Q&A: The IPCC’s Rajendra K. Pachauri on climate tech

Copyright: TERI

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  • The IPCC is now more certain that humans cause climate change
  • It has learnt from past mistakes and has more robust science processes
  • Developing nations should build their own tech to deal with climate change

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As the first part of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which deals with the physical science of climate change, is launched this week (30 January), SciDev.Net speaks to Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, the panel’s chair, about science and the climate policy challenges ahead.

Ahead of the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2014 in February, Pachauri tells SciDev.Net why technology transfer does not worry him and how developing nations have the capacity to build their own renewable energy technology.

And he reveals what’s new in the climate assessment, how the IPCC has learnt from previous mistakes and what’s in store for the next round of climate talks, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 20th annual meeting in Lima, Peru, in December.

What fresh light does this report throw on climate change, compared with the previous assessment reports?

It refers to 9,200 publications and, of these, almost two-thirds were published after 2007. So, there is an enormous amount of new information and knowledge contained in this report.

We have said very clearly that, for most of the warming that has taken place since the middle of the last century, it is extremely likely that human actions have been responsible for it. And when we say ‘extremely likely’ we are assigning a probability of over 95 per cent, which is higher than what we said in the Fourth Assessment Report, when we used the term 'very likely', which indicates a probability of over 90 per cent.

But in several other respects there is a substantial amount of new information and analysis which, I think, really gives us an up-to-date understanding of the science of climate change.

In practical terms, what does this increase from 90 per cent to 95 per cent certainty mean?

It basically means that, in terms of human actions, we really have to do something about climate change. This means that we have to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases rather urgently.

Of course, we will also be bringing out the second part of the Fifth Assessment Report soon, which will tell us about impacts, vulnerability and adaptation. So, we will complete the entire fifth assessment cycle by the end of October, when we will have extensive information and knowledge on both adaptation and mitigation, and in dealing with climate change.

What lessons were learnt from the controversies over the previous report, such as the overconfident predictions on the melting of the Himalayan glaciers?

The fact is that this is a human undertaking, which involves literally thousands of scientists and, therefore, we need to be prepared for the possibility of some errors.

However, to eliminate errors, we have certainly made sure that all the authors are clearly cautioned about being very careful in assessing any literature, making sure that whatever they include in the report is robust and defendable.

So we are taking extra steps, but we still do realise that, in any human undertaking such as this, errors can occur. And, therefore, to deal with them, we now have a formal protocol for any errors that have to be corrected.

We are also very conscious of the need to spread information and disseminate the findings of future IPCC reports, and we have done what we can to see that we can do that much more effectively.

At the most recent climate summit, COP19 in Warsaw, we saw the launch of the UNFCCC’s Climate Technology Centre and Network. What is it doing for technologies in developing nations?

Frankly, I am not aware of what they are doing. I wish I had a little more knowledge about that.

But I would be very bothered if this just developed into a bureaucratic organisation and centre which is there in name, but has no substance in terms of really helping countries.

I believe that the best way to help countries is to create capacity within those countries themselves, by which not only can they develop technologies, but they can also adapt and customise them to ensure they are suitable for local use. So, I think that's really what we should be focusing on, rather than creating these international white elephants which may or may not be serving the purpose of developing countries.

There are concerns that technology transfer from rich to poor countries has been pushed off the table during successive rounds of climate talks due to stringent intellectual property rights issues. Do you see this as a problem?

Frankly, I may be in a minority, but I believe this is not a major issue. Take a country like India, for example. When it comes to space technology, we are not very far behind. When it comes to any technology, I think we have the capacity to develop what we want. And, if anything, India can help a number of other countries which are not quite as developed as we are technologically.

So, frankly, I just don’t see why we should be worried about this issue of technology transfer. 

Of course, intellectual property rights are something that we have to respect. We have to respect it within India itself. Otherwise, how can you say that technology can be transferred free of cost from any other country to this country, and you don’t follow the same principle within the country. So, to my mind, this has become a bit of a hollow argument.

And, of course, when it comes to market forces, if you purchase any technology you would necessarily have to pay for it.

When it comes to nuclear technology, when it comes to areas like space technology, there have been [trade] restrictions, no doubt. But most other sectors of the economy, I am not aware of which technologies have been restricted by any country in the world.

I see no reason why we cannot develop renewable energy technologies ourselves. I mean, that’s really not rocket science. That is not something that is beyond our reach. If we were to have focused research and development, if we had to create the right institutions and the right policies by which we could promote some of these technological developments, we should really become the leaders in the world, in these technologies.

I don’t see why we should be defensive about that. Why should we wait for other countries to give us the technologies free of cost? We have the ability to develop these ourselves. And, as a matter of fact, given the cost of scientific and technological manpower in our country, we have a major cost advantage in being able to develop these ourselves.

What are your expectations from the next COP in Peru?

Well, I hope in Peru they can come up with more or less the framework for an agreement [on greenhouse gas emission cuts] that hopefully will be entered into at COP21 in Paris, France. Because, you can’t leave too much of the negotiations ‘till the last minute.

I would like to see substantial progress being made in Peru, so we are within striking distance of coming up with an agreement that could then be signed at the next COP in France. So, I think there is great deal at stake in the Peru COP and I hope something substantial happens over there.

Link to full report

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.