Beyond Sun and Dung

Rajendra Pachauri heads TERI, The Energy and Resources Institute, based in New Delhi.  An engineer of the railways in his early career, Pachauri went to the United States to earn a PhD in industrial engineering and another in economics, after which he returned to India in 1981 to work with TERI.  In 1995, he joined the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a lead author; in 2002, he was elected the chair of the IPCC.  Its work and his leadership (along with that of former US Vice-President Al Gore) were recognised with a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.  Pachauri is currently the head of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, part of Yale University in the US.  He spoke with Himal Southasian contributing editor Vijay Prashad in mid-September.

The Nobel Prize that you won was awarded not only for the “greater knowledge” that the IPCC had produced on man-made climate change, but also and more significantly for the IPCC’s attempt to “lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.  How would you characterise these foundations?

Quite clearly, what the impacts of climate change would be if we don’t take any action.  In other words, if we keep greenhouse-gas emissions unmitigated, then temperature increase, changes in the climate of various kinds and the impacts are going to get far more severe.  So that lays the foundations of why action is necessary.  But we’ve also brought out very clearly that the costs and attractiveness of taking action to reduce emissions is really very, very different from what people had believed.  In other words, it’s much cheaper to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases than had been thought of earlier, and there are also enormous co-benefits.  You have reduced air pollution at the local level, and as a benefit you’ll have higher levels of energy security, much more employment, stable agricultural production.  So all this makes mitigation an extremely attractive and compelling set of measures, and I think that lays the foundations for taking action.  We’ve also been very proactive in spreading the message, unlike previous IPCC reports.  This time around I’ve been extremely particular that we should spread the message and carry out extensive outreach of the results of the report.

The IPCC’s target for atmospheric carbon concentrations is 450 parts per million (ppm).  You recently went on the record saying that the goal should be 350 ppm.  NASA’s James Hansen has said that the target should be 300 ppm or lower if we wish to restore previous levels of Arctic sea ice.  Since you had made this statement outside your IPCC obligations, why not go to the Hansen target, which seems closer to the scientific consensus?

One can have differences of perception and priorities.  I just feel that you definitely need to go far below 450 ppm, and we really need to carry out a detailed assessment of what would happen with 300 versus 350.  I’ve stuck to 350 only because I believe that that might give us an even chance of being able to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change.  If I have better knowledge, it is entirely possible that I would support what Jim Hansen is saying; but at the moment my feeling is that with 350 we might be able to save the most vulnerable regions of the world.

The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests released a White Paper in mid-August 2009 that stated, “in most cases glaciers have stopped retreating.”  Minister Jairam Ramesh said of this paper, “The Himalayan glaciers are in trouble.  The paper finds that some are retreating, but others seem to be advancing.  However, there is no robust scientific evidence to suggest that climate change is causing the retreat.”  What is your sense of this data and the implications being drawn from it?

I disagree with this conclusion, because I’m afraid the paper from which most of these conclusions have been derived is academically quite unsound.  It does not have adequate information, it does not even have proper reference to some of the recent research that has been produced and published.  I think there is ample evidence to show that the glaciers are retreating.  Now, it may be that in some isolated areas that’s not the case, but that is to be expected — one is looking at the overall aggregate effect, not at every single glacier.  But in aggregate terms, there is clearly a decline, and some are declining at a very rapid rate.  If climate change is not causing this, then what is?

Professor Steve Schneider of Princeton claims that the US is legally bound to reject a treaty that singles out countries for special treatment.  Now, if the Kyoto Protocol and what comes out of Copenhagen puts the onus of mitigation on the US and other advanced industrial states, as you favour, then this will result in a deadlock.  How should one address this problem?

The fact is that, given the separation of powers in the US, even though the administration certainly wants to take a responsible and pro-active position, one is not sure if the Senate will go along with that position.  So we really have a problem of timing, and it is questionable whether, before the end of this year, we would be able to get any legislation through the Senate.  So I’m not too sure how this issue is going to be resolved, but the negotiators will have to find a way out.  But I would say, to the credit of the Obama administration, they’ve tried very hard and maybe they need to do a lot more in bringing about support to get the requisite numbers, as far as the US Senate is concerned.

In 2007, you said, “We have been so drunk with this desire to produce and consume more and more whatever the cost to the environment that we’re on a totally unsustainable path.  I am not going to rest easy until I have articulated in every possible forum the need to bring about major structural changes in economic growth and development.”  Could you elaborate on some features of these structural changes?

We need to consider the transport sector in several parts of the world, because that’s responsible for large share of emissions and, unfortunately, those are growing.  This is because every country in the world now wants to use personalised vehicular transportation on a larger and a growing scale, so this is something that requires major restructuring.  We need much bigger investments in public transport.  Also, our housing has to be regulated in such a way that we use energy far more efficiently in households and in buildings, whether it is commercial buildings, hotels, hospitals, whatever.  And I would say even the layout of towns and cities will have to be done with some degree of sensitivity to energy use and emissions of greenhouse gases.  I realise that in some places these issues will not change overnight.  But we need to start a movement in the right direction, whereby land use and urbanisation will have to be altered substantially.

The idea of ‘leapfrogging’ is currently in vogue — that China and India should leap above the carbon civilisation to another, greener one.  But how can this occur as long as the international intellectual-property regimes prevent the transfer of technology on an open basis?

I certainly understand that it is not possible for any part of the world in isolation to leapfrog.  You can’t possibly have, let’s say, China and India using renewable energy while the rest of the world uses fossil fuels.  This has to be a global effort.  Technologies, processes, products will have to be developed in such a way that everybody targets lower carbon emissions, and this effort will have to be worldwide.  You really can’t expect the developing countries to assume much higher costs for what one calls leapfrogging.  There are certainly some areas where the opportunities exist.  My own institute in India has launched a programme called Lighting a Billion Lights, because we believe that using solar lanterns on a large scale is a far more attractive option for providing lighting in areas which don’t have electricity.  But I would say you can’t do that through the entire economy.  We have technologies, we have systems that are especially based on fossil fuels, and most of these technologies have been developed in the industrialised world.  As such, in order to bring about a transition, we’ll have to ensure that these technologies are also replaced by actions and innovations in the developed countries.  So, to use a quotation from a former friend of mine, you can’t tell the developing world that sun and dung is good for you, and that fossil fuels are good for us.  You just can’t say that China, India, Brazil will use something very different from the rest of the world.

Vijay Prashad is contributing editor to Himal Southasian.  This interview was first published in the October 2009 issue of Himal Southasian; it is reproduced here with Prashad’s permission.