March 30, 2007
As I arrive at Rajendra Pachauri’s office in a leafy part of New Delhi, my host also sweeps in, mid-conversation with another visitor. This overlap is typical for Pachauri, who juggles two high-profile roles. His “day job” is here at The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), a think-tank where he is director-general.
But it is his other job that has thrust him into the global spotlight. Pachauri is chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s top scientific body on climate change. It shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the former US vice-president Al Gore.
The IPCC has been issuing reports identifying the scientific basis for global warming for almost 20 years, and the Nobel committee praised it for creating “an informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming”.
After his other visitor leaves, Pachauri greets me amiably. He extends his hand but I demur, telling him I have a bad cold. “So do I!” he exclaims. He’s a tall and young-looking 67 with a distinctive white stripe in his beard. He wears a rumpled grey tweed jacket, flowery tie and black trousers.
Pachauri is so busy with his two jobs that he can’t go out for lunch. Instead, we perch on spongy green chairs in a corner of his cluttered office. Since the Nobel Prize was announced in October, things have been “absolutely crazy”, he says in a deep, gravelly voice that hints at his cold. He has just returned from five days of meetings in Switzerland, Tokyo and Washington.
With so much awareness already about climate change, does the prize matter? Of course it does. “This has really brought climate change to a higher plane. By providing this award, the Nobel Prize committee has signalled that this is a major issue in determining global peace in the future.”
An expressionless man with a moustache arrives with our starters, putting a dish of yoghurt raita, a plate of chopped cucumber and carrots on a small glass table, as well as two bowls of clear vegetable soup. “Eat or your soup will get cold,” Pachauri advises.
The IPCC, formed in 1988, is open to all member countries of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation. Pachauri, who was elected chair of the IPCC in 2002, heads meetings attended by representatives of more than 100 governments. It is a role that requires him to be a diplomat, intermediary, taskmaster and spokesman.
The IPCC does not explicitly advise on policy but a short report released last month aims to give policy makers a practical perspective on tackling climate change. This 23-page document condenses three other voluminous IPCC reports released this year. “It should be readable for senior-most policymakers – world leaders, I should say – who can go through this and understand what climate change is all about. I expect it will have an enormous amount of interest.”
In the report, the IPCC made some of its most forceful statements yet, saying that climate change may bring “abrupt and irreversible” effects. It pointed out the potentially devastating effects of rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the likely extinction of up to a third of plant and animal species if global temperatures increased by 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
Major IPCC reports are released about every five to six years, and all governments involved must reach consensus on them. Pachauri says the trick is to be cool and unflappable, as winning agreement from 100 countries “is not an easy business”.
This week Pachauri will address a highly anticipated UN Climate Change Conference in Bali. About 180 countries will start talks to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to curb greenhouse gases, which expires in 2012. “Those who are responsible for the meeting have to strike now, when there is huge consciousness about climate change and the need to take action. If we don’t do that I think we’ve missed a vital opportunity.”
The assistant whisks away our soup bowls and the untouched salad. We have been too busy talking to eat, and Pachauri admits he often skips lunch. “There are times when I don’t eat at all. I just have a small cookie and coffee or something.”
Our main courses arrive, including rice, palak paneer (spinach and chunks of Indian cheese), orange-tinged spicy mixed vegetables, yellow dhal (lentils) and naan bread.
Pachauri looks relaxed, although his long legs form sharp triangles as he balances a plate of food on one knee. His informality extends to signing himself off in e-mails with the avuncular nickname “Patchy”.
The conversation pauses as we eat, and I scan the office, taking in a collection of Russian dolls and a row of ceramic Dutch houses. A long shelf on one side of the office is filled with cricket trophies. Pachauri is a dedicated fan and always makes time for the game. He played in his regular cricket match with Teri colleagues at 8am the day after the IPCC won the Nobel Prize – just a few hours after the celebrations had ended.
There’s a trolley filled with containers of coffee and tea and an electric kettle that he uses when working late. Pachauri admits to frequent 3am visits to his office, which is just around the corner from his home. “I have to because things pile up. I never get any time to do anything during the day.”
I swallow a few bites of spicy vegetables and scoop lentils with the naan. Between mouthfuls I manage to get a question out: is there any progress within India’s advisory council on climate change? Pachauri is part of a group of environmentalists, scientists and policymakers convened by Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Per capita energy consumption and emissions in India are small compared to developed countries, but it is still the world’s fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide. And with 1.1 billion people, annual GDP growth of more than 9 per cent and projected doubling of energy consumption between 2005 and 2030, the country needs to act now. Pachauri says matter-of-factly, “It’s yet to be seen what the government of India will do.” Emerging economies have so far been reluctant to accept emission reduction targets for fear of sacrificing economic growth, but he is adamant that growth must be balanced with minimising environmental impact. The means to do so already exist, he insists. “It is wrong to indulge in the fallacy that the cost of tackling climate change will disrupt economic progress and will cost jobs.”
He cites Japan and France as examples of energy efficiency. Japan took steps three decades ago to shift from coal and oil to natural gas. It has efficient public transport and uses renewable energy on a significant scale. France relies on nuclear energy for about 80 per cent of power generation.
If Japan and France are the stars, which countries are the delinquents? “I don’t need to name any countries or societies,” Pachauri says. “But the US president made a very perceptive statement in his State of the Union address over a year and a half ago: ‘America has an addiction to oil.’”
He believes it is critical to put a price on carbon and create financial incentives for change: “That’s the only way that the private sector and consumers will see the merit of developing low-carbon options and using them on a large scale.”
Although not an atmospheric scientist, Pachauri has worked on energy issues since his doctoral studies. Born in Nainital in the northern Indian state of Uttaranchal, he received doctorates in industrial engineering and economics from North Carolina State University in the 1970s and taught there briefly before returning to India.
“It was around 1987, 1988 that I really got into climate change.” He became president of the International Association for Energy Economics, an association of energy professionals, in 1988, and recalls a speech he gave to the association that year about the importance of climate change, when he urged his peers to start worrying about it.
“People thought I had lost my mind. These were basically energy professionals who only worried about enhancing the supply of energy. For them climate change was an alien word that they thought had no place in energy decision-making.”
As we finish our meal I say that I like India’s ubiquitous vegetarian meals since I don’t eat meat. I ask if Pachauri is himself “veg”, as they say in India. “I prefer to eat vegetarian food, not that I have particular religious beliefs. But for health and ecological reasons, I prefer it. When I addressed some NGOs in New York last month, I ended by saying you should eat less meat. You would be healthier and so would the planet.”
The final course arrives. “Come, have dessert,” Pachauri entreats paternally. It is gulab jamun, balls of milky dough deep-fried and drenched in sweet syrup.
The phone rings: Pachauri is due at his next meeting. I lob a few hasty questions. His term as IPCC chairman ends next year. Will he continue? “I haven’t decided whether I’ll run … I’ll make up my mind at the end of this year. It does take a lot out of you. There’s no point in accepting the responsibility unless you’re prepared to put in the effort.” His duties require extensive travel and he works all the time.
Pachauri will soon have even more responsibilities. He has joined the board of Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum, whose high-flying members include Nobel winner and microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus and the former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, as well as the former UN secretary-general.
How does Pachauri feel about the carbon emissions he generates pursuing his global career? Somewhat sheepishly he confesses, “I’ve just learned to live with my own guilt.”
He concedes that he has been trying to give more video interviews. “But there are some activities where your physical presence seems absolutely critical.” Still, he patiently ticks off some measures we can all take: “Switch off lights when they are not required, keep air conditioning and heating thermostats at a reasonable level, walk as much as we can, use a bicycle where it’s possible, use public transport.”
Pachauri pauses and says gently, “I should be running soon.” But as he leaves he urges me to stay and finish dessert. I take a few bites, then let myself out. Later I kick myself. I forgot to switch off the light.
Rajendra Pachauri’s office, New Delhi