‘A Radical Change Is Needed’

Professor Le Quéré believes it is time for society as a whole to act
Interview
Professor Le Quéré

The UN Climate Change Conference in Doha ended last week in failure, with rich countries still reluctant to compensate poor ones for the economic costs of containing air pollution. The Kyoto Protocol, which had set binding targets for industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, has been extended to 2020. Its signatories will set their own targets. But Canada, Russia and Japan have opted out, and with the US not having ratified it at all, the protocol will achieve little. The countries left working to that plan now account for less than 15 per cent of the world’s emissions. Professor Corinne Le Quéré, director, Tyndall° Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, UK, has called for a ‘radical plan’ to address climate change. In an e-mail interview with Shailendra Tyagi of Open, she shares her thoughts on the subject:

Q You have said that global CO2 emissions in 2011 grew by 3 per cent over 2010 and are projected to grow by 2.6 per cent in 2012. This trajectory has worried you to the extent of saying that “the risks of dangerous climate change are too high… and we need a radical plan to address this”. What would that plan be and will it be acceptable to developed as well as developing countries?

Le Quéré: Everyone has a role to play in making the drastic transition to a low-carbon economy that is needed globally. At the moment, the efforts made in some countries are small and they do not involve society as a whole. A radical change is needed to reduce the use of energy in industrialised countries by drastically decreasing the energy demand of vehicles, buildings and appliances, and reducing activities that have high energy demand. In developing countries, the role is different and involves a focus on low-carbon development.

Q Recent data show that emissions in China and India grew by 9.9 and 7.5 per cent respectively in 2011, while those of the US and EU decreased by 1.8 and 2.8 per cent. Could the recession in developed countries have played a role?

Le Quéré: There are several reasons why emissions in the US (since 2005) and EU (since about 1980) have decreased. The recent recession is one of them. The move of industrial production from the US and EU to China and India is also another important reason, so now some goods and services are produced in China and India but consumed in industrialised countries. In the US, the exploitation of shale gas has played an important role in the recent decrease in emissions. Finally, I think that climate change policies in the EU have led to part of the reduction in emissions there, but it is very difficult to separate all the effects and say exactly how much was caused by climate policy.

Q Climate change negotiations have divided the world broadly into two groups: the rich and the poor. Countries like India have called for ‘common
but differentiated responsibilities’, which means that rich countries should not only reduce their emissions but also fund mitigation and adaptation activities in poor countries. Given the latter’s recent record of high emissions, do you see merit in what the poor are demanding?

Le Quéré: It is clear that industrialised countries bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ is absolutely necessary so that everyone has a role to play that reflects their capacity and responsibility. The request that industrialised countries pay [for the creation of] a mitigation and adaptation fund is well justified. [But] it would be unrealistic to request that they pay all the costs, not because it is not right, but because it is not possible (the cost is just too high). It is up to government leaders to say what is realistic and fair, and this is why the negotiations are so difficult.

Q How does a developing country like India harmonise its genuine development goals, which might require sustained reliance on coal, with its role as a responsible partner in combating climate change?  

Le Quéré: Regardless of the historical responsibilities in global emissions, the development of India in the next ten years and beyond will play a very big role for global climate change because India is such a big country. I would encourage the people of India to think hard about what you can do to alleviate the global burden of greenhouse gases and grow sustainably through low-carbon technologies. The current climate trajectory is such that all will suffer if it unfolds, with the most adverse consequences being felt by poor people in developing countries.