With skepticism growing about the chances of reaching a climate agreement next month in Copenhagen, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says he is “cautiously optimistic” that a treaty can still be signed. But in an interview with Yale Environment 360, Pachauri says the global community may have to move ahead without any commitment from the United States.
Few people have as much stake in the outcome of the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen as Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Yet despite growing pessimism that a substantive treaty can be forged in Copenhagen, Pachauri believes a flurry of eleventh-hour negotiations may lead to an agreement, although the United States may not initially be a part of it.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Pachauri expressed disappointment that the U.S. has not yet committed itself to firm greenhouse gas reduction targets, saying “one expected a lot more to have happened in the U.S. by now.” During the eight years of the Bush administration there was a “complete absence of responsibility” in tackling global warming, Pachauri said, and while the Obama administration is moving swiftly to make up lost ground, climate legislation remains bogged down in Congress.
As a result, Pachauri explained, the world community may move ahead with a treaty without the U.S., creating a “small window of opportunity for the U.S. to take a little more time and come back and make its own commitments.” One reason the U.S. Congress may feel compelled to act, Pachauri suggested, is that American business — particularly in the renewable energy sector — may suffer if the U.S. is left out of a global climate treaty.
Speaking with Roger Cohn, editor of Yale Environment 360, Pachauri – who is director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute and the Tata Energy Research Institute in India – laid out the three requirements for success in Copenhagen, and said the world community would be making a “grave mistake” if it fails to act in Copenhagen. Said Pachauri, “I don’t think the world can afford the luxury of not arriving at an agreement.”
Yale Environment 360: I wanted to start by asking you about the obvious thing that’s on everybody’s mind, the upcoming conference in Copenhagen in December. It’s obviously a key conference and there’s been a great deal of pessimism in recent weeks about the chance for really substantive action in Copenhagen on climate change. What do you see as the picture for heading into Copenhagen at this point, and what do you think can realistically be accomplished there?
Rajendra Pachauri: Well, I am cautiously optimistic because undoubtedly, there’s very slow progress as far as negotiations are concerned. And that to some extent is to be expected, because different countries and parties are jockeying for position. They are trying to carry out maneuvers by which they protect their own positions and try to get the best of the deal that’s expected over there.
But the good news is that all the leaders of the world realize that this is a problem that cannot be ignored much longer. And therefore we have a remarkable opportunity during COP15 [the Conference of the Parties in
If the rest of the world is willing to move toward low-carbon technologies, U.S. business doesn’t want to be left behind.Copenhagen], when hopefully the leadership of the major countries in the world will bring to bear on the negotiators, their negotiators, what needs to be done, what kinds of compromises to make. So I’m expecting that in the remaining few weeks, we will see some hectic activity as a result of which, possibly down to the midnight hour, we might get an agreement. I hope it’s a reasonably satisfactory agreement because the last thing that the world needs today is a weak agreement that doesn’t really help in mounting an effort at the level that’s required globally. So I remain cautiously optimistic, and I’m hoping that things will work out in the end.
I think there’s a record of complete absence of responsibility on the part of the U.S.agreement at this point in time. But I believe there’s enough resolve in Europe, in Japan, and other parts of the world to move on, that we might actually see an agreement which involves all the other parties, but leaves a small window of opportunity for the U.S. to take a little more time and come back and make its own commitments. So basically, one would be allowing the U.S. to remain outside the deal, but give it time to come back and make its commitments, which of course all the parties will have to agree to.
Pachauri: I think there are three things that’ll have to be part of an agreement. Firstly, commitment to reduce emissions by the developed countries, through 2020. I think that’s essential. And that also accords with what the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has brought out in the Fourth Assessment Report, where we clearly said that if you want to limit temperature increase to 2 to 2.4 degrees Celsius, then 2015 is the year when global emissions will have to peak, and then decline thereafter. Now that clearly implies that you ought to have very clear targets for 2020 at the latest. So I think that’s one important element of an agreement.
The second would be some commitment to provide money on the table to help the developing countries, both in adaptation as well as mitigation actions. And the third would be to provide some facilitation for access to technologies that are required in the rest of the world. So I think if these three things are there, then perhaps the majority of the countries that are part of COP will agree to a deal.
e360: But these commitments would need to be more than targets. They would need to be binding?
Pachauri: They’ll have to be binding, and there will have to be some provisions for penalties for those who don’t comply with the targets, because we’ve seen that with the Kyoto Protocol [of 1997]. A lot of parties are way behind even the commitments that they accepted [as part of the Kyoto Protocol]. So we really can’t allow that to continue in the future, and this agreement will have to be binding in every sense of the term.
e360: You mentioned technology transfer and adaptation in developing countries, and funds for that. That’s something that India’s Environmental Minister has been pushing hard for. Do you see action on that happening in Copenhagen, and what specific action do you see in those areas of technology transfer and adaptation?
Pachauri: Well, I see two possibilities. You might have some kind of a fund, global technology fund or whatever one wants to call it, that would
I don’t think the world can afford the luxury of not arriving at an agreement.essentially provide money for commercial transfer of technologies of some specific types that may or may not be specified. The other possibility would be to provide low-interest financing for some of these technology deals that would take place, transferring know-how and technological knowledge from the North to the South. So I think these are being discussed, and I frankly don’t see too much of a problem in agreement on that.
e360: You attracted widespread attention some months ago when you said, as an individual, not as chairman of the IPCC, you supported calls to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations at a level of below 350 parts per million. What led you to take that position, and knowing that it would be controversial, why did you choose to go public with that?
Pachauri: Well, you know, I’ve been getting increasingly concerned at several observations all around. If you look at sea level rise, and this is something that you can take out of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, even with a 2 degree increase in temperature, we will get sea level rise on account of thermal expansion alone, of 0.4 to 1.4 meters. So let’s say we were to end up in the middle of that range, you’re talking about at least 2 feet of sea level rise. Now if that happens, it’s bad news for several parts of the world. The Maldive Islands, which are barely a meter above sea level, most of those islands, extensive areas of Bangladesh, a country of 160 million people, and there are other regions, including parts of the U.S., that will be completely devastated. And therefore even the 2-degree limit that we’re talking about, which corresponds to say about 450 parts per million, is pretty bad news. I just couldn’t keep my eyes closed to that reality.
And you see so much happening all around. Look at the melting of the glaciers all over the world. What are the implications of that? Look at the impacts on agriculture. We ourselves in the IPCC have projected that as early as 2020, we would see certain African countries suffering a decline of 50 percent in agriculture, and these are countries that have massive malnutrition, hunger all around. And if they have a decline of 50 percent, what does that mean? We are asking for disaster.
As a human being, I just couldn’t keep quiet in the face of all this overwhelming evidence. I know it’s probably not right for me to take a position such as this, but on the other hand, I think it would be totally immoral on my part not to take a position, so I came out and said so.
This piece originally appeared in Yale e360
If only Pachauri would commit that India will be part of the agreement to curtail carbon emission then it would have more impact. But as long as China and India are in denial there is not much going to happen in Copenhagen, because everyone will be looking at their own interest even for those pushing for limiting carbon footprint be exempted from the rule they want to impose to others.