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Innovation could make a rapid difference to climate change – Dr Rajendra Pachauri

According to Dr Rajendra Pachauri EU research and development should be directed towards both climate change adaptation and mitigation. Photo courtesy of IPCC
According to Dr Rajendra Pachauri EU research and development should be directed towards both climate change adaptation and mitigation. Photo courtesy of IPCC

Energy efficiency and agriculture are two areas where EU research and innovation could make a significant impact on climate change, and major breakthroughs could happen in a very short period of time, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told Horizon following a meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels.

How can the EU make a difference in terms of climate change?

‘I think there is a whole range of things that we need to do. For example, energy efficiency. It’s not merely efficiency in the production of energy, but we can also bring about substantial reductions in demand in sectors like transport, building, industry. If you look across the globe you find so many countries and societies which are more or less at the same level of economic prosperity but they exhibit substantially different levels of energy use. So I think there is a need for us to look at energy efficiency options far more effectively than we’ve done in the past.

‘Also, the use of renewable energy. We brought out a special report in 2011 on renewable energy sources and climate change mitigation. In that, we showed very clearly that in a whole range of specific end-use applications, renewable energy is already economically viable and can compete with the cost of fossil fuel energy. With the reduction in costs that you see taking place in this field, particularly over the last few years, one can project that renewables will become far more attractive on an economic basis than has been the case so far.

‘There may be opportunities for bioenergy, carbon capture and storage ... reducing deforestation, expanding forestation activity. The AFOLU sector - that’s agricultural, forestry and other land use - accounts for 24 % of the total emissions of greenhouse gases. That is something that has really not been focused on adequately in the past, that’s something that we’ve brought out in this report.’

What are the priority research areas if the EU is to meet its recently announced target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 % by 2030?

‘I would say that as far as the EU is concerned - and, for that matter, any part of the world - one needs to also look at the global market because that can give enormous benefits in terms of economies of scale. If let’s say you’re talking about solar energy, if solar technologies are to be applied only in Europe there would be a certain amount of production and use. On the other hand if one is targeting the rest of the world then you could achieve economies of scale by which you bring down costs significantly.

‘It’s very difficult for me to really identify these areas of research and development that the EU might pursue as it really depends on the kinds of capacity that exist. The EU has a large automobile industry, particularly in Germany but of course in other parts of Europe as well. Transportation would be an area which I think makes a lot of sense. One of the things we’ve highlighted is the need to cut down on demand in some of these major energy-consuming sectors and it seems to me in the transport sector there are enormous opportunities. In Europe the railway system is very good, it has grown quite extensively so maybe there are opportunities over there.’

‘There will clearly be major breakthroughs and they can happen in a very short period of time.’

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC

The IPCC report addresses taking measures to mitigate as well as adapt to climate change. Should EU research be prioritising adaptation or mitigation?

‘I think we need both. Look at agriculture for instance. If the impacts on agriculture are going to be progressively more serious then there’s a whole lot of things that need to be done. Certainly a change in agricultural practices, maybe changes in cropping patterns and possibly even coming up with crops that perhaps can be made more resistant to drought and so on in some parts of Europe. So those are all adaptation measures and one would need to carry out research on them. I would say that you really need to look at both sides of the coin. You need research and development in the area of adaptation but also in mitigation.’

Are there any areas of research which you find really promising in terms of their impact on climate change?

‘The whole area of energy efficiency. This would require initiatives on the part of government and on the part of business and industry, civil society and individuals which means there is clearly a role for creating awareness on what’s possible as well.

‘I think the excitement lies in a whole range of things that need to be done. There will clearly be major breakthroughs and they can happen in a very short period of time. If one looks at telecommunications, who would have imagined 20 years ago the types of facilities and opportunities that we have today? And it’s happening in a relatively short period of time. So I think innovation can make an enormous difference and this can happen rather rapidly.’

You’ve said that addressing climate change might seem hopeless but is not. What gives you hope?

‘The fact that we can deal with this challenge. Of course, we don’t have the luxury of time, we’ll have to move very quickly. But all of the actions that are required to be taken also carry a number of co-benefits. For instance, if you reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, you will also be able to achieve a higher level of energy security, certainly lower levels of air pollution at the local level, possibly higher employment, certainly healthier ecosystems, and higher levels of agricultural yields and so on. So all of this makes it possible for human society to go on a path which perhaps we have not adopted in the past and do it with a substantial number of benefits that would help society overall.’

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