NEXT 75 conference discussed ways to reverse the planetary crisis


It was a first of its kind event, and was held at a time when the world is faced with a crisis of unprecedented dimensions caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – a mass collective introspection about the past as well as a looking to the future by an online audience of over 450,000 that had joined a physical gathering of nearly 900 people at the NEXT 75 conference last week in Sochi, Russia, organised by the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom.  

The NEXT 75 international youth conference was dedicated to the main problems confronting the future of civilization. Climate change and depletion of natural resources, the threat of overpopulation and new epidemics, prospects for clean energy and opportunities provided by the advanced technologies were the main topics of the conference. The NEXT 75 speakers were all united in the belief that global problems should be solved collectively and immediately, before it is too late.

The world today is changing rapidly, but progress has a downside – the human impact on the planet’s ecosystem is enormous and, unfortunately, mostly negative. In order for humanity to use the chance to change the future, it is necessary to find the most pressing global issues and respond to them. The speakers were emphatic in their consensus that the response to this gigantic challenge is a common task for all generations, and today’s schoolchildren and students, who tomorrow will have to determine the fate of the world, cannot stand aside.

This conclusion was reflected in the vote taken at the end of the three-hour long conference on the principal challenges being faced by humanity, which showed that over 52 percent of the participants felt that the environmental crisis in the form of climate change, depletion of resources and loss of biodiversity was the most serious threat to the world, among the four broad interconnected challenges for life on earth.

The leading experts gathered at the conference, including globally renowned ecologists, virologists, biologists, anthropologists and power engineers, identified problems and pointed out the most effective ways to solve them.

The name “NEXT 75” is far from coincidental, in that the conference was a part of the celebratory events to mark this year’s 75th anniversary of the Russian nuclear industry. Noting in a video broadcast that rapid technological changes had also created challenges like climate change, starkly highlighting the vital need for a low carbon energy mix to save the planet, Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev said that the crisis of the current system was rooted in a profit and loss approach to development and that the younger generation is looking for socially responsible behaviour. “Everything that happens in the most remote corner of the Earth will sooner or later affect each of us, which means that our common task is to find a joint solution to prevent challenges and threats. We care about the future of our planet. I am sure that today’s conference allowed us all to take a step towards understanding what needs to be done to make life on the planet better and safer in the next 75 years,” Likhachev said.

Professor Miguel Brandao of the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden pointed out the fundamental flaws in the way the world has been exploiting of finite resources in a context of overpopulation “which will exacerbate old and new conflicts and we may even have to colonise another planet in our search for resources.” Pointing out that the global use of resource material would double by 2050, Brandao said that “four and a half more earths” are required to satisfy the world’s need for resources in the way these are consumed currently, and called for switching to sustainable production, a circular economy and a low carbon energy mix by reducing the use of fossil fuels, if humanity was to avoid “heading towards disaster.” “I implore a change in the paradigm of production and consumption,” Brandao said, adding that China, India and the US are the major emitters of greenhouse gases. Instead, the use of renewables had overtaken fossil fuels -coal, oil and gas – for the first time in the EU the first half of 2020.

“The climate crisis is a direct result of our energy production and use,” said the Science Council for Global Initiatives President, Thomas Blees. Noting that “social justice means energy for all”, he said a new energy source would have to be inexpensive and one that could be scaled up, which is impossible with renewable sources like solar and wind. “Nuclear energy is the only alternative. One pound of nuclear energy is the equivalent of 5,000 barrels of oil, and without producing carbon emissions,” Blees said. “Nuclear energy meets the bill in tackling the four major issues of safety, cost of development, waste disposal and weapons proliferation”, he added.

According to Blees, the fastest and most efficient way to deal with the energy issue is for small self-contained nuclear plants on board ships, which could then travel via sea and make shore stops to sell power to many countries. He noted how Russia has already shown the way in this direction with the floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) Admiral Lomonosov commissioned by Rosatom earlier this year. “Building large nuclear plants is very expensive, while most governments lack such resources. Instead, the electricity costs such FNPP work out to $1 per watt,” Blees said. “It is estimated that such ships (FNPPs) with total capacity of 400 gigawatt (GW) can be built in a year, using unused shipyards”, he added.

Oscar winning American director Oliver Stone said that like many of his generation he had earlier been against nuclear since they were ignorant about the difference between atomic weapons and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy at a time when climate change was unknown. “Many such activists have changed their opinion now. Renewables are great, but the coming generations will need a lot of energy and nuclear power is the best, most economic way of producing energy”, Stone said.

In a context where the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to infect 3.2 billion people and result in 32 million deaths over the 2020-22 period, Delhi University Professor Tejbir Singh
Rana elaborated on the planet’s overpopulation problem which has put severe pressure on resources, energy, the environment and biodiversity. Noting that the “population challenge is getting more intricate and complex”, Rana said that world population is estimated to cross 10 billion by 2050, while India would become the world’s most populous country by 2027, surpassing China. “In 2010, the number of migrants globally was 214 million, and by 2050 this figure will be 405 million”, he said. “Refugee, or forced, migrant numbers will double, while 40 percent of migrants now live in the developing world in slums, in pathetic conditions, where up to 100,000 people are packed into a square km, without clean water and basic hygene”, Rana added. According to him, such migration can only be controlled by creating rural infrastructure.

In a message for the younger generation, the former Nuclear Power Corporation of India Chairman Ravi Grover exhorted youngsters to think critically and develop solutions to “real-life problems”. “The technological society is moving at an unprecedented pace. As a result of past developments, learning has now become a lifelong process”, he said.

Looking to the future, Bernard Bigot, Director of ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), or the world’s largest nuclear fusion project, being assembled in France to replicate the fusion power of the sun in order to enable generation of clean unlimited energy, said that the hydrogen fusing experiment is based on lithium fuel and water, both available in unlimited quantities. “Generated on a commercial scale, fusion power can supply energy for 10 billion people in the future for a hundred million years” Bigot said.