Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)

30 MARCH 2004


  Q140 Mrs Clark: How counterproductive do you think that is?

  Professor Sir David King: I think the scientists, in response to those consultants, in the United States have been making their voice heard much more clearly. Also, Chairman, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced a Synthesis Report in 2001[1]which is the best current statement on the state of play of the science of climate change, and that really does represent 1,000 scientists. I think the world community of scientists has converged totally. The international inter-academies (that is the Royal Society in our case, the American academies and so on), which is the representative body of all the academies around the world, came out with a very clear statement about climate change to try and overcome those few lone voices who are saying it is not a problem.

  Q141 Chairman: Just coming back to your own role, if I may, you appear to duck—for reasons of workload, which may be perfectly understandable—taking personal responsibility for selling the message to the public, although it is one of the responsibilities of the Office of Science and Technology to improve engagement between science and the rest of society. It is one of your core duties, in fact. If you are not going to do it, who is? I hesitate to make the suggestion but do we need a climate change tsar?

  Professor Sir David King: Thank you for your question because I have clearly misled you by my previous answer. I do take the responsibility myself, and the Office of Science and Technology has now formed a Science in Society Directorate. This is a new directorate and part of the function of the directorate is to get this message across but, also, messages on the importance of science and technology to modern society generally. We have a problem in relation to younger people coming through our school system into university degrees, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, where the need is greatest, and we have problems where not only the Daily Mail questions how important science is for our future development. So the Science in Society Directorate is critically important, we feel. We also have reformed the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology, which I now chair with a co-chairman. That council is going to play a very important role along the same direction.

  Q142 Mr Challen: Are there any national science academies that are not fully on board, in respect of what you said to the previous question?

  Professor Sir David King: The only academies that did not sign up to the original inter-academy statement were the American academies, but they subsequently came up with their own statement which fully backed the Synthesis Report of the IPCC. So the answer is no, at this time there are none.

  Q143 Sue Doughty: As a Committee we have spent quite a lot of time looking at the aviation industry and the environmental impact of the aviation industry. When we have been looking at that, radiative forcing has been one of the key issues we have had to look at. Now the industry is saying that the science underpinning this is complex, and it is insufficiently understood and we should not base policies on it. We have got this problem here between the precautionary principles and the Government's insistence on evidence-based policies. How do we resolve this conflict? You were talking before about not doing unnecessary experiments, yet we have got this problem writ large in our skies.

  Professor Sir David King: The issue of aviation, I think, is a very important one. Of course it is complicated but I think you are right; I do not think because an issue is complicated we should avoid the consequences. Aviation around the world is a continually growing industry. Aviation depends critically on fossil fuel burning, so without going into the details we can see that there is a net negative effect in terms of global warming. There are complex factors arising from water vapour production at different levels. If we just look at carbon dioxide emission, that in itself is a major contributory factor to our net emissions problem. When we look at the Synthesis Report of the IPCC (since I have mentioned that) that does refer to the importance of the aviation industry in the global picture of emissions. Once again, I think, Chairman, we are talking about a complex issue because no single country can resolve this problem. For example, if an aviation fuel tax were introduced in one country 'planes would simply fly off to another to fill up. So it is another complex international issue. I am afraid as soon as I see a complex international issue we are against buffers and longer timescales.

  Ms Durkin: If I might just add—though I do not want to pretend that anything I say will remotely be a panacea for everything that Sir David has said—we are attempting to explore the technologies in aviation as well as in all other transports in the DTI by brigading our aerospace research with our other environmental research, so that there is a concentration on cleaner aviation technologies. We are hoping, in that way, to solve some of the problems suggested in terms of businesses and how businesses react by trying to exploit the innovation opportunities nationally and internationally. So I hope we can make small pieces of progress.

  Sue Doughty: I am rather worried about the whole direction of this. We have got this problem that we have had a lot of opposition from the aviation industry in accepting the size of the problem, and all our discussions previously in this Committee today have been about: do we believe there is a problem, and if we do believe it should we not be taking more radical steps? I understand what you are saying about technological solutions and, also, the problems about imposing a solution that covers boundaries, where we have got a problem, but in some ways I am still worried that the Government may be placing over-reliance on technological solutions when, in fact, the aviation industry seems not to want to accept the gravity of the risk which it, in itself, is posing.

  Q144 Chairman: That sounds like a "yes".

  Professor Sir David King: I think that was a nod in agreement. It is, perhaps, not unusual that the industry itself would like to continue in a relatively unregulated fashion.

  Q145 Sue Doughty: It would, but is not the growth of aviation simply unsustainable, in what is happening in climate change terms?

  Professor Sir David King: I think it is an issue of enormous concern, in terms of climate change, yes.

  Q146 Chairman: Before you move on, this reliance on technological innovation seems to be a bit threadbare as well. We have had evidence to suggest that there is not much technological innovation going on, at the moment, which is actually going to have a meaningful impact on reducing the impact of aviation on the environment. Is it not a bit of a red herring?

  Professor Sir David King: I think you are quite right to raise this. The issue of, for example, surface transport—cars—is already a very live technological issue with the potential of hydrogen fuel cells taking over from petrol-driven engines. I think it is a very real potential and I think we can say that in 10 or 15 years' time we will see massive penetration in the market. When it comes to aviation, you have a much more difficult problem. Quite simply, the power thrust required is considerably greater. Chairman, we are talking rocket science here, and rockets are often driven by non-fossil fuel engines. So there are alternatives available but they are technologically more challenging. This is not to say that it is not a science and technology agenda—it is.

  Q147 Chairman: I just worry that politicians talk around the precautionary principle, and it sounds very comforting. We hear a lot from the Department for Transport about how they have built balance into the way they are approaching aviation when, quite plainly, they have not. I was wondering if you could think of a single example of the use of the precautionary principle which has not been based on evidence—that is genuinely based on taking a precautionary view about something which may happen?

  Professor Sir David King: I suppose my one example may lead me into a collision with this Committee and that would be the approach the Government has taken on GM maize.

  Q148 Chairman: I am tempted to say "Let's not go there"! This is far too stimulating already.

  Professor Sir David King: I believe that that is a very good example of the precautionary approach in practice, and follows very, very precisely the detailed evidence that the Science Review Panel took, which I chaired with 26 scientists on board, and I chaired it over a period of approximately 50 hours. It is the most detailed review of the science addressing all of the questions raised by the public on that issue. Our advice was followed to the letter on that issue.

  Chairman: If we go much further down this route we will part company very rapidly.

  Q149 Sue Doughty: You were talking a moment ago about the increasing use of hydrogen-based technologies, and this is very exciting. However, there was an article last year in The New Scientist which suggested that hydrogen itself posed a threat in terms of global warming. How seriously do you take this risk?

  Professor Sir David King: What is, I think, referred to here is that the hydrogen economy may rely on fossil fuels for the derivation of hydrogen. It seems to me that that is to miss the whole point of the hydrogen fuel economy. What we need and what we are promoting is research into hydrogen production with no fossil fuel involved. Hydrogen storage and hydrogen transport are the key factors in addition to research into the development of the fuel cell, with lower platinum loading so as to reduce its cost. If it is referring to the use of hydrogen fuel cells in aviation, it is referring to the fact that water vapour itself is a greenhouse gas, and if we eject a lot of water vapour we may raise the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. I believe that is incorrect; the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is determined by average sea temperatures. It is an equation called the Clauisius-Clapeyron equation that determines water vapour pressure, and I do not believe that this would have much penetration. We need to look at the hydro-generation processes that avoid the use of fossil fuels to make that economy work.

  Q150 Sue Doughty: Going on to the water vapour issue (just because I am not a scientist I would like to have it clear in my mind), we have been looking at your Zuckerman lecture and you referred to the environmental benefits of hydrogen fuel, but you added this caveat: "Provided that atmospheric water vapour pressure is unaffected". So, with that caveat, were there particular concerns when you actually made that statement?

  Professor Sir David King: I have just dealt with that question.

  Q151 Sue Doughty: Moving on, you have also touched on carbon sequestration as an area which needs research. Would you like to expand on what the possibilities are for carbon sequestration, and are there any associated risks?

  Professor Sir David King: There is a massive drive for producing good sequestration technologies precisely because this is the way in which we can keep coal burning going as a source of energy and, at the same time, deal with the environmental problems. However, at this point in time the technology has not been developed and I certainly would not put my eggs in that basket alone. In other words, I think it is worth investing in sequestration technologies but I would not wish to raise hopes that this is going to produce results; it is an open-ended investigation. We can economically use carbon dioxide sequestration in oil wells that have become depleted—so there is a nice irony here that to improve the production of oil we can pump carbon dioxide into those wells. The value of the oil offsets the cost of the sequestration process. Whether we can seal the carbon dioxide into those wells is something that has yet to be tested, and that is one of the issues that I am referring to. A much more satisfactory sequestration process would be a cheap way of converting the carbon dioxide into solid materials such as calcium carbonate. These are technologies that have still to be developed.

  Ms Durkin: It is, nevertheless, very important as we predict energy progressing up to 2050, particularly looking at China, and some of the other very big coal-producers. China is actively engaged jointly with us and other European communities in looking at carbon sequestration to see if that is one effective way of then multiplying the use of coal but effectively reducing CO2. They were talking yesterday at the seminar of 2015, 2020, 2025 in terms of the time scale, certainly in DTI we are progressing as modestly as we are allowed but actively because of the impact it has globally.

  Q152 Sue Doughty: That was very interesting. One of the reasons I am saying that is I think several of the answers we have had are all happier tomorrows but we have this problem here today. You went on about nuclear fusion at some length in the Zuckerman lecture and made some very interesting points, which I will not read out at length, the whole issue about nuclear fusion is going to take some time, and although it is going to have an attractive number of points it is going to take some time while you are looking at replacing some of the nuclear efficient plants with more modern technology. Do you think that is going to help with the Energy White Paper certificate-only solution we have within the context of energy products in the shorter term rather than the longer term, given that we are still waiting for some of the technology, for example tide technology and nuclear fusion?

  Professor Sir David King: I think our agenda is the right answer. If I can give a very general answer to your question and then Claire may come in as well. I chair a high level R&D Energy Committee, by high level I mean I bring together all of the publicly funded bodies involved in that area. I think it is a very important aspect of our work that we are working on future technologies which can be put into the market place. We are not saying we know which of these technologies will come through and deliver but we have to deliver a broad based menu so that we can approach the problem and perhaps one or two of these technologies, or more or them, will begin to deliver at different periods of time, over the next five, ten to 35 years, for example going on to fusion. My own belief is that it is quite right we develop this very broad based approach. Trying to second-guess which technologies are going to be the winners in the market place of the future is a very difficult game to play and probably wrong. I apologise for defocusing your question but I do think there is a very strong defence of investment in research and development across the broad base of potential technologies, fusion is one of them, and given we are talking about a long-term issue of carbon dioxide emissions 35 years on that time scale is not hopeless but we need to start now.

  Q153 Sue Doughty: Thank you. This is a thing which is not unwelcome to our Committee to hear because it is a criticism we have regularly made of Government about backing winners. If you are saying, "let us identify more about possibilities" that is very good news. The good news about fusion is the opportunities are there but it is going to take a while and we have a consortium there. Is there any way we can bring that forward by throwing more resources at the problem, would it then bring that information forward for us or is it all going to take time for other reasons?

  Professor Sir David King: There are ways of shortening that time scale. The best way to shorten it is to put more money into the programme. The European Union asked me to chair a committee a couple of years ago looking at the future of the fusion programme and my report is often called "fast-track to power stations", because that is what we really focused on, how do we bring the time scale down now between where we are now in fusion research and the fusion power station. That fast-track report has been accepted in the European Union and gathered momentum in other countries, which is why we now have six partners in the international programme, including China, Korea and the United States coming in to join the original partners of the European Union, Japan and Russia. How we can shorten it is to investigate not only the fusioning process—the Joint European Torus (JET) is the world leader in that process—we also need to develop the materials which will sustain the power station over a 20 year lifetime. I am proposing that we need to put the money in now to begin developing and testing those materials that will be used when the final power stations are developed. If we do these things in series it will take considerably longer but if we can do them in parallel it would be better. This is currently under discussion in the international programme.

  Q154 Sue Doughty: How optimistic are you about making that case so that they get on and start to do parallel research?

  Professor Sir David King: My ambition is that this programme to produce fusion power should be seen rather like the programme of landing a man on the moon was seen in the United States. I would like it to capture the international imagination as a key way forward to dealing with our energy requirements and at the same time in a sustainable environment. If we could achieve that then I think we could get on with this programme considerably more quickly. Are we likely to? I do feel optimistic but for pessimistic reasons. I think the effects of climate change are going to come through to populations round the world and are already in some areas. As that impact grows I think the need for change will come. In 1953 in London we had a terrible smog, scientists understood the cause of the smog before that happened but it took roughly 10,000 premature fatalities in London in that smog period for government action to be taken to stop coal fires, it was incomplete combustion of carbon that was leading to that. We stopped but it took a massive disaster to do that. I am rather hoping we do not have to go through that process to invest in fusion power.

  Q155 Sue Doughty: You were talking about lots of exciting technologies to start addressing this issue of climate change or slowing it down, as I was saying sometimes technology can work out unexpectedly as well, and we are still learning about the environmental impact. Would it be a precautionary principle that we should start looking at our behaviour as well as putting our hope in these technologies?

  Professor Sir David King: Your question is a very important one, we have been focusing on hard science, physical sciences in particular in this discussion today but extending out to our understanding of social and economic science is critically important in actually bringing these things through. What I have been very keen on in my time as Chief Scientific Adviser is not to draw too close a circle round what we mean by science. We have to extend out and understand society. When I came here I came from our latest foresight programme on brain science drugs and addiction and we are bringing together in that programme the scientists who understand at a molecular level how drugs currently work in the brain with social scientists and economists to see if we can bring forward advice for governmental action. I think it is absolutely important that we take that on board.

  Sue Doughty: Thank you very much for that.

  Q156 Chairman: Can I come back to something you said which was the reference to the 1953 smog, you seem to be implying it will take a disaster for much of what we have been talking about today to be considered seriously by politicians and by those who fund government programmes. It is very familiar to all of us because we know that you cannot get a road safety measure in until there is a body count, it is no good saying, "it is a dangerous road let us put in a barrier up" in the absence of any evidence of it causing fatalities. It goes back to the point I was trying to get to earlier about whether we ever really act on the precautionary principle or wait for the disaster to happen and then try to make good later on. You seem to be implying we are going to approach the whole issue of climate change in the latter way.

  Professor Sir David King: The first person to understand what is currently happening to our climate was Arrhenius, he was picking up on the French mathematician Fourier—Fourier was the person who understood the greenhouse effect first, 1827—and Arrhenius, the Swedish theoretical chemist in 1896 said, "if our carbon dioxide levels were to grow because of our propensity to burn fossil fuel the temperature would rise", and he calculated doubling the carbon dioxide level which would lead to a five degree centigrade temperature rise round the globe. It was a brilliant piece of work. We have understood this process for a very long time and getting the message through, past all the resistance we have referred, for example from oil companies, is tough going. I am afraid, Chairman, that we are being realistic when we say, yes, it does seem to require disasters for it to be brought to people's attention. Am I going too far?

  Ms Durkin: I wonder if I might offer an example of where at least it is a question of stepping in to opportunities: our change in energy portfolio is fairly dramatic and we cannot ignore that and therefore because we cannot ignore it and because we are moving from the happy position of net exporter to the fairly uncomfortable position of net importer we have to do something. It was in those circumstances the Government produced the first ever White Paper on Energy, so rather than facing disaster at least it was exploiting opportunities.

  Q157 Chairman: It is very interesting that you should raise the question of the Energy White Paper in this context. It would appear, Sir David, that you have issued implied criticisms of some recommendations in the Zuckerman lecture. You said, "it is very difficult to see how we can continue to reduce fossil fuel consumption if we do not replace our ageing nuclear power stations, we are talking about efficient plants with more modern plants now available". That is not a recommendation in the White Paper.

  Professor Sir David King: Let me say at once, I contributed quite considerably to that White Paper, you might even find some of material reflects the Zuckerman lecture that you are quoting from. I take some pride in the contribution I made to the White Paper. At the same time, to deal with your very specific point, I think it is quite right that we should be focusing at this point in time on energy efficiency gains which are a win, win and on renewable development. At the same time in the White Paper I believe there is a critically important statement which refers to keeping the nuclear option open. I think we must actively keep the nuclear option open so that when we evaluate how we are proceeding in achieving our 60% reduction by 2050 target at any point in time that is still an option that will be available to us.

  Q158 Chairman: You do understand that actively keeping options open—whatever that may mean—is a deterrent to the investment in the alternative type of technologies we are seeking to encourage. Nuclear is always lurking, and it is a factor in the decisions that are being taken about investment and it is going to be an impediment towards investing in new technologies.

  Professor Sir David King: I think you are appearing to criticise what I think was the wisdom of the White Paper words and I would defend them. I think faced with the size of the environmental problem I have described to you it would be wholly wrong to simply say, "we are going to cast aside a potential means of providing energy without adding carbon dioxide, even though we understand the problems associated with radio-active waste production from that source". I simply think it would have been irresponsible. May I just refer to one fact, something like 70% of our energy resource goes into the built environment. The way in which we construct new buildings is a massive means of reducing energy usage. That must be a more important programme at the moment than many of the others we might think of.

  Q159 Chairman: I think the Committee would agree strongly with you on that. Just so that we are absolutely clear, you were not saying in the Zuckerman lecture that you do not see any alternative to investing in a new generation of nuclear power stations?

  Professor Sir David King: If we move forward in time, at the moment we have something like 27% of our energy on the grid from nuclear power; 24% from our own power stations and 3% we import from France. As we move ahead if we close down nuclear power stations as they go out of commission we will reach a point round 2020 where this figure has dropped to 7%. That is a big gap and it makes the renewable and energy efficiency targets very, very tough to meet. It was that gap I was referring to in that article.

1   Details of IPCC Publications available at Back

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