Sustainability 2011/12

Climate Change and the Environment

Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri

Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and
Director-General, The Energy and Resources Institute
2007 Nobel Peace Prize Co-Winner

Dr. Rajendra Pachuari

As awareness of climate change spreads, more people will question the science behind it. We in the scientific community welcome such scrutiny, as science and knowledge thrive on debate, discussion and regular questioning.

That said, we do have substantial evidence to show that human actions are affecting the climate of this planet, and the impacts are becoming ever-more worrying. Human society must take the subject of climate change seriously, because there are enormous implications for the environment, for society and for our overall global economies. Yet despite my concerns, I feel reasonably optimistic that society will have the wisdom to act. If we are empowered with knowledge, and if we understand what is at stake, then we will find solutions.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has set an aspirational goal of limiting the average global temperature increase this century to 2 degrees Celsius. However, our scientific assessments show that even a 2-degree temperature rise would result in significant impacts, affecting a large number of species and increasing sea levels by 0.4 to 1.4 meters due to thermal expansion alone, which is a serious problem for several parts of the world. And that doesn’t include rising sea levels as a result of melting polar ice.

The risks are very serious, and we’ve got nowhere to live but on this planet. In the short term, extreme weather events, such as heavy rains and snowfalls, will have major impacts on business and industry, and on the rest of society.

We also have established that heat waves are increasing in frequency and intensity. If we don’t stabilize the earth’s atmosphere, heat waves that currently take place once in 20 years will occur once every two years by the end of this century. Think of the extreme heat in Europe in 2003, when an estimated 40,000 people died. Of course, a single event cannot be linked to climate change, but our findings are on the basis of extensive scientific evidence.

The world is inevitably going to move to a low-carbon, low-greenhouse-gas (GHG) intensive future. Companies that can reduce the use of fossil fuels and can foresee the technologies, devices and products that will be relevant to the future will emerge as winners.

The auto industry is one sector that can become much more efficient in the use of energy, which is likely one of the drivers behind the trend toward electric vehicles. Overall, the transportation sector has accounted for about one-quarter of the GHG emissions that we have in the world today. Every step we can take to improve the efficiency of transportation will contribute to GHG reductions.

In India and China, we will continue to see automotive sales grow, but cars will remain an elite option limited to the rich and the middle class. Poor people still must rely on public transportation, which also needs to be “greener” than what is available today.

Agriculture is another sector that will be particularly altered by climate change. It’s clear that beyond a certain global rise in temperature, the net effect will be a reduction in crop yields. And that’s a huge concern when we’re expecting the population to rise from about 7 billion people today to about 9 billion by mid-century. We have estimated that, in some African nations, we could see a 50 percent decline in agricultural yield by 2020 as a result of climate variability and climate change.

Some of the impacts of climate change – such as rising sea levels and increasing water scarcity in some parts of the world – are already inevitable. This means we’ll have to find ways as a society to adapt. But as we adapt, we also must focus on how we can stabilize the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere.

Human society has the ability and the capacity to bring about major technological changes and innovations. Many of the technologies required to cut emissions significantly are already available or are in the process of being commercialized. We need a set of policies that will provide the right market signals on both the supply side and the consumption side. For example, one of the most effective ways to bring about change would be to put a price on carbon.

There’s an Indian philosophy that regards the whole universe as “one family.” I believe this approach symbolizes a very practical reality in the context of climate change. We are living in a globalized world, and what happens in one part of this planet has major implications for other parts.

When we embarked on industrialization 150 years ago, we couldn’t possibly have known about the impact of GHGs. Now we do, and it’s time for us to wake up and realize that we’re all in this together. Climate change is not something that’s science fiction. It’s a reality with a very strong and sound scientific basis.