Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

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, irreversible?

  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 properly.

  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 power—not necessarily in big barrage things but also the lagoons and the mills and the wave power machines, and so on—and, 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 turbines—incidentally, 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 process.

  Q127 Mrs Clark: Do you actually think that the majority of people outside, the public—people who are not in the Palace of Westminster and in this Committee and having this discussion—understand 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 of us.

  Q129 Mrs Clark: Are we not all passing the buck?

  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 base—the 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 article—it was a very long article—in 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 happening—there is a global consensus on that—but 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 it".

  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 Petroleum".

  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 example?

  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.

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