“We need a new Gandhi”

Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, talks to Martin Wright about his hopes and fears for the environment, climate change and public awareness in his native India.

Martin Wright: What’s the single thing that most needs to change in India?

Rajendra Pachauri: We need to change mindsets. As people become increasingly prosperous, they’re wanting to consume on the same opulent scale as the rich in developed countries. They’ve borrowed images of a western lifestyle. They’ve been conditioned to feel that the “Good Life” means a two- or three-car family, air-conditioned, energy-hungry homes, and so on. We need to shift that value system.

MW: So how do you change that? Is there a particularly “Indian” way?

RP: We really need someone like Gandhi, who practised what he preached! We’ve almost forgotten him now. But we need someone who can reignite that commitment, to bring to the fore all he was saying, and set it in today’s context. It’s even more relevant today than it was in his time.

MW: But meanwhile, what practical action can government take?

RP: It should use the market to move people in the right direction. So, those goods and services which impose an unsustainable impact on the ecosystem need to be taxed in a manner which reflects that. We need both regulations and market instruments. Regulations to make buildings and factories and appliances much more energy-efficient, for example. Higher taxation on inefficient cars, with greater support for public transport – particularly the railways, which urgently need modernising and expanding…

MW: There’s an argument that says such intervention will affect Indian competitiveness….

RP: Yes, but actions like this can actually make us more competitive! At present, a lot of our industry is highly energy intensive, and water intensive, too. These are resources which are coming under growing pressure. If we can learn to use natural resources more efficiently, the cost of production will come down, and so we’ll be able to compete more effectively in the world market. If India were to develop and use renewables and other sustainable technologies on a large scale, it would provide Indian companies with a huge global market. We’re already seeing that in sectors like wind energy, where Suzlon [Asia’s largest turbine manufacturer] has expanded very rapidly.

MW: You know more than most about the threat of climate change. How grave a threat is it to India?

RP: Oh, it’s immense – immense. We can expect more water shortages, more heat waves, floods and droughts… all these are serious enough in India as it is; climate change will make them more so – particularly for agriculture. Farmers are seeing the impact now. The wheat yields are already falling in the ‘granary of India’ – in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

MW: Are people becoming more aware of the danger?

RP: Definitely. They can see the weather changing, and that’s shaping their perception. The IPCC reports on the likely impacts in India produced an explosion of interest in the media.

MW: So will the government shift its position and accept binding emissions targets?

RP: I doubt it – at least not until developed countries reduce their own emissions on a significant scale… But I think a reappraisal is in hand. The prime minister has set up a council on climate change which he himself is chairing, and that is hugely significant.

It’s important for people here in India to realise that you can’t have countries like ourselves and China, which will be major emitters of greenhouse gases in the future, continuing merrily on a different path to the rest of the world. We all need to be part of a larger effort. After all, we will both be severely affected by climate change.

MW: China and India are increasingly spoken of in the same breath by Western commentators concerned at their pace of growth. So do you think we’ll ever see a joint ‘Chindian’ stance on global issues?

RP: At the moment we seem to be competing – particularly over energy resources in other countries. If we worked together more, it would be of substantial benefit – for ourselves, and for the rest of the world. We both have a large rural population, for example, so we’ve got to come up with a way to create sustainable energy solutions for rural areas. There’s ample opportunity for co-operation here. We need to exchange ideas, information, set up joint ventures… There’s not much of that happening – yet. But I know for a fact there’s a reappraisal of both countries’ approaches underway. So we could see them taking [a more proactive attitude]. It’s just a matter of time.

MW: So are you optimistic about the future?

RP: Absolutely. Just now, there’s a window of opportunity for action. We must do the best we can to use it.

Dr Rajendra Pachauri is director-general of The Energy and Resources Institute.

Martin Wright is the editor of Green Futures

This article appears in “Monsoons & miracles: India’s search for a sustainable future”, a special supplement produced by Green Futures magazine

Homepage photo from greenfutures