IPCC chief urges US to match EU climate goals

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The US must not do less than the EU to cut greenhouse gas emissions, said in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which received the Nobel peace prize in 2007 together with former US vice-president Al Gore.

Rajendra Pachauri is chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won together with former US vice-president Al Gore the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Pachauri was speaking to EURACTIV Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

A high-level scientific climate conference concluding in Copenhagen on 12 March warned that the worst-case scenario predicted by the IPCC is presently unfolding. Is it this your view too?

It is very difficult to come to that conclusion on the basis of two or three years of observations [since the IPCC’s fourth assessment was published in 2007]. It is entirely possible, but I don’t think I can say it categorically. I think we need a little bit more time to look at all the evidence. 

We hope that by the time the IPCC’s fifth assessment report comes out, we will be in a position to take a balanced and well-founded view on this matter. 

The EU has set itself the objective of keeping temperature rises below 2°C, and has carved a set of measures to reach that goal. Is this objective achievable, or do we need to be below 2°C?

I think this is a value judgment. The world has to decide whether it is willing to accept some the impacts of climate change that are already occurring at fairly serious levels in certain parts of the world. 

This is not an issue that can be decided on any averages. It is an issue that has to be decided on the basis of the more-seriously-affected and more-vulnerable regions of the world. 

If 2°C is going to have very serious implications for some of those regions, then I think we ought to reconsider that 2°C target. On the other hand, if 2°C is acceptable for a number of locations which are very vulnerable, than fine. 

That is not a question that can be decided on the basis of scientific assessment, which can assist the decision. It can’t really help with getting a clear cut answer, because there is a value judgment that is involved. 

Take the example of the island of Kiribati in the Pacific. The president of that country has been saying repeatedly that before the end of the century, his country will need to be vacated. If that were to be the case, than we have to ask ourselves: Is 2°C good enough, or do we need to do more? 

In January, you criticised Obama’s climate commitments for lacking ambition, saying that returning to 1990 levels by 2020 was not enough. Are you still convinced after the presentation of his stimulus plan and budget, which strongly back the development of a low-carbon economy?

On the one hand, the leadership of the US is talking about taking a leadership position on climate change. On the other hand, if you come up with a target that is much lower than the one adopted by the EU, I don’t think that represents a leadership position. I believe the leadership position is accepted if the US agrees to do at least as much as the EU. 

The plan to stabilise emissions at 1990 levels by 2020 is far below what the EU has committed to doing. 

Are you saying the US should agree to cut emissions by 30%, as the EU is proposing to do, if other industrialised countries come on board?

I think at least 20%, because that is what the EU has already committed. They should do that now. Whether the EU would move to 30%, I don’t know. That remains to be seen. What Japan or Australia does is also important. But it seems to me that it is reasonable to accept that the US should at least go down to 20% by 2020. 

What do you think should be the position of developing countries and emerging economies, like India? Should they be helped to reduce their emissions? 

Developing countries have been making at least three demands. First, in view of the common but differentiated responsibility principle, the developed countries have to take the first step. And they are not really taking the first step. 

Even the Kyoto Protocol was not ratified by all developed countries, and in certain cases, the targets that have been set are not going to be reached. That is clearly an inadequate response. 

Second, developing countries have asked for financial transfers, largely for adaptation, but also help with mitigation actions and they have asked for access to technology to make that possible. To be quite honest, the response to that from the developed world has not been very clear so far. 

Why is that? What does it take for developed countries to be clear and kick-start actions?

If you look at access to technology, for example, there really has not been a response so far. In my view, something that could help greatly would be low-interest financing of certain technology measures by developed nations, which would make it possible for developing countries to implement some of these solutions that are based on clean technologies. 

There has not been any kind of firm or concrete response from the developed world on this issue. 

If you look at adaptation, the adaptation fund has really taken off so far. If we are serious about helping some of the poorest countries in the world, which are the most vulnerable, than I think the adaptation fund has to be reasonable in size, so that they can really do something meaningful and useful. 

What do you mean by reasonable in size? Do you have a reasonable figure? 

I think you certainly need several billion dollars. If you have the small island states, then you need to build some protective infrastructure against storms and cyclones and all kinds of weather events, to which they are very vulnerable. 

If you look at the problem of water scarcity and water stress in several countries of the world, where people are very poor: If they have to bring about an improvement in the management of water resources, clearly that is going to take substantial investment, maybe in storage facilities and water distribution systems. 

In the case of agriculture, how they are going to handle the problem of rain-fed agriculture, where people are not going to have enough water to grow even the quantity of food that they are growing today? 

In all these areas, if we want to avoid a crisis, then we have to provide adequate resources to help these countries. 

And they are not responsible for causing the problem of climate change. There is here an ethical basis to help those who are the victims of actions that have resulted in climate change. 

Do you think the 50 billion dollar figure demanded by NGOs in Pozna? is an adequate amount to tackle initial needs for adaptation?

To be quite honest, I have not really done this exercise. Because, how much would 50 bn achieve vs. 20 bn? I have not really looked into it. 

But I think there has to be a serious discussion. So far, I am afraid that discussion has not taken place on a serious basis. 

Serious discussions call for leadership …

You clearly need leadership. I think in the whole business of climate change, leadership is critical. In the absence of leadership, we’ll go nowhere. 

Do we have the right leaders?

I think so. There are some leaders whom I regard as very sensitive to those issues. President Obama is certainly the latest among those leaders. But Chancellor Angela Merkel has been also very sensitive to this issue. 

In December in Copenhagen, world leaders will try to strike a deal on climate change to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. The US stance will be key in these negotiations. Still, senior advisors in the Obama administration warned that the US might need time to secure any cap and trade scheme. That might hamper the agreement of a full-fledged deal.   A more likely scenario could be a framework agreement, with details hammered out next year. Would that be acceptable?

The danger of postponing actions is that it might strengthen some of the forces who are going to resist any agreement and any change. There is a danger that it might break the momentum that it has already been established. 

My belief is that if the US makes adequate progress in implementing its domestic agenda and if the president of the US repeatedly assures the world of what he wants to do, that should be enough pieces to agree to an agreement. 

That should satisfy the rest of the world, and I hope that will get a successful ratification in the US. 

We should not think of the option of delaying, because it could possibly create further complications. 

This week, hundreds of delegates are meeting in Bonn to advance negotiations before December. The UNFCC is looking at emissions cuts targets, but also climate financing and governance structure. One proposal is to establish establish an international registry to record the mitigation actions of developing countries, such as China and India, and match them with pledges of financial and technological support by developed nations. Do you think that would work?

It could work, but it must also have the right governance structure. If you take the example of the GEF [Global Environmental Facility to help developing countries to fund projects and programmes that protect the environment], which has existed since 1991, the funds it has received have been totally inadequate. 

Secondly, developing countries in particular have been critical of the government of GEF, which is largely in the hands of the developed countries. 

The GEF is based on the principle that resources will be provided for the additional cost of actions to be taken by developing countries, but that has not made a major impact. So, any new mechanism really has to looked at very carefully. 

If I understand correctly, you are saying that developing countries should have a big role in the governance of these mechanisms?

Yes, it is also important that the effort has to be sizable. If you just provide two or three billion dollars over 3-4 years, what is it going to achieve? Nothing. Because it gives a very superficial response to what is required. 

The scale of funding has to be adequate in order to be effective. 

What’s your view on imposing a carbon tax or even as some suggest, a Tobin tax, to help raise funding to combat global warming?

It is really a question of being able to provide a price on carbon, by which markets get a strong signal to move towards a low-carbon technology. 

Another purpose of taxes would be to generate resources that could be used for the right purpose. I personally think that a Tobin tax has a lot of merit, but somehow has not received the attention it deserves. 

Carbon taxes certainly have a lot of value, but governments have to sell it to their people. Al Gore has been very much in favour of a carbon tax. 

Do you think a tax can change people’s behaviour towards consumption? One thing is to change industry, another is to change people’s behaviour. But with the economic crisis, some are advocating tax cuts to boost demand…. 

But you will be boosting the demand for the same products. They will be buying General Motors cars, they will be buying the same products which have caused this crisis. 

We have to be very honest about this, and accept the fact that we want to bring about change and not consume the same goods and services that we have been consuming on a great scale in the past and which have been part of the problem. 

If you cut taxes, what will the consumers do? They will go out to buy the same refrigerator, the same house, the same car. What’s the change there? Cutting taxes is accepting a state of health-less-ness. If we can’t bring about change, that it will be a lost opportunity. 

What are the ways to bring about change in people’s behaviour? 

You need a public awareness campaign with the media. But also government policies, including those which provide a strong market signals, to push people in a particular way. 

India held a ‘Greenathon’ last month. Do you think that is an effective way to raise awareness and/or funds?

That was an extremely inspiring initiative. I took part in it myself. I recommend it strongly to TV channels. The kind of response we got from the public was awesome. There were so many people that watched that 24-hour programme. 

It really helped to get the message across. It will also raise resources, but the biggest gain was creating understanding of the problem and the seriousness of the problem. 

Raising public awareness is one thing, but do you think industries are aware of the challenge and are restructuring rapidly enough, or are they taking a wait-and-see approach while trying to dilute climate policies?

People are quite fed up with the ways industry has behaved in the past. It is in the interest of industry to understand that it has to change. Otherwise, they will be losers over a period of time. 

This is precisely why you need a strong and long-term governmental response and a long-term government vision. In my view, the public is quite ready to accept that, because they certainly feel let down by banks and industry. 

Therefore, it will be quite easy for to take the right set of actions and support governments taking actions. 

There is no dilemma in saving the banks or saving the planet? 

The dilemma is there. It is not an easy problem. Government cannot ignore industry, but in they have to show that in these circumstances, industry has to take a long-term view. If they don’t, government would have to force that long-term view. 

Precisely. G20 leaders are meeting in London this week to find ways to tackle the economic crisis. They are all saying that the global downturn is an opportunity to embark in low carbon economies. Do you think they will take the right actions to restructure the economy? If you were before them to deliver a message, what would that be?

I would say this is an opportunity that they can’t possibly miss. If we continue on the path that we have adopted in the past, the problems that we see today would only be compounded. 

The economic downturn is only a few months old, but the ecological downturn has been in existence for many decades. We are jumping to actions as far as the economic downturn is concerned. 

What are we doing about the ecological downturn? That is going to be much more difficult to solve, far more irreversible than the economic downturn. 

I think we should have the wisdom to understand our priorities and take those actions which would really make a difference to the future of the human race. 

Over the years, we have witnessed major transfer of wealth from oil-importing to oil-exporting countries. How do you think transforming into a low-carbon economy will affect the geo-strategic balance in the future?

It certainly will help the geo-strategic and geopolitical scenarios. In my view, in a short period of time, a large influx of financial resources from one part of the globe to the other can be destabilising. The shift to alternative sources of energy will provide a stabilising influence on these geo-strategic and geopolitical conditions. 

Some say we are too late to combat global warming just with emissions cuts. The IPCC has commenced work on a special report on extreme weather events related to global warming expected in 2011. Is geo-engineering an option?

There is not a single solution in geo-engineering that is on the table as yet. We don’t have any understanding of what would be the ecological implications of this. You can’t get into something like geo-engineering without understanding the long term effects that this might have. 

You may be creating problems far worse than what you think is the solution. It’s certainly not a solution at this point in time, so how can you base your actions in terms of what we understand of its benefits? 

To me it seems a distraction. It’s going to distract the world from action that we should be taking urgently.

In the EU, we have prominent climate action supporters, but also those denying climate change exists: like the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, and more recently, Italy’s majority politicians are starting to question global warming. How can it be possible to have decision-makers make statements that try to derail international negotiations?

You will always have people who would deviate from acceptable knowledge and would deny things that seems so obvious. 

You still have the Flat Earth Society, which believes that the Earth is flat. If you look at Goldsmith’s poem, ‘The deserted village’, about this pedagogue in the village about whom it was said: “… in arguing too, the parson owned his skill, For e'en though vanquished, he could argue still.”

There are some people that even if they are given solid and irrefutable evidence, they will continue to deny it. You can’t have 100% of the human race accept truth for what it is. Some people will deny it. 

It just happens that the Czech Republic has this president who does not change his views at all, in spite of all he has read, I hope he has read, and in spite of all the scientific evidence. 

In your presentation of the IPPC’s fourth assessment report, you quoted Gandhi as saying: "Be the change you want to see in the world.” What does it take to have everyone on the planet lead as described?

We all have to practice what we preach. If we believe something has to be done about this problem, we have to be part of the solution. I give you another anecdote of Gandhi’s life and this is quoted in Al Gore’s book. 

There was a woman who went to Gandhi with her son and asked him to advise her son to eat much less sugar: he eats far too many sweets. Gandhi thought for a moment and than said to the woman: why don’t you come back to me in two weeks time and then I will tell him. She was quite surprised he asked her to come back after two weeks. The woman went back two weeks later and Gandhi advised the son to cut on sugar consumption. She was grateful, but asked why did he asked her to come back after two weeks? Gandhi answered: I realised myself I was eating too many sweets, so I had to change my habits first to be in the position to preach to somebody else. So he practised what he preached. 

I think that if all of us are conscious of this, at least those who believe that climate change needs a global solution, than I think we can do what it takes. 

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