Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)

30 MARCH 2004


  Q100 Chairman: Did you experience it as well as read about it?

  Professor Sir David King: You will not be surprised to know that I am sometimes amazed at how the media report things as compared with how I actually experience them. For example, my trip to the United States was arranged through the Government, through the Foreign Office, through the Embassy in Washington more than one year in advance of that trip. The preparation included my article in Science, which is the official magazine of the AAAS (American Association of the Advancement of Science). That was a trailer to my presentation, and whole thing was deliberate and planned from the centre. I thought that we had a good plan in operation. I gave media briefings and I was quoted quite widely in the American press verbatim on what I said at those briefings. So to say that I was gagged is a misunderstanding. However, there was a leak of a particular document. I have to say my response to that is that everyone in my position, or minister in government, receives a briefing and advice on every appearance, such as I have for this appearance. I take it as useful back-up information to go through, but at the same time no more; it is not instructions but very useful to have professional advice, for example, from press offices.

  Q101 Chairman: You were not discouraged from doing any interviews?

  Professor Sir David King: In terms of the strategy of getting our message across, there was a clear piece of advice about whom I should speak to, in terms of the media. My focus was on the American media.

  Q102 Chairman: I heard reports, for example, that the National Environmental Trust of America tried to get you to do some interviews and was told by government officials that you were not available.

  Professor Sir David King: That really is the first I have heard of that. I find it very difficult to understand, in view of what I have just said. I gave three media briefings in Seattle and I took a team of UK and American scientists with me on that trip. One of the media reports was that not since the Beatles have the British had such an invasion of the United States. That was the headline on one of the newspaper reports. So to suggest that we were dong this under cover is rather contrary to what actually happened.

  Q103 Chairman: Do you accept there may be a conflict between diplomacy, on the one hand, and driving home the very important powerful message that you had for the American Government?

  Professor Sir David King: I do accept that. If we are working to achieve an aim, whether this is done in the public domain or not in the public domain is a critical question of strategy. Yes, your point is a very good one.

  Q104 Chairman: Do you think in order to drive the message home, because it does not appear that the American Administration have quite bought it, that you will be going to America again and using further media opportunities to spread the word?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes, I am going to America again to discuss issues with the American Government and since January have been back. I understand the thrust of your question, and in response I would say that my meetings did not indicate from the American Government side that the comments I had made had deterred them in their discussions. I would say far from it; the understanding of the importance of this issue is developing in the United States.

  Q105 Chairman: So you think your visit there was a success; that you made some progress in converting hearts and minds?

  Professor Sir David King: The presentation in Seattle was rather a surprise to me in the sense that it was made in one of these political arenas that they have in the United States. There must have been more than 1,000 seats in the congress hall, every seat was full and I was given an ovation at the end. I was speaking to movers and shakers in the United States, so the effort to trail what I was doing paid off, I think, very handsomely.

  Q106 Mr Challen: Is that because, perhaps, they wanted to hear from you, an official representative of our government, something they are not hearing from their own government?

  Professor Sir David King: I did not take the applause as a personal accolade to myself, so your question is quite right. I think it was an accolade for the British Government in taking a leading role in dealing with climate change. The fact that I was able to announce that the British Government is intent on reducing CO2 emissions by 60% by 2050 and that we are not waiting for other countries to come with us, we are moving ahead on that programme, I think went down well. Interestingly, American comment from the scientific and technological community was "We mustn't let Britain get ahead on this game", meaning that if we start carbon trading we are going to get ahead on that and economic benefits will flow to us. If we start reducing emissions then carbon trading will necessarily benefit us but, also, the technologies that will emerge from our R&D programme.

  Q107 Mr Challen: Was that a reaction from fellow scientists and environmentalists, perhaps, in that audience, or were there Administration officials who also felt that way? There seems to be plenty of evidence to the contrary; if you look at Dick Cheney's Energy Taskforce they seem to be unwilling to contemplate following our lead.

  Professor Sir David King: Yes, and there are two forces at work, pulling in opposite directions, I believe. If we look at the Department of Energy in the United States they now have an enormous budget to work on their hydrogen economy and to work on carbon dioxide sequestration. The research budget to develop the technologies that are required is in place, and if, for example, the Department of Energy was then given an instruction from the top to join the British, I think they would have everything in place to do it.

  Q108 Chairman: It is a question of political will, is it not?

  Professor Sir David King: Absolutely.

  Q109 Chairman: Do you, having had some success in persuading the Americans of the seriousness of the threat, believe that the British Government has fully seized and has the political will to take what may be very difficult decisions in order to address the problem?

  Professor Sir David King: I am quite sure of that, yes.

  Q110 Chairman: I only ask because when I asked the Prime Minister about your Science article at the Liaison Select Committee back in February he did not seem entirely on top of it.

  Professor Sir David King: That comment rather surprises me, Chairman. I am not questioning your observation but, nevertheless, when I took this job I very quickly made it clear to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet that I saw this as the biggest issue facing us and, on the question of research and development in energy, I very quickly set up a working group to report back to the Government on the state of energy research in the UK and what was required, and the Prime Minister was fully aware of all of my thinking and programming on that.

  Chairman: We will come on in a minute to the extent to which we are either meeting or failing to meet some of the targets which have been set.

  Q111 Mr Challen: The latest IPCC research has suggested that the impact of climate change might actually be worse than previously thought. Has there been more recent research in terms of that?

  Professor Sir David King: What I was asked by the Chairman was: "What is the scientific consensus on the issue of global warming and its relationship to anthropogenic effects?" There is an enormous effort still to understand in detail the earth's climate system. We need to understand it so that we can project forward with greater certainty than we can now so that we can prepare for the irreversible effects that are in place already. Adapting to the effects of climate change is going to be crucial as we move ahead. I do think that considerably more research effort is gong to be required to achieve that. Britain is in the lead in that process. The Hadley Centre and the Tyndall Centre together form a very powerful combination and the Americans, for example, at the Kennedy Centre (their leading centre), would acknowledge that our two centres are in the lead. I managed to sign an agreement with the Japanese that our Hadley Centre could work on the Earth Simulator, which is the world's biggest computer set up by the Japanese, and so we are moving to climate change modelling which is currently on a 275 x 275 kilometre pixel scale to a much smaller scale, bringing it down to 70 x 70, so that we can begin to make predictions on a local level to give governments of different countries advice on how best to act. Have I fully answered your question?

  Q112 Mr Challen: Let us see if we can take it a bit further. Most lay people—and I think politicians always have lay people in mind when they are preparing their policies—think that climate change will be a gradual process, with a very long and shallow curve upwards. However, recent articles and reports have suggested that this might not be the case; there could be some very steep trajectories, if you like, with, perhaps, methane hydrates being released into the atmosphere, which have a far greater warming effect than carbon. How much effort is being made to look at those kinds of things and communicate the message to politicians, to governments, that that is a real threat?

  Professor Sir David King: This was one of the issues that we raised on my trip to the States in January. What we know is that there are a number of effects that I will describe as non-linear, if I may, with large feedbacks going in the wrong direction. One such effect is that the melting of ice which contains no salt and the effect of melting the ice on the Polar caps (and, for example, the South Pole is now 40% as thick as it used to be, so we are losing a lot of that ice) is that fresh water going into the saline water around it could affect the thermohaline current—our Gulf Stream. If it turned off the Gulf Stream we would paradoxically go into a mini-Ice Age in Europe, so our temperatures would drop by around 5 to 10oC. That is an effect that could happen quite suddenly. These non-linear feedback terms, instead of just allowing a curve to continue on an exponential growth (which is what our predictions are now), will suddenly lead to a rapid change. The Indian monsoon is another effect which could quite suddenly be switched off. So we are faced with sudden climate change events. We do not know, though, theoretically, how to handle the predictions on these; they are extremely complex calculations and the modelling of them is very complicated. What I would say is it is best not to test the system. For example, we feel that if we could keep our carbon dioxide levels at or below 500 parts per million it is unlikely that we will go quickly into these sudden events, but they are real. Another one—and perhaps the easiest to understand—is the loss of the tropical forests. There could be a point, and it is quite likely, where temperatures rise too much for the forest to continue to survive, so they go from being net absorbers of carbon dioxide to net emitters as the wood decomposes. So this, of course, would give a very sharp take-off to carbon dioxide levels. There has been much discussion about what happened 55 million years ago, and it is now relevant for us to understand that. There are two theses: one is that it was methane clathrates—these methane deposits at the bottom of the sea—that were heated up by the initial warming of the sea through climate change which suddenly bubbled up and gave rise to this hottest period in the globe's history back 200 million years, or it could have been the slow burning of peat forests around the globe, the simple burning of woody material, that produced masses of carbon dioxide. That second event is what we are in danger of reproducing now.

  Q113 Chairman: When you use words like "sudden" and "rapid" in this context, what do you mean? Are we talking decades, centuries?

  Professor Sir David King: Of course, in geological time centuries is quite sudden, so when we talk about temperatures rising to the point where the Greenland ice sheet will melt—the Greenland ice sheet has a large heat capacity which means that the process has a lot of inertia in it, so it will take some time. The ice on the Antarctic landmass is considerably bigger and would probably take about 1,000 years. The ice on the Greenland ice sheet is a more difficult one; it may take 50 to 200 years—we do not know. If the Greenland ice sheet melted, we are talking about a sea level rise of about 6 to 7 metres, so we would be withdrawing from London. The point is, it is not as if this is going to suddenly happen in 50 years' time; it is all happening now and it is all a process that has already begun.

  Q114 Mr Challen: So it is very difficult to say how soon it might happen, but it could happen suddenly, which is leaving us, perhaps, in a very perplexing situation, not quite knowing how to deal with it.

  Professor Sir David King: If I could interrupt, the best way of dealing with it is avoid testing it—do not go there. So keep carbon dioxide levels down to a reasonable level.

  Q115 Mr Challen: If we are to limit global temperature rise to 2% we obviously are assuming that we are going to reduce our emissions to a certain level. When must global emissions begin to fall in order to achieve that level?

  Professor Sir David King: I think that as time passes our ability to contain the carbon dioxide levels is passing, so this is, at the moment, a moving target. The political necessity for action across the globe on this issue is, I think, the slow point. The technological necessity to produce alternatives to fossil fuel burning is a secondary point. I think the first is probably more difficult than the second—the social and political problem of getting international agreement on such a tough issue.

  Q116 Mr Challen: Do you think we have got the balance right? In most government documents and European Union documents you will hear discussion about sustainable development, trying to get the balance between economic growth and the issues we are talking about this morning. Do you think we have the correct balance in those documents?

  Professor Sir David King: I think that the European Union is absolutely on target. I hope that we hold to the targets. I hope that there is not a weakening at the knees as we move forward. In other words, I think, for example, the critical thing is we go into carbon trading with the European Union next year. Prodi is very keen to see that we do that and I hope he does manage to sustain it. The European Union is ahead of the game. We need to take the United States on board and Australia and Canada, and we need to take China and India in the long term. As a matter of fact, I am in discussions with some members of those governments.

  Q117 David Wright: Sir David, what is your perspective of the view in the developing world on these issues? Clearly there may be governments in the developing world who think we are pulling the ladder up in relation to technology; that we use high-polluting technology to advance our economies over hundreds of years and now we are turning round to the developing world and saying "Actually, guys, you can't join the club".

  Professor Sir David King: I think I would turn your comment on its head, if I may. I was in India two weeks ago and I had a meeting with the Chinese here in London yesterday, and my intention in all those discussions was to say that we need North/South science and technology capacity-building in which we engage in knowledge transfer so that those countries can leapfrog into modern technologies and do not go through the development process that we went through. I think we have to understand that simply preaching to developing countries "you must cut back your emissions" is never going to work; we are simply going to get hackles up and rising, for understandable reasons. The West, as they call us, is responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emissions today; the United States is responsible for one quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, in China their emission per person (if I take the tonnes of carbon dioxide produced in China, divided by the number of people) comes to about 2 tonnes per person; the UK is at about 9 tonnes per person and the United States is 21 tonnes per person. Therefore, you can see some justification in the Chinese saying to me "Why should we tackle the problem?" They themselves yesterday were saying that "However, we recognise we have a multiplier of 1.2 billion times that tonnage per person, and this is a very big number and our economy is growing fast. We need your technologies to leapfrog across." I think this is one issue that is driving this very strongly. Of course, the other issue, across the world—and the Chinese were talking to us about it yesterday—is the issue of security of supply. All countries are looking to gas supplies around the world. All countries recognise that oil supplies are actually finite and we are using them up at a rapid rate. So looking for alternative energy sources is not only driven in these countries by the climate change issue, however important that is, but also because they need energy for their economy to grow. If we can provide alternative energy sources, such as fusion power, then we have a means of going forward. I mention fusion power—

  Chairman: We are coming to this later.

  Q118 Mr Challen: You said in your January article that you were setting up a team to look at how the UK could mitigate its carbon emissions. I wonder if you could give us a progress report on that. In particular, whether you have had a chance to look at the cost to the UK of doing so, and whether indeed in its remit you might be asking it to look at the principle of contraction and convergence to see if that is a workable proposal?

  Professor Sir David King: Can I take the second question first? Contraction and convergence has definite attractions, but there, again, we are talking on a global scale and we are talking about an alternative to the Kyoto process with carbon emission trading. Contraction and convergence is a permit system where you can exchange permits between countries. In essence it is a trading system but it does look at developing countries, so they can be brought on board by allowing them to build up their CO2 emissions while developed countries reduce, but they should peak at a certain level. I can see the attraction in the whole process, but I have to emphasise that the only game signed up to internationally is Kyoto, and until we have those absent from the signatories coming forward and saying "We would rather discuss contraction and convergence", I think we have to work within the Kyoto agreement. That is the process that we are set on.

  Q119 Chairman: If Kyoto does not make progress because of the reluctance of some countries (and we know who they are and where they live) to participate, contraction and convergence must be a viable alternative.

  Professor Sir David King: I think it is a very interesting alternative, but as I say I think the key thing is that if those countries that are not satisfied that Kyoto is the way forward come to us at the negotiating table, I am happy for us to negotiate on that, and I believe our government is—as long as it is not seen to be a delaying tactic, because I think this is a matter of some urgency. The first part of your question I ducked, and this is really why I brought Claire Durkin with me. Would you like to take that?

  Ms Durkin: You asked about the working group on climate change. We have set up, as a consequence of the White Paper, a cross-Whitehall group and a cross-Whitehall ministerial group, and as well as that an advisory group, which is looking the whole agenda of energy within climate change. It is specifically looking at energy—both, from my perspective, renewable energy, from Defra's perspective energy efficiency and, from the transport perspective, in terms of cleaner transport. So we have set up those groups and they are working well. In my experience it is the most effective joined-up working in terms of policy, but there is no question that it is a very long-term agenda and we have got a long way to go.

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