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Prof Sir David King

Date
29 June 2004
Prof Sir David King

Professor Sir David King was appointed as the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Office of Science and Technology in October 2000.

Born in South Africa in 1939, and after an early career at the University of Witwatersrand, Imperial College and the University of East Anglia, he became the Brunner Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Liverpool in 1974. In 1988, he was appointed 1920 Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and subsequently became Master of Downing College (1995-2000), and Head of the University Chemistry Department (1993-2000).

The Climate Group spoke to Professor King at the Office of Science and Technology on June 28th 2004.

At what level do you think we are capable of stabilizing CO2 emissions, and at what level do you believe they will, in fact, be stabilized?

The classic warming period level of carbon dioxide is around 270 parts per million ppm. The classic ice age level is 200-220 ppm. We are currently at 379ppm and rising at 2 to 3 ppm per annum. So it is already quite bad news, and therefore the answer to the question, 'where would we like to be?' is, 'not where we are now'. But given where we are now we ought to settle on a level of carbon dioxide that is ultimately realistic, and a realistic level might be 550 ppm.550 ppm is going to be quite tough globally to achieve, particularly with developing countries' increasing need for energy, and with a global population currently 6.2 billion, and probably going up to 9 billion people by 2050. Unfortunately, the latest research is indicating that if we are to avoid sudden climate change events it is very difficult to calculate the levels at which those effects may switch in. And it may be that 450 ppm is already at a level where that becomes a problem. So if we were sitting here saying we could turn off emissions tomorrow, I would be saying 400-450 ppm. But being realistic, 550 ppm is probably still the right level to be targeting.

Do you think we'll make that?

What I'm saying is we have to aim for a level which I think we can make, and which we jolly well have to make.

Are we on track to make it?

No we're not. We need an enormous amount of action to make it. The UK is possibly the only country that is currently meeting the Kyoto requirements, and yet our government has announced that Kyoto is not nearly enough. So I think that we will have to see a massive change in attitude and policy around the world.

What are the impacts relating to the 550 stabilization level?

First of all, at 379 ppm we have already experienced a 0.6-0.8 degree temperature rise and we are already observing the impacts of that. There is an analysis which demonstrates that the very hot summer that we had in Europe last year is a global warming effect. 26,000 deaths, 12 billion estimated costs to the built environment, big increases in the insurance claims, that's just one example of the effect of global warming and how it's already impacting us.

But these impacts are nothing compared with what is going to happen. 16 of the 19 biggest cities in the world are all sitting on coastlines and are very much at risk as sea levels rise, and as storms increase. By 2050 we may see something in the region of 50-250 million people displaced from their homes. Unfortunately, many of the worst impacts will occur in countries that can least afford to protect themselves. For example, Africa is very likely to suffer from a radical increase in desertification.

So, all round, quite severe impacts even if we maintain a level of carbon dioxide of 550 ppm. If we go on consuming fossil fuels without regard to carbon dioxide emissions as we are now, then the impacts will be more severe than I've been talking about.

The biggest impact, let me say it now, is going to be if the Greenland ice-sheet melts, which would mean sea-level rises of 6-7 meters. Now that's going to take a long time, but it's likely that a temperature rise of around 3oC is going to be sufficient to kick off the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and that in itself means that in the longer term, perhaps 500, perhaps 1000 years, we will lose all of those major global cities. The cost of dealing with those impacts is massive.

What about the costs of taking action?

Earlier this year, the Office of Science and Technology published its report on the increased flood risks to the UK over the next 50-80 years. There are 2 conclusions to that report.One is that even in the best scenario of CO2 emissions globally it's going to cost us an enormous amount to manage risks to homes from being flooded at their present level. But if we have the worst emissions scenario, that's a business as usual scenario, the cost becomes prohibitively high, and we will be writing off areas of the country as flood plains. It is very clear, therefore, that it's much better to spend a pound on reducing emissions than trying to spend a pound on the consequences of emitting. It's true for the UK, it's true for every other country, and we are working hard to get that message across.

How important is leadership from governments and businesses on this issue?

What is critically important is that governments are recognizing the need to act together. We need global acceptance of an ultimate level of carbon dioxide that we will aim to maintain the globe at. And we need then to put in place measures to make sure that we don't exceed that level. This is going to require first of all agreement from all G8 countries, and in the second round, we must bring on India, China and the developing world. So, that in itself is absolutely crucial.But of course in getting to that stage we are engaging with many companies around the world. And in the UK we've been very successful in engaging with a number of companies who have now committed to reducing emissions in their own operations, and interestingly amongst those are the big oil companies. I think that's important in this phase when we're trying to get global understanding and acceptance of the magnitude of the problem.

Has anyone gone far enough yet?

I think 2 countries are leading at the moment; the UK and Germany. The UK is saying, we will reduce our emissions by 60% by 2050, and we're not waiting for other countries to come on board. We will do it, and we're setting out a road map to achieve it.In Germany, their target is now 50% by 2050. What we need to see though, is in the immediate future, Russia, Australia and the United States signing up to Kyoto, so we can move on introducing carbon trading.Carbon trading provides the global mechanism for, in a fair way, achieving emissions reduction. Carbon trading will begin in Europe next year and I think that's again a big step forward. But no, nobody yet is doing enough. But the British government is taking a strong leadership role.

Is carbon trading the most important policy instrument?

I think that the most important drivers are economic regulatory drivers. What this specifically means is internalizing the external cost. Here the external cost is the cost to the environment of emitting carbon dioxide, so any emitter gets charged the additional cost associated with that. That is an important driver. And we also have to look very carefully at how local economies are affected. So it's not just how much carbon dioxide you are emitting, but what the easiest way to reduce emissions is without hurting the economy. So, for example, easy wins are in the built environment which takes up something like 60% of the energy of the grid. We can design homes and buildings in a way that conserves energy considerably better than we are today, and without much increased cost in terms of putting those houses up. The difficult areas are air transport for example. So, I think that the increased costs have to be borne in a differential way, we can't treat this as just one common factor.

Do we need to highlight the win-wins more?

There are many win-win situations which The Climate Group is right to draw attention to. Businesses save money through energy efficiency. Anyone who drives a car with a better fuel economy is also saving money. The new hybrid engine car driven in London would produce 65 miles per gallon, and that would be taxi driver type service, compared with a normal car producing 25 miles per gallon. You're producing less carbon dioxide and you're paying less for the fuel. There are also advantages for businesses, especially the producers of new devices, for getting into these new technologies early.

But we have to keep coming back to the same point; that increased impacts mean that the cost for all of us is going to go up. And these costs have to be borne globally by all societies. And I think what people really worry about is that if one country gets involved and others don't we will lose our competitive edge. And so I come back to the overall imperative which is to get all countries acting together.

What are the technological priorities for making progress?

The answer to the question depends very much on the timescale that you're looking at. So, for example, I am very excited by the current state of nuclear fusion research internationally. I think that all the science is there, that fusion power stations will be developed in the future. I think we're still 35 years away from having power stations which are commercial. But once that happens we will have a power source with no radioactive waste, that works with lithium and deuterium of which there is an abundance in the earth. We could probably keep powering the requirements even of our 9 billion population that will be, for several thousand years.And that in the longer term has to be a very important goal.

But in the shorter term I think a broad menu approach is required. We must look at carbon dioxide sequestration; we must look at alternative energy sources such as tidal energy, wave energy.I think work on the hydrogen fuel economy, hydrogen fuel cells, production and storage of hydrogen are key factors. We must also look at 4th generation nuclear fission. We're talking here about the world's biggest problem, and we need to put all our resources into switching from fossil fuels, where our dependency lies totally at the moment, to alternatives to fossil fuel. We must also press very hard on energy efficiency gains.

Is the climate change message currently being communicated effectively?

I think the climate change message can be difficult to get across. We all enjoy warm summers, and we look forward to the possibility of better British wines! We also all know that extreme climate events always happen, so you get a long hot summer in Europe as in 2003 and very few people suffering from it actually think of it as a global warming event. I'm afraid one thinks of a frog boiler. You put a frog in cool water and slowly warm the water up, and the frog just thinks it's lovely and doesn't jump out until it dies. But if you toss the frog into hot water it leaps out very quickly. I'm afraid we are in a frog boiler situation. The warming up is so slow that we're not complaining about it, even though the effects are quite dramatic.

So what should we be doing to get the message through?

Recently, I gave a review of the film The Day After Tomorrow. I did this for the very simple reason that I think the film raises the issue of climate change.And using opportunities like this is just one example of how we can move on this issue, and we must.We've got to take every opportunity.

Fundamentally, there are some very, very simple messages to get across. Throughout every ice age for the last 800,000 years we know that carbon dioxide levels were about 200 ppm, and throughout every warm period for the last 800,000 years they were about 260 ppm. Because of our use of fossil fuel we've broken that ice age / warm period cycle. We are now moving into the first hot period for 800,000 years. This is not too difficult a message to get through.

Is this one of the key issues you want to act on in your role as Head of the UK's Office of Science and Technology?

I don't know about want to, I am acting.Since I took the job in October 2000 this has been the focus for the simple reason that this is the biggest problem facing us globally this century. There is no bigger problem. The threat is quite simple; it's a threat to our civilization.


Biography

"There is no bigger problem than climate change. The threat is quite simple; it's a threat to our civilization."

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