'It's all about green energy' - Solutions to climate change can lead to a philosophical shift in the way we develop, explains Rajendra Pachauri, winner of the Nobel peace prize and chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
We need a new climate philosophy, says Pachauri. Photograph: Ed Wray/AP
Rajendra Pachauri has a particular mission to bring light out of darkness. The recipient of last year’s Nobel peace prize wants to put electric lighting into the world’s 1.6bn poorest homes, which lack power. So will this increase the world’s carbon footprint? Well, no. He has developed solar powered lamps to market worldwide, including to the 64m rural homes without electricity in India. The handheld lamps will replace kerosene and can be assembled by local entrepreneurs.
It’s all the outcome of higher incomes leading to higher levels of consumption. He doesn’t want to see MacDonald’s closed down, but wishes the fast food chain offered more vegetarian dishes, as it does in India.
The world has only six years left to limit greenhouse gas emissions, Pachauri warns. "It’s essential that we take action by which we allow emissions to peak no later than 2015," he says, to limit the world’s temperature increase to 2C. Beyond that and we reach a tipping point when the world’s poorest communities will suffer the most. "They are the ones who are the most vulnerable" due to a much greater scarcity of water, a decline in agricultural lands, and the danger of sea level rises, as spelt out in the fourth assessment report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
That is why next December’s Copenhagen summit on climate change is so critical for the world’s future. "Copenhagen represents an opportunity which once lost is not going to come back." Pachauri wants both Copenhagen and this week’s G20 summit in London to "clearly declare that the Bali Road Map, which called for deep cuts in [greenhouse gas] emissions by 2020, will actually be implemented." It worries him that an article by Barack Obama, circulated widely in the world’s media prior to the G20 summit, made no mention of climate change.
So, is the global economic crisis scuttling inter-governmental efforts to tackle climate change? If so "it is for very superficial reasons," he replies. "If you want to sort out the economic system, you really can’t go back to business as usual. Everyone accepts that we need a major change from the way we've been doing business, the way we've been developing and growing. If that realisation sets in across the leadership of the world, then obviously this will lead to investments in green energy, in much lower consumption of fossil fuels, and the restructuring of economic systems and transport systems. All of this will generate new jobs. All of this will lead to greater economic output, albeit very different from what we’ve been accustomed to."
Pachauri welcomes, for instance, Obama’s plan to invest in America’s Amtrak rail network for passenger transport, currently "in a deplorable condition", Pachauri observes. "If you had the equivalent of a Bullet Train or the [French] TGV in the US it would make a substantial difference to cut down emissions in a big way. It will also ease traffic congestion." He also supports Obama’s call to Congress for an expansion of "cap and trade" legislation to limit companies’ emission of carbon pollutants, first pioneered in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.
Cap and trade has been criticised as a tax on workers, as companies pass on costs in higher prices. But it featured prominently in Obama’s first budget in February, described as the greenest budget in US history. Pachauri insists that "it is important for the US to lead the world, as the largest user of energy". And in order to achieve consensus between the US and China – the two most polluting countries – at Copenhagen, the US may have to act unilaterally.
"There can be real agreement between the US and China, and indeed other countries, only if the US is willing to take the first step," he says. "The Chinese are going to insist that in per capita terms the US is hugely more intensive in emissions of greenhouse gases than China. I don’t think the Chinese are going to commit themselves to any action unless the US declares that they are taking some extra steps." It was an issue on the agenda during secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to China.
Pachauri insists that "if we don’t take action the impacts of climate change can be disastrous for the stability of human society". But climate change is symptomatic of a much larger problem. "We have embarked globally on a path of unsustainable development. Our lifestyles, the way we produce goods and services, are all part of a system that is completely unsustainable. I see solutions to climate change leading to a much larger philosophical shift in the way human society develops. We need a new matrix to define what human progress is."
He points out, for instance, that it is in the interests of the developed countries that the rest of the world reaches a minimum level of economic wellbeing to achieve "a stable, harmonious and peaceful society. If you have distinct and sharp disparities it is not good for any society on earth. We cannot divorce these material and economic questions from the ethical and equitable dimensions".
That is why he calls for "a new philosophy of human existence". He quotes, from the Hindu scriptures, the words he used when he accepted the Nobel peace prize: "vasudhaiva kutumbakam", meaning the whole universe is one family. "We have lost sight of that fact. We have completely shut our eyes to that reality."
While Pachauri is opening our eyes, he stresses that each individual can help build a momentum for change to save the planet: "We have to be conscious of the use of energy in everything we do in life, whether it's lighting our buildings, or air conditioning, or heating, or the use of transport – even our dietary preferences."
And for Pachauri, these are spiritual as much as material and economic issues – the concern for future generations. "If you don’t have that spiritual content then there is something lacking in terms of your commitment and certainly the amount of passion you need to have working in an area like this." He likes to quote the words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: "The rich may have to live more simply that the poor may simply live."
• Rajendra Pachauri was the keynote speaker at the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship in Oxford. He was interviewed by Michael Smith, author of Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy.