always build personal relationships both in the team where I work and in international negotiations, I always try to understand and accept a partner as a person.
Q: Let’s wind up this interview with where we started. Humanity now faces incredible challenges, specific physical challenges that affect each of us. There is a feeling that we can only cope with this together, as planet Earth. Not separately Sophiko, Alexey, Russia, Georgia, America, but all together. However, this is not happening. The current pandemic is a perfect illustration. After all, if all nations got united, teamed up to create a single vaccine, medicine, the pandemic would no longer exist, but this this is not happening. This is the case for everything: inequality, warming, and so on. This is what you were talking about: the whole world lives in the paradigm of global mistrust. I would like you to say how to get out of this, because we will not be able to cope with it, if we are not together as the world, as citizens of the Earth.
A: I absolutely agree with this view. Oddly enough, global external challenges – from ecology to the pandemic – for some reason do not bring people together. We do not unite in the face of adversity – which should be done according to the normal logic – but push each other away. I think everyone has their own mission: the president, the government, me. We need to talk as openly as possible, listen to people, change with them, promote and develop that trust. This is a tricky category, “there is no trust formula.” Trust is subject to a huge number of different opinions and factors. Therefore, in addition to our global mission to serve the development of technology, we decided to ensure the development of trust. We are at the beginning of this road, and I do not yet know what specific actions and forms this work will eventually take. But I know that our goal is fair, not far-fetched.
I understand that the risk hanging over the planet today is fatal from the point of view of global changes. We do not fully understand its roots and causes, and have no exact results. Yet we can only deal with this risk subject to the maximum level of trust. It is like in any conversation: if you want to build trusting relations, you must tell about yourself, about your plans, invite the other person to take part in their implementation. If the values and objectives are of the same kind, then the plans can be adjusted. It is important to show that we actually live on the same planet and breathe the same air, and are going to do something in order to live better. It will take some courage and hard work, but we must move forward. The role of leadership is very important here, the most difficult thing is to take a step forward, propose oneself and one’s organization to build trust. It’s a kind of a mission, that’s what I think.