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
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
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,
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 peopleand I think politicians
always have lay people in mind when they are preparing their policiesthink
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 currentour 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 oneand
perhaps the easiest to understandis 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 clathratesthese methane deposits at the bottom
of the seathat 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 meltthe 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 yearswe 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
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
itdo 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 secondthe
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
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 worldand the Chinese were talking
to us about it yesterdayis 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
isas 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 energyboth, 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.