Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 110 - 119)




110.  Professor Hulme, nice to see you again. We know that you represent the Tyndall Centre. Dr Scott and Dr Watson, nice to meet you. We are looking forward to this session and we hope that we will gain some information about the well-reputed Tyndall Centre and the work that you are doing. We are very pleased with it. Mike, let me start off by asking right away, the government policy on energy research and development, what do think might be wrong with it in general?

  (Professor Hulme) In general terms, I think that the UK has a great international advantage in that we are seen as being one of the leading countries to promote the notion of a global agreement to control climate change and within the UK that is backed, at the present time, by a strong commitment and determination to meet our Kyoto obligations of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 12½% and an internal target, of course, of going beyond Kyoto by reducing carbon emissions by 20%. Currently there are a number of initiatives and policies in place to attempt to ensure that those two targets are met. It seems to me that that puts the UK in a very strong position internationally. This is also reinforced because we have one or two of the leading international scientific organisations who are researching into climate change, the Hadley Centre in particular. So it seems to me that these advantages that the UK have internationally need to be reinforced and bolstered through improving and extending the range of policies that are going to lead to further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. I am coming on to answer the question. Part of this comes back, in the end, to how much public money is made available for research into new energy R & D. So that would be my context, if you like, for this question. The context is the UK are regarded internationally as one of the leading advocates for global climate policy and control and the way in which energy R & D is taken forward in this country should be put into that global context. In our that we made to your inquiry, the Tyndall Centre made a number of points and observations about the current state of R & D in the country and I will leave Jim Watson here, from SPRU at the University of Sussex just to rehearse one or two of the key conclusions that we reached in our survey.
  (Dr Watson) Thank you. I think one of our main criticisms, if it is a criticism, is not that we are doing too much or too little of a particular technology, or whatever. What I am quite keen not to do, and what we have been keen not to do in our submission, is to talk about pro and anti certain options for reducing greenhouse gases. One of our big key points, as you will see in our submission, is about balance and the fact that one particular option seems to dominate the amount of government money going into energy R & D, which is nuclear fusion, and has done for a long, long period of time. Of course, nuclear fusion has a great potential in tackling climate change—

111.  We will be asking you about nuclear fusion in particular later on.

  (Dr Watson) Okay, I will not make that point. But I think on the balance question, I would question whether it is good to have a particular option like that that dominates things. Then the other point that I would want to emphasise is that R & D is just part of the story and that actually R & D is fine, but then if you leave R & D, it is actually deployment of technologies that we really need to make carbon emission reductions and that is something that has been a bug bear of mine for quite a long time. That is that a lot of government programmes do some great R & D and perhaps some great demonstration too, but then it stops.

112.  You talk in your submission too about too many funders and agencies, poor coordination between them. How would you tackle that problem then? What is the answer to that?

  (Dr Watson) We are obviously aware of the moves towards a national energy centre and we would welcome that if it is rather like Tyndall is—I will let Mike pick up on this—a distributed centre. I think there is not a case for a new institution, creating a new institution in a physical sense, but there is certainly a case for coordinating what is there because there is a lot of R & D both publically and privately going on, but it needs much better coordination. Whether that is a case for a natural energy centre, I am not sure. Maybe Mike can talk about that.
  (Professor Hulme) We are aware that these proposals are currently under consideration at the moment and the other dimension to such a national centre would be the ability to bring together different research perspectives on the questions of how we actually not just develop new energies, but actually deploy and integrate them into society. That requires clearly very close cooperation between our engineering sciences, our environmental and social scientists and our economic and policy analysts. This is just as deep a challenge, if you like, of cross-disciplinary research as indeed the Tyndall Centre is facing in tackling the bigger question of climate change. So our argument would be that some sort of model along these lines, that could bring together these different research perspectives under one distributed national centre, allowing the best players to participate together, would be certainly appropriate.

113.  What about the DTI's role in this? Are they a bit chicken? A bit heartless? What do you think of the DTI in energy R & D?

  (Professor Hulme) From my point of view, as Director of the Tyndall Centre, we have a very good relationship with the DTI. The DTI support our activities in the Tyndall Centre.

114.  You are not going to tell me the truth then; what you think?

  (Professor Hulme) No, I am telling you the truth, Ian. And the truth is that we have a very good relationship with the DTI. They have actually recognised—and I would say that we have not received any core support from other government departments, but we have received core support from the DTI because they recognised actually that climate change and solutions to climate change, particularly of course this potential for new energy technologies, is something that is going to impact on British business and industry. They wanted, and that is why they have invested in a core post in our centre, to improve the flow of information, the communication between our research and business and industry across the UK. So on that point, I would say that the DTI have recognised the strategic importance of this issue and have supported our activities. Of course, there are other dimensions to DTI in relation to having a management support various emerging energy technologies. Again, I will leave either Alister or Jim to give a more detailed comment. But again, let me give one example where again the DTI are taking active measures, again in conjunction with the Tyndall Centre, to look at one of these potential new technologies which will help to decarbonise our society, which is carbon sequestration. Basically stripping carbon out of waste flumes and sinking that carbon into geological aquifers. Now there are many different perspectives on that technology and we are researching those. We are doing that partly in conjunction with the DTI. So I give you two positive examples where the DTI is actively engaged with the sort of research that we are doing.

115.  So you would not say they were risk averse, in management jargon? They are prepared to go along some research that is in the "blue skies" arena?

  (Professor Hulme) I would ask either Alister or Jim to comment on that.
  (Mr Scott) If I can answer this by partly rewinding to your first question which is; what is wrong with government policy? In our submission we submitted a table, on the penultimate page, which gives an international comparison of UK investments in energy R & D. If you normalise these for populations, it gives you a more meaningful comparison between the UK and its main competitors. Roughly speaking, the United Kingdom is currently spending about one dollar per head on energy R & D. Compare that with Germany, which is spending three and a half dollars per head, the United States, which is spending eight, France, which is spending 11 (admittedly much of it on nuclear fusion and fission) and Japan, which is spending 30 dollars. So these countries are spending fully three and a half, eight, 11 and 30 times roughly what the UK is spending per head on energy R & D. So that gives you some kind of idea of the scale of the difference of the investment that the UK is making compared to our international competitors.

116.  But you see the point of my question is to find out where that decision is being made how much to put in. Is it the DTI? Who is it? Government is a strange organism.

  (Mr Scott) I do not think that is something that we could easily answer.

117.  That is fine, okay. You had your chance.

  (Professor Hulme) The example I gave before is about the proposal for a new energy centre, which would be through the science budget. So in that case it would actually be managed in the end by the research councils on behalf of OST.

118.  Just a quick one about the Carbon Trust. Tell me about the policies and funding of that, if you have any view on it. Any one of you would do. How it is working out, in your views.

  (Dr Watson) I will let them speak for themselves next week.
  (Professor Hulme) They are due to come here, is that right, next week?

119.  Yes, they are coming next week.

  (Professor Hulme) My perception—and I do not speak with any great authority, I mean I have observed from a distance how they have been developing their strategy in the last 12 months. It seems to have been rather slow to actually get off the ground, but my perception is that the primary focus of their investment is going to be through this low carbon innovation programme that has been established which, as I understand it, will attempt to focus on the demonstration part of the chain, if you like, in between research to full deployment. My only question about that would be the extent to which there are appropriate organisations, either in the public or private sector, that could actually receive that money and effectively use it for either small scale or large scale demonstration; whether actually the capacity in Britain is there to absorb that hundred million pounds funding stream.
  (Mr Scott) If that is seen to be the main UK investment in energy related R, D & D and it is concentrating mainly on the latter D, demonstration, that would seem not to compensate for the comparative lack with our international competitors that I have just spoken about.

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