Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



  Q260  Mr Lazarowicz: Turning to the Foresight Project a little more closely, how would you envisage the project will help the UK prepare for the impacts of climate change on flood risk? How do you see the work being taken forward from this project?

  Professor Sir David King: The work is already being taken forward. In these new Foresight programmes I will not take on a programme until the Government minister agrees to be the stakeholder minister and will chair, therefore, a stakeholder group who oversee the work of the Foresight programme. In this case Elliot Morley is the stakeholder Minister and he has familiarised himself with the work of the programme for the last year or so, and even as we reported the final outcomes he was setting up a group of people to take it forward, including the leading scientist who played a key role on our programme. So the Government is already preparing itself to follow through many of the recommendations. We will re-examine that from the Office of Science and Technology in about a year's time, to see what progress has been made.

  Q261  Mr Lazarowicz: How far do you think that the approach which has been adopted in the Foresight Project could be adapted to and inform other aspects of climate change policy as well?

  Professor Sir David King: That is a good question. I would broaden that to other aspects of climate change and many, many different aspects of Government policy. These programmes are quite work intensive and we can only run three or four programmes at a time in the Office of Science and Technology. I think the value of these programmes, which is a means of mining into the scientific knowledge base in the UK, which is very substantial, in order to assist Government in policy making, is very powerful indeed. So the answer is I am sure there are many ways in which we can help.

  Q262  Mr Breed: Under the Foresight Project you indicate that you think it is about 1.6 million people currently at high risk of flooding from river and coastal flooding and that this might be trebled in the next 75 years. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of what the factors are that you think will influence how many people will be at risk from flooding, because if it becomes patently obvious that if you are going to live in a certain area that has flooded for the last three or four years or so, it is going to be pretty unlikely that anybody is going to go there any more, so they will find somewhere else. So how do we get to a situation where three times as many people are going to be at high risk, unless they are a lot of lemmings, really?

  Professor Sir David King: The assumption underlying those risk analyses is if we have a business as usual scenario. In other words, if Government does no more than it is doing


  Q263  Mr Breed: And if people do no more than they are doing now.

  Professor Sir David King: And if people do no more, that is right.

  Q264  Mr Breed: That is unlikely, is it not?

  Professor Sir David King: It is highly unlikely for various reasons. You have stated it but if I could just give you the underlying reasons? The possibility of insuring houses in areas which are going to be flooded once every three years on average is going to be very low indeed. The value of those houses will drop, though, and that makes it attractive to people to buy in. There is a counter issue there. Planning is, I think, an absolute key factor here, so good planning, based on these analyses, must be a risk reduction factor. The whole tone of our document is to say, what does Government need to do to maintain risk levels at roughly where they are today, or even lower?

  Q265  Mr Breed: On that basis then it is worked on really Government or human activity not doing very much; that is what could happen?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes.

  Q266  Mr Breed: That is on a basic simple straight line?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes.

  Q267  Mr Breed: On that basis, then, what areas do you think will be most affected in flooding generally? We talked about coastal and river and such, but only earlier this week—I come from Cornwall—parts of Devon and Cornwall, which are not actually near the coast, have been absolutely inundated with very sharp rain showers—more than showers, absolutely drenched—so even people not living by the coast are being subject to flash floods. Which areas are going to be most affected and how are they perhaps likely to differ from today? In other words, you have talked about the planning and the coast, that we might be able to plan that out, so that is a factor. What other factors, where they are differing over the next 75 years, for people to be in this high-risk situation?

  Professor Sir David King: The biggest risk that we find is really the intra-urban flooding that I referred to earlier—or perhaps it was the Chairman who referred to it—because a flash flood that overwhelms the drainage system of the city is going to cause the most damage because you have the largest density of housing. So the cost and the number of people at risk are highest in those situations. If I could just say that it would be a very long answer to your question to give a long list of all of the measures that we suggest need to be put into place, but one thing is clear from our report, that there is no golden bullet, there is no simple solution; it is not a matter of building another Thames Barrier. We have a whole range of things that we say will have to be put into place.

  Q268  Mr Breed: Do you mean by that places that are currently vulnerable to flooding are actually the most obvious places that are going to soonest become the most likely of high-risk places of flooding? In other words we have clues, clues are already there, and we can actually start to do something because even if there were modestly increased climate differentials these places are really going to be . . .

  Professor Sir David King: What is important here is to describe what we were doing in relation to what Defra does anyway. So Defra has a programme which has been a five-year forward look, spending about half a billion pounds a year, increased from £200 million five years ago, so a substantial increase already, but based on analyses of risks without taking into account climate change. What we have added into that is the global warning.

  Q269  Mr Breed: The sorts of economic losses that you are predicting, there is a massive range, from one billion to 27 billion pounds or such. I suppose it is almost impossible when you are looking at 75 years ahead. I think what you are saying by that is that investment early in this is likely to save significant amounts and that we really have to bite the bullet, as it were, and start to put in some real money, real investment into this area; that half a billion pounds is not even beginning to address some of these things, and Government has to put in a long-term significant programme of real money over a long period of time to create the investment necessary?

  Professor Sir David King: That is absolutely right, but there are really two messages that come out of this. One is investment early is money well spent, which is what you are saying; but the second message is that this range, one billion to 27 billion, depends on global scenarios, it depends particularly on which emission scenario we are on. If we can reduce global emissions to a ceiling level at 450 parts per million, then we would considerably reduce the risk and the cost of meeting the risk. If we go up towards 1,000 parts per million by the end of the century, which a business as usual scenario would take us into, the cost becomes virtually prohibitive. So that is very important.

  Q270  Mr Breed: Going back to what you said before about fusion and everything else, what you are also saying is that, as we normally say, prevention is better than cure, so therefore is it not better to put more money into the investment of alternative forms of energy rather than put investment into trying to tackle the results of existing energy concerns?

  Professor Sir David King: There is a much bigger bang for your bucks in reducing emissions in mitigation then there is in adapting to the change.

  Q271  Chairman: Just refresh my memory, you said 450 parts per million versus a business as usual, or unchanged, 1,000; where are we now?

  Professor Sir David King: We are currently today at 379 parts per million and rising at about two or three parts per million per annum, and the standard warm period level is 260 to 270. The standard ice-age level is 200 to 220. If we now go backwards 420,000 years we cannot find a period when the globe was at the present level of carbon dioxide.

  Q272  Joan Ruddock: I was going to ask a number of things about sewers and flash flooding and all those sorts of jolly items, but I think you have touched on a number of the things that I might have asked. You said in a previous answer that it was not the case of another Thames Barrier. As a London Member, could I ask you just on that specific issue? The GLA told me that the barrier had been raised 19 times in January? This sounds to be a really grave problem and we of course had those amazing scenes in Dulwich recently of tremendous flooding there which occurred very, very suddenly. Can you say something specifically about London? Again, you indicated that there is a range of possible measures; what are the measures you think that we need and why is it not a second Thames Barrier?

  Professor Sir David King: The first thing to say is that the use of the flood barrier is an indication of the influences of global warming. However, we have to be careful to distinguish the uses in anger, that is to prevent flooding—

  Q273  Joan Ruddock: I thought you meant there was a difference of degree.

  Professor Sir David King: . . . from the attempts to see what happens if we store up water. So they have been doing a lot of work in the Thames Barrier, raising the barrier for other reasons than risk reduction. So the figure I gave you of around six or seven times a year is a better indication of how things have got worse; but, remember, it used to be once every five years, so it is a 30-fold increase in use to prevent flooding. One flood, £30 billion worth of damage to London, the damage to the economy considerably greater; we would anticipate flooding the Underground, we would anticipate losing a few power stations. So it would be very, very severe. We are, through the Environment Agency, maintaining the barrier quite well, Chairman. I have not really answered the question fully nor would I be able to in the time. London obviously is a point of focus. The Environment Agency is starting a new study of the Thames Barrier with a view to updating the defences provided by the barrier out to the year 2030. It is my understanding, but we will be waiting to see with interest the results and outcomes of their study, that the barrier is good to 2020. It is a wonderful piece of civil engineering, it is also such an attractive piece of architectural engineering, and it really is a matter of British pride that that barrier has worked without fail on every flood occasion. We can anticipate that small adaptations to the barrier will allow us to extrapolate forward to 2020. There will have to be added flood defences around the barrier over that period of time, but all of this can be done. Extending it beyond that period will take a substantial piece of civil engineering and planning.

  Q274  Joan Ruddock: That is a most interesting answer; 2020 is not far off.

  Professor Sir David King: No.

  Q275  Diana Organ: Can I just ask on that, the time it took between saying yes, we will have the barrier, and the completion of the barrier that we have at present, how long was that?

  Professor Sir David King: The London flood that really stimulated the discussion in Parliament was 1926 or 1927 and the barrier was eventually operating in 1982.

  Q276  Diana Organ: My line of questioning is obvious, when you are saying that something very substantial in the line of civil engineering needs to be added for protection beyond 2020.

  Professor Sir David King: No. I am saying we know we are good to 2020, the Environment Agency looking at what is needed out to 2030. Beyond that at this point in time we cannot say. I am not saying that it is going to collapse in 2030.

  Q277  Diana Organ: No, but that we might need something much more substantial than the present barrier?

  Professor Sir David King: Depending on the scenario, absolutely.

  Q278  Alan Simpson: Can I just come in here? So you are saying that it only took us about half a century to get from an awareness of the problem to a structural solution and now you are saying we have less than 20 years, 15 years' cognitive time to come up with another in place solution?

  Professor Sir David King: Chairman, I am delighted with the way that this questioning is going. I keep being told that politicians only look at a short timescale and the purpose of this exercise was to get across the message that we do have to look out to 2050 to 2080 so as to better prepare ourselves for these events.

  Q279  Chairman: My colleague's questioning is to reflect how easy it is in the world of politics to push everything to the right. Postponement of expenditure at the time that you are talking about is too easy, and it is how do you get the imperatives, which your work suggests, to be acted upon now against a background where, within the short-term, everybody is saying, can the Chancellor sustain his current public expenditure projections? Here you have some good candidates for additional expenditure, so it is opportunity, cost or more money, and it is easy enough to postpone those decisions. I think the message you would say is that you should not be postponing it?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes.

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