A Call for Climate Action Interview with R.K. Pachauri

Just before the G-20 summit meeting in Pittsburgh last September, R. K. Pachauri, chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), joined forces with John Podesta, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, in a clarion call for action on global warming.

Podesta and Pachuari wrote, “What is causing increasing concern, as the December UN climate summit in Copenhagen draws ever nearer, is the continuing deadlock in political action to deal with this challenge.” Admitting that the meetings leading up to COP15 have not gone well, they call for strong signals from world leaders. “[A] way has to be found to nudge the whole debate onto a more positive track,” they said, citing the need for “a step change” in the use of new low-carbon technology that can also deliver job growth.

Pachauri is a man of many responsibilities. When he spoke to , he was heading for a flight to India, where he serves as director general of the Energy and Resources Institute. He was coming from New Haven, Connecticut, where his latest post is as director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute.

E Magazine: What needs to happen prior to Copenhagen?

R.K. Pachauri: We need some firm commitments, because it is not enough for countries and leaders to make mere statements on the need for taking action. Their willingness has to be translated into some specifics, and we haven’t really seen much of that so far. There is also a logjam between the developed and the developing countries, which I think has to be broken.

E: That’s where we seem to be bogged down.

R.K.P.: The developed world was supposed to take the first step, to lead with reductions and the developing world was supposed to follow. But the fact is that the developed world has not done very much. The framework convention [of the IPCC] came into existence in 1992, so it’s getting close to two decades now without any significant action.

And now emissions in other parts of the world are increasing, so there’s a clear attempt to shift the burden and the responsibility to the emerging markets. But it’s also a fact that these are countries that still have poverty, particularly India. There are 400 million people who do not have access to electricity there. So to impose anything in the way of eliminating poverty and creating development opportunity, in my view, is not even ethically correct.

India is now committed to creating 20,000 megawatts of solar-based electricity, and I don’t think even any developed country has made such a large commitment. This is a clear statement that India recognizes the global warming problem and is trying to do what it can.

E: What would you like to see the developed nations do?

R.K.P.: There have been some major pledges. Japan’s new government has committed to a 25% emissions reduction [from 1990 levels] by 2020. Europe has also committed to so-called 20 by 20 targets. And one would expect something similar from other developed countries, too. If we had a 20% commitment generally, I think that would increase confidence all around.

E: And what of the U.S., until recently the world’s biggest emitter?

R.K.P.: The U.S.’s failure to sign the Kyoto Treaty is past history now. But if the Senate fails to come up with a climate bill that is comparable to what the House passed, the whole effort becomes meaningless. We really need an effective bill by the end of the year. That would lead to many other countries taking action.

The U.S. has obviously not been at the table all this while, and it’s a good thing that now we have an administration that professes its commitment to taking action. But one would like to see that action actually taking place. I’m glad that the President has used his executive powers to take a strong position on automobile efficiency, but perhaps something can be done in other areas as well.

E: Are you encouraged that auto companies, including those in China and India, are producing zero-emission electric cars?

R.K.P.: Yes, that is a major improvement. And quite apart from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it would also go a long way to improving local urban air pollution in Mexico City, São Paulo and other places.

E: Is the Waxman-Markey climate change bill a promising beginning?

R.K.P.: I would say it is a good, very commendable start, especially since this administration has been in office less than a year. But it is not the end point. The U.S. will have to do a lot more beyond that.