Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Professor Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government


  1.  The Committee has stated in its call for evidence that the Inquiry will not be examining the scientific side of climate change, which has clearly been the main focus of my attention as the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser. Defra leads for the Government on the majority of the policy issues raised by the Committee, and will be submitting evidence in a separate Memorandum.

  2.  This Memorandum therefore focuses on those questions where there is a particular science or research aspect.

  3.  Based on the science, the key driver for policy at both UK and EU levels is clear and, not withstanding the often complex nature of climate change science, relatively simple. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity to avoid the worst impacts of climate change that is now inevitable, most notably carbon dioxide as the biggest contributor. There is a need for a step change in energy efficiency and for a radical shift from use of fossil fuels to low carbon energy generation. To achieve these ends, determined action is required at both Member State and EU level, as well as globally.

  4.  Climate change is not just an issue for the longer term, though it is certainly that, but one that requires action now. I therefore welcome that a range of initiatives are being pursued at EU level to complement and to support action by Member States, including the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, negotiations with manufacturers to reduce vehicle emissions, and through support for the research, development and introduction of low carbon technologies.

  5.  For its part, with centres of excellence such as Hadley and Tyndall, the UK is a world leader on climate science. It is vital that we should continue to invest adequately in such research, working closely on this with EU and other partners to improve our understanding of the impacts of climate change and of adaptation options.

  6.  The establishment of a National Energy Research Centre later this year will provide enhanced leadership and cohesion to UK energy research, and will also provide a focus point for wider international engagement.

Q3(a)   How well understood is climate change among the public at large? Do many people know of its current and predicted effects? Do people know of its causes? Do people know what they can do to mitigate the effects of climate change?

  7.  A report published by the Economic and Social Research Council last year[1]provides an insight into these questions. The research explores public understanding of climate change issues (along with issues connected with MMR and cloning/genetic medical research) and the link between public understanding and media coverage.

  8.  The study found that most people do appreciate that human activities, such as use of fossil fuels and deforestation, are a cause of global warming. However it was also established that few people understand the mechanics of the greenhouse effect, even at a simple level, and that people often mix up the causes of climate change with other environmental issues.

  9.  For example, a survey of 1,000 people conducted in October 2002 revealed that 53 per cent believed thinning of the ozone layer to be a cause of climate change, whilst just 16 per cent believed that greenhouse gases affect climate by preventing heat from escaping from the atmosphere. 45 per cent saw nuclear power as a cause of climate change, despite the fact that nuclear power is a carbon-free energy source.

  10.  This confusion over the causes of global warming was reflected in the difficulty people had in understanding the link between their own daily choices and climate change. For example, asked which of the following options would have the least effect on climate change: (i) purchasing organically produced apples from New Zealand or (ii) purchasing non-organic apples grown locally, 23 per cent opted for the New Zealand apples and a further 34 per cent said they didn't know.

  11.  This confusion is perhaps not surprising given that just 2 per cent of the media articles about climate change reviewed by the researchers made any reference to how people might contribute to reducing the rate of climate change.

  12.  Understanding of the consequences of climate change was greater. For example 53 per cent appreciated that global warming is generally predicted to result in more rainfall in Britain in winter. However people tended to be most aware of the consequences of global warming in the British context, whilst many of the most serious impacts will be felt in the third world countries.

  13.  The authors of the study, in my view rightly, conclude that the lack of even a basic understanding of the mechanics of the greenhouse effect is in itself not a problem. More of a problem for democratic citizenship to work is the confusion over its causes and consequences, making it difficult both for people to judge the merits of climate change proposals and to be aware of the impact of their day-to-day consumer choices on climate change.

  14.  A further and perhaps even more significant finding of the report was that although people, when prompted, express concern about climate change and say that the government should do more to tackle it, when polled more generally about what issues concerned them environmental issues barely register.[2]

  15.  The full ESRC report can be found at:

Q4.   Are EU policies regarding energy and renewable technologies compatible with climate change policy? Should there be more integration between these initiatives?

  16.  The development of renewable energy—particularly energy from wind, water, solar power and biomass—is a central aim of the European Commission's energy policy. The Commission's White Paper for a Community Strategy set out a strategy to double the share of renewable energies in gross domestic energy consumption in the European Union by 2010 to 12 per cent (from 6 per cent in 1997). The reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is a major Community objective and the European Commission rightly recognises that renewable energy has an important role to play in this.

  17.  The primary mechanism for increasing the penetration of renewables at the EU level through improvements in technology is via the EU's Sixth Framework Programme. The strategic and policy objectives of this programme of research into sustainable energy systems include reducing greenhouse gases and pollutant emissions (in line with Kyoto commitments), increasing the security of energy supplies, improving energy efficiency and increasing the use of renewable energy.

  18.  In the short to medium term, the EU policy goal is to pave the way for the introduction of innovative and cost competitive renewable and energy efficiency technologies into the market as quickly as possible through demonstration and other research actions aimed at the market. The medium to long term research objective is to develop new and renewable energy sources, and new carriers such as hydrogen which are both affordable and clean and which can be well integrated into a future sustainable energy supply both for stationary and transport applications.

  19.  It is disappointing that the budget for research, technology development and demonstration type activities in the area of sustainable energy systems has been cut from that available under the Fifth Framework Programme, but the direction of the work programme is broadly in line with UK priorities, most notably to increase the penetration of renewables and the alleviation of climate change.

  20.  The priority attached to energy research, development and demonstration will clearly need to be revisited during consultations and discussions on the development of the Seventh Framework Programme, which will run from 2006-10.

  21.  It is a welcome development that the recently published document: "An Environmental Technologies Action Plan for the European Union" had as a core theme the need to tackle climate change and to move to a low carbon energy economy.


  22.  Fusion offers the potential in the longer term for a clean, sustainable and greenhouse gas free source of electricity. Europe, the world leader in fusion technology, is a key participant in the international partnership to develop ITER, the facility for testing the feasibility of fusion power generation. The European Commission leads the formulation of EU policy in this area and represents the EU in the international negotiations. The Commission has been working very hard with the international partners in this project to develop an approach to ITER's development which would be acceptable to all parties.

Q6.   The EU has played a significant role in international negotiations on climate change. What role should the EU play in shaping future international objectives after the 2008-12 commitment period laid down in Kyoto?

  23.  The EU will have a leading role to play in developing the post-2012 international framework for emissions reduction, a process which will need to be informed by the most up-to-date scientific evidence.

  24.  By setting itself the target of achieving a 60 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 the Government has placed the UK at the forefront of international efforts to tackle climate change. I should like to see similar leadership shown by the EU in the negotiations that lie ahead.

20 February 2004

1   Towards a better map; Science, the public and the media. ESRC: Professor Ian Hargreaves, Professor Justin Lewis and Tammy Speers. Back

2   In a survey by Mori in December 2002, environmental issues came 19th on the list of key issues people said were facing Britain, below trade unions and inflation. Back

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