A group of scientists from the estimable Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change yesterday presented ministers of more than 180 nations in Bali with the overwhemling evidence on climate change. I caught up with IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri after the event to get his take on the state of play in Bali…and beyond.
Since being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with former US vice-president Al Gore for their work on climate change, the IPCC has become something of a household name and Pachauri, or ‘Patchy’ as he is known to friends, has come as close to celebrity as is possible in science. With the recognition comes constant requests …not least for interviews from pushy journalists, I imagine.
We meet in the lobby of the palatial Aston Bali Resort and Spa, where during our brief meeting, he is stopped and congratulated by vitually every passer by. He humbly reminds his admirers that the winning work was that of the many hundreds of scientists who make up the UN body on climate change.
I query if he ever tires of the praise, but he admits that he’s a sucker for it…and says it’s unlikely to last longer than a few weeks anyhow. If anything, he seems to take from it a renewed vigour for communicating the urgency of global warming, a task at which he is certainly adept.
The IPCC has been assessing the status of climate change for nearly 20 years and this November issued a synthesis report, the result of almost two years work that acts as a primer on the scientific understanding of climate change.
The synthesis is not merely a summary of the three latest reports released by the panel in the first half of 2007, which each give a detailed discourse on the science, impacts and options for dealing with climate change, respectively. In addition, the neat 23-page document clearly sets out the consequences of various courses of action. The IPCC presentation at the plenary session here in Bali brought that work formally into the UN negotiating process.
Notable at this round of UN talks on climate change, the 13th conference of its type, no-one is questioning the science. A few lonely looking sceptics can be seen outside handing out flyers and openly admitting ‘We’re the least popular people here”.
Pachauri believes that winning the Nobel Peace Prize has convinced people of the magnitude of the issue. “It brings home that climate change is an issue that affects the future of humanity and a dimension that people haven’t really thought about previously – if we don’t deal with this in time, it could become an issue of peace and national security”, he says.
Possibly the biggest question here in Bali is whether all of the talking will lead to some concrete legally enforced emissions reductions. Under the Kyoto Protocol, about three dozen developed nations are required to cut their greenhouse gases by an average of 5% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. But these targets, which signatories are unlikely to meet, are not nearly bold enough to address climate change effectively.
Earlier this week, a group of the world’s most prominent climatologists, all with the IPCC, warned negotiators of the need to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions at 450ppm CO2e and to cut emissions by 50% on 1990 levels by 2050 in order to avoid dangerous climate change. I ask Pachauri whether he agrees with their statement and he diplomatically responds that he sees no harm in it, but that “it’s for the negotiating community to decide where to stabilise”.
As chair of the IPCC, a body that informs rather than advices government on various courses of action, Pachauri passes on making policy recommendations. But he adds “the findings are very clear – if we allow the temperature to exceed 2 degrees Celsius, there will be serious implications”.
And he warns that we may have already reached a level of dangerous climate change in some regions. Taking small islands nations and sub-Saharan Africa as examples, he says “if you went there, you would think that we’ve already crossed that threshold”.
Apart from the tangible decisions that will be made at the end of next week, he feels that what is critically important here “is the determination to move ahead”, which is “only gaining momentum and will develop in the next few days”.
At the end of the two weeks of political wrangling, Pachauri says he will be “happy if we have an agreement well in place so that implementation can begin in 2012”. His Peace Prize co-winner Gore is hoping for more ambitious action and has urged for the deadline for implementation of a Kyoto successor to be shifted forward by two years.
On the home front
Several signs are emerging, however, that determination may not translate into bold action. As the world’s greatest emitter and the only industrialised nation not to have ratified Kyoto, the US may be the spanner in the works at the Bali talks. Without a strong US commitment, other nations are reluctant to adopt legal cuts in emissions that they fear could hurt economic growth, especially if a major competitor has an unfair advantage.
Pachauri isn’t persuaded that nations should allow this to weigh too heavily on how they operate here. “It’s not necessary for the US administration to take a position different to what it’s been saying up until now. If I was in the position of the EU, I would look at what’s happening on the ground in the US, where action on climate change is ‘snowballing’”, he says.
On the home front, Pachauri feels that India has gained momentum in acting on climate change since the release of the IPCC reports this year. Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, this summer set up an advisory council on climate change. He notes that China has also moved forward on the issue, having developed a national strategy of its own, but he says that it will take a few months for either of these to develop into concrete action.
Much to the chagrin of NGOs and developed nations such as Canada, Australia and Japan, it looks increasingly unlikely that either China or India will be required to agree to binding emissions targets at the talks in Bali.
Bali and Beyond
After just two days here, Pachauri today makes his way to Oslo, where he will collect his Nobel Peace Prize on Monday and revel in the three days of ceremony that accompanies receiving the award.
He sees it as more than a celebration though. It is an opportunity for action.
“I hope that delegates watching from Bali will be persuaded of the need for action and that it will lead to a positive outcome”, says Pachauri.
He is often asked how he feels about travelling so much for work and replies “if I can persuade a few thousand or maybe even a few million people of the urgency of climate change, then the reduction in their carbon footprints will more than offset mine.”
He further explains “I feel I’d be failing in my duty if I didn’t use this opportunity to do that”. Besides, he says “I’m enjoying what I’m doing now and I want to continue to focus on spreading the message of climate change and the work of the IPCC to the world.” His term of office as chair of the IPCC runs until September 2008 and right now, that’s his sole focus. “I’m not looking beyond that”, he says.
As someone who has been involved in climate change since the Kyoto Protocol was conceived, Pachauri is concerned that the clock is ticking on the opportunity to act. “I am very worried that we are running out of time. Fifteen years have gone by since Kyoto and nothing that has happened since gives us a sense of confidence”.
He is optimistic that Bali will be the turning point that is so urgently needed.
Rajendra Pachauri is chairman of the IPCC and Director-General of the Tata Energy Research Institute, India.
Photo: Rajendra Pachauri talks to journalists following the IPCC presentation in Bali.