Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)|
30 MARCH 2004
Q120 Mr Challen: Is there any point at
which climate change, do you think, is going to become irreversible?
If that is the case, how far off are we? Is it already, really,
Professor Sir David King: It is
already irreversible. Once you have got carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere, again, the inertia of the system is such that it will
stay up there. If we were to stop producing carbon dioxide net
emissions worldwide, the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere
would not go down for many hundreds of years. So once it is up
there it is very difficult to pull it down again.
Q121 Mr Challen: So, really, we should
be doing a lot more than we already are. You might say that we
are the leaders of the pack in Europe but even that is not enough.
Would it not be better if we reacted, perhaps, as Roosevelt did?
Professor Brown has written a book called Plan B (I do
not know if you have come across it) referring to the way Roosevelt
responded after Pearl Harbour, transforming the American economy
to deal with a very clear threat, and that was achieved in 12
months. Why are we not doing that kind of thing ourselves if we
are now facing an irreversible threat?
Professor Sir David King: I think
your point is a good one, but it does require us to take the rest
of the world with us. The UK, producing 2-3% of the world's carbon
dioxide, is a mere small player in the whole carbon dioxide emissions
scenario. What is critically important is that we take all the
players on to the stage with us.
Q122 Mr Challen: We cannot wait for the
slowest person to get on to the boat. So we are all holding ourselves
back because, on the other hand, businesses will say that we are
making ourselves uncompetitive, and that I think has a more powerful
voice in government than what we are talking about this morning.
I do not know if you would agree with that statement.
Professor Sir David King: I think
the analysis that Claire's group produced was to indicate that
actually the financial disadvantage to the UK was likely to be
relatively small. Of course, what we have to build on is the financial
advantage of being first on the stage, which is that we do the
RD&D that is required to get us there. We are not quite first;
the Danes got there first and they are busy selling wind turbines
around the world. I believe their turnover is about £2 billion
a year. However, if we look, for example, at tidal and wave energy,
I think we are world leaders already in that area, and there is
plenty of tidal energy around.
Q123 Chairman: Before we congratulate
ourselves too enthusiastically
Professor Sir David King: I did
not mean to be.
Q124 Chairman: it is worth remembering
that CO2 emissions in the UK went up by 3% last year. So we are
not doing that brilliantly.
Professor Sir David King: As we
move forward, I do not think any of us felt that we would be on
a straight line down in carbon dioxide emissions. It is likely
to be a very bumpy ride. Certainly the fact of emissions going
up last year is not a good omen, but at the same time we are really
in the first year of a process; it is only after the next five
to ten years that we are really going to be able to see the outcomes
Q125 Chairman: Are you confident that
we will hit a downward trend?
Professor Sir David King: We will
get a downward trend; we have already seen the downward trend.
If we go back to 1990, which is the Kyoto starting point, we are
12% down on greenhouse gases. We have already achieved our Kyoto
objectives. As it gets further down the road it is going to get
tougher. It is a very challenging scenario we have set ourselves.
Q126 Paul Flynn: You mentioned tidal
power. Speaking from a constituency with the second-highest rise
and fall in tide in the world in the Bristol Channel, it does
seem to me we have neglected these renewables when there is enormous
capacity for a whole range of ways of exploiting tidal powernot
necessarily in big barrage things but also the lagoons and the
mills and the wave power machines, and so onand, also,
eventually getting pulses of electricity around the coast at different
times which will form a base load of electricity. This tidal power
does not figure even now, as far as I can see, in the Government's
planning. Do you think this is an area where there is a great
deal more that could be done?
Professor Sir David King: We are
doing as much as I think we could do at this early stage of tidal
power development. There are three or four companies which have
now spun out of the various research activities and are into demonstration
phases. You mentioned the barrages, which we all saw models of
before. Wind turbines are coming in for a lot of criticism because
of what they are doing to the environment, but the tidal barrages
came in for the same sort of criticism. The latest developments
are all under water so you do not see a thing. These are all turbines
that are placed under water with all of the power being driven
on land beside the river- or the waterbed. The main advantage
of tidal is not only the enormous amount of energy carried up
and down the Bristol Channel, for example, every day, but the
moon is rather reliable, so we know exactly how much energy we
are going to get in a given 24-hour period from each of these
turbines. With wind energy, Chairman, it is not quite so reliable,
it is intermittent. So tidal is a very, very important source
of energy. The problem is we are still in the early phase of development,
but it would be very good if we could see tidal turbinesincidentally,
the most interesting of tidal turbines with no moving parts under
water, just big funnels that narrow down and produce a large stream
of water which drives the turbine above the ground with, therefore,
low maintenance costs. I think there are a lot of exciting things
happening. For example, the Canadian Government Minister of Science
came to discuss our developments in relation to their potential
use of tidal energy. It may be five or ten years before we see
the first commercial turbines. It is going to be a long development
Q127 Mrs Clark: Do you actually think
that the majority of people outside, the publicpeople who
are not in the Palace of Westminster and in this Committee and
having this discussionunderstand or even believe the likely
impact of climate change? I would contend that to them it is just
a phrase. I have been in here for seven years and I have never
had it mentioned by a single constituent, and not even Friends
of the Earth in the constituency have mentioned it.
Professor Sir David King: What
you have mentioned there is the biggest challenge in relation
to the climate change issue. Because it is happening on a rapid
geological scale but a very slow scale in terms of our lifetime,
we all adapt year-on-year to the effects and so it is not a major
effect. If you contrast, for example, CFCs and the depletion of
the ozone layer, there was an immediate understanding of the potential
severity of the problem, and the solution was also very clear.
In this case we have politically a much more difficult problem.
Q128 Mrs Clark: Whose responsibility
actually is it? Is it the Government's, individual Members of
Parliament, science, the media?
Professor Sir David King: All
Q129 Mrs Clark: Are we not all passing
Professor Sir David King: I suppose
the weight of the responsibility lies on my shoulders.
Q130 Mrs Clark: So it is all down to
the Government, in that case.
Professor Sir David King: If I
may say so, Mrs Clark, it is yours as well.
Q131 Mrs Clark: Would you like to develop
your own role in promoting understanding for us?
Professor Sir David King: I have
a wonderful job in government, but it does cover all aspects of
science, engineering, medicine and technology in all government
departments and, in addition, the science and engineering basethe
research council funding. As much as I would like to take this
on, I would need to be cloned in order to put the amount of effort
into it that I think is required. At the same time
Q132 Mrs Clark: Surely you have got to
move out from the realms of, perhaps, rather obscure lectures
and scientific journals, which the vast majority of people never
see. I certainly do not see them.
Professor Sir David King: Of course
you do not.
Q133 Chairman: Of course, it is not helped
by the fact that quite a number of national newspaper editors
do not believe it is happening at all. Whilst there is an opportunity
for confusion, people will always take the easy course and treat
the confusion amongst scientists as an opportunity to do nothing.
Professor Sir David King: Chairman,
I was stunned by the response of the Daily Mail to my article
in Science, where they had a two or three-page articleit
was a very long articlein which they questioned my integrity
and my ability to understand the science but, above all, stated
that carbon dioxide is such a small constituent of our atmosphere
how could it possibly have this effect on climate? That was very
difficult to take.
Q134 Mrs Clark: Do you not also think
that the general public are very, very turned off by constant
messages of doom and gloom and soothsaying? How do we combat that?
Professor Sir David King: My own
response to that is that I am not a doom-and-gloom person. I think
this is an issue where the science is clearly telling us what
is happeningthere is a global consensus on thatbut
it is also very clearly telling us what we need to do to combat
the problem. So let us be optimistic about it.
Q135 Mrs Clark: So it is a balance then?
Professor Sir David King: Yes.
To say "Yes, there is a threat but we know what to do about
Q136 Mrs Clark: How consistent is the
world of science on these issues? Is everybody speaking with one
voice and singing from the same hymn sheet on climate change across
the world? Are some countries and regions feeling that their interests
are being damaged?
Professor Sir David King: It is
very interesting that, for example, John Browne, the chief executive
of BP Amoco clearly recognises climate change as the big issue
that it is, and has announced that BP now stands for "Beyond
Q137 Mrs Clark: So everybody is being
consistent, you would say?
Professor Sir David King: BP is
now one of the biggest solar energy producers in the world. So
they are moving ahead on this. I mention BP Amoco because not
all oil companies are singing from the same hymn sheet.
Q138 Mrs Clark: What about Shell, for
Professor Sir David King: Shell
has just set up Shell Hydrogen; they are fully on board, but there
is an American based company which is, I think, paying consultants
to question the science.
Q139 Chairman: This is Exxon, is it?
Professor Sir David King: Yes.