Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 105-119)

10 MARCH 2004

Professor Sir David King, Mr Nick Grout, Mr John Holmes and Mr Simon Crabbe

  Q105  Chairman: Sir David, may I thank you and your colleagues very much for coming to see us today. We are being both webcast and broadcast. I think you have a list of the interests declared by Members of the Committee. May I suggest for the record that you introduce yourselves briefly.

  Sir David King: I am Professor Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government and Head of the Office of Science and Technology.

  Mr Holmes: I am John Holmes, Adviser on the Energy and Environmental Issues Team in the Office of Science and Technology.

  Mr Grout: I am Nick Grout of the Scientific Government Unit of the Office of Science and Technology working in support of Sir David King.

  Mr Crabbe: I am Simon Crabbe from the Global Atmosphere Division in Defra, which deals with climate change.

  Q106  Chairman: Sir David, is there any opening statement that you would like to make before we start asking you questions?

  Sir David King: On the issue of climate change?

  Q107  Chairman: Yes, on the issue of climate change: our heading is "How the EU can move towards a sustainable climate change policy".

  Sir David King: I think only to put on my record my view that this is the biggest issue for us to face this century. Spencer Weart has recently written a rather lovely book on the science of climate change. It deals with about one thousand scientists who have contributed to our current state of knowledge. He concludes in that book that scientists have demonstrated the nature of the problems and what is causing them and now it is for policy makers to make hard decisions, but he points out, if I may quote: "Our response to the threat of global warming will affect our personal wellbeing and the evolution of man, society and all life on our planet". I do not think that is an exaggeration. When I say that this is a major problem, it is in that rather global context a major problem.

  Q108  Chairman: I understand that. May I say that there were moments in the last 48 hours when I wondered whether we were going to see you today at all.

  Sir David King: There was never any doubt about that.

  Q109  Chairman: It is very nice indeed to have you with us. Could I start by asking you two questions? How much climate change can we avoid by acting now rather than later? I have read with very great interest your article in Science of January. I notice that you end with the sentence: "We and the rest of the world are now looking to the USA to play its leading part." Do you really think that there is a chance, as you see it, of the USA playing a leading part?

  Sir David King: There are two questions there. The first question is about the extent, given political understanding across the world of what the scientists are currently saying. I believe that we could achieve reductions in CO2 emissions, which would lead to a ceiling of about 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The historic warm period average is about 270 parts per million. We are currently at 372 parts per million.

  Q110  Chairman: That is an average over what sort of period?

  Sir David King: Over 12,000 years. The period of our civilisation has been at 270 parts per million. Certainly, we are now higher than our globe has had for at least 420,000 years, but probably since the Palaeocene 55 million years ago. If I come back to the apocalyptic vision, the Palaeocene was a period when life was substantially reduced. We had a massive reduction in the amount of living matter on earth and the Antarctic was the best place to be at that time. That was relatively hot compared with most of the world today, but the rest of the world was uninhabitable. Then the carbon dioxide levels were estimated to be higher than they are today. To go back to your question, we could limit levels to 450[3]parts per million if action were taken by the developed world well beyond what was outlined in Kyoto and if that action were fully implemented by 2020, but it would have to be action taken and decided on within the next few years: 450 parts per million will still lead to substantial risk ahead for us, but I do think at that level we would avoid all of these sudden climate change events that are of concern. One such sudden climate change event is the switching of the Gulf Stream. Thermohaline current and the melting of substantial amounts of ice could lead to a switching of the Gulf Stream. That is a thermal conveyor of enormous magnitude, which raises the temperature of our local region by five to 10 degrees centigrade. If that is switched, we would, conversely to the rest of the world, suffer an ice age in Europe. There are substantial sudden climate change events. Another one is the loss of the Indian monsoon, which would be a traumatic loss for the Indian economy. I think these events would become critical probably above 550 parts per million, but these are very difficult calculations to make. One would really want to take a precautionary approach and avoid even testing whether we are likely to go into those sudden climate change events. The second part of your question was connected to the United States. I personally have little doubt that unfortunately, as time moves on, the global warming events, such as the very high temperatures in Europe over the last summer and the flooding that occurred two years before, these severe events, will occur more frequently and the understanding of what is driving this will become more apparent. I think nations around the world will understand that, in order to reduce the risks, action will have to be taken. Amongst those nations has to be the United States, which is currently responsible for emitting about one-quarter of the world's carbon dioxide.

  Q111  Chairman: In point of fact, although one is very well aware of the refusal of the United States or President Bush at the moment to sign up to Kyoto, an awful lot of money is being spent by industry on trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

  Sir David King: There are two great positive things happening in the United States, at least, two large categories. One is action from the centre on the development of technologies, and in particular in the Department of Energy, where I have very close contacts. The work on the hydrogen fuel economy and other work on renewable technologies, which we are engaged on with them, is being very heavily funded from the centre. I do believe Under Secretary David Garland is going to place himself into a position where if the Administration is saying, "We will have to reduce our emissions by X amount", they would be able to deliver as a result of the technological developments that are occurring. The second really positive factor is happening in the individual states in the United States, particularly down the eastern and western seaboards, but Texas, interestingly enough, has recently joined us, where individual states are committing themselves to actions similar to that which the United Kingdom is taking, to reduce emissions themselves. When California commits itself that is a very substantial contribution to CO2 reduction that we can see in the pipeline.

  Q112  Lord Carter: Do you think the elements of uncertainty that exist still in the international community are due to there being gaps in the science exploring climate change, or is it the case that there is much research, but it is not being used effectively by policy makers to develop an appropriate response?

  Sir David King: In terms of where the scientific community stands, this has been a very long-running process. Arrhenius, a theoretical chemist whom Lord Lewis will certainly know about, was the first person to do a calculation to indicate, if CO2 levels rose due to fossil fuel burning, what the temperature rise around the globe would be, and he estimated that a doubling would lead to a 5o centigrade rise, and that was in 1896. We have been looking at this for some time and in some detail. The latest calculations bear out Arrhenius rather accurately. In 1938 the British meteorologist, Callender, said: "Global warming is already occurring. Arrhenius was right and it is due to fossil fuel burning." We have had Jim Hansen say to the United States Congress in 1988 that he was 99 per cent sure that global warming would occur and it would be due to fossil fuel burning. I could repeat through the years the number of times scientists have made these statements. I have to say that over the last 10 years we have now had 10 of the hottest years on record over the last 2,000, and all of those predictions are now coming true, unfortunately, so we are getting the experimental results that were predicted. The scientific community has reached a consensus. I do not believe that amongst the scientists there is a discussion as to whether global warming is due to anthropogenic effects. It is man-made and it is essentially fossil fuel burning, increased methane production, largely due to the way we produce food, and also NOx gases—sulphur dioxide, CFCs and so on. It is largely man-driven, and there is a consensus. However, there is still a need for further science, not to delay action but there is a need for further science because, for example, the United Kingdom needs to know what we need to do to put up defences against the effects of climate change that will occur. In order to do that, we need the best possible estimates of what changes are ahead for us. I think that the answer to your question is: the science is done, it is complete and Weart's book is a beautiful account of how that has been done. It is a matter of political understanding. I am not simply putting it across to the politicians; I do think it is up to the scientists to explain as clearly as they can what the issue is.

  Q113  Lord Carter: If the scientific evidence is so strong, would you like to explain to the Committee why you think the policy makers are either not understanding it or not acting on it?

  Sir David King: I think there is a very real concern that there will be a substantial cost to economies in meeting the reductions in CO2 emissions that are required. Our own estimates in the UK Government are that, in order to reduce our emissions by 60 per cent by 2050, it is likely that it would cost no more than 0.5—2.0 per cent of GDP, or half of an annual growth in GDP over that whole period. That is a very small amount and absolutely in the noise of the economic forecast. In fact, we can also argue that triggering new technologies into process could improve the economy. I think it is very difficult to call the economic arguments but I do think that is the biggest problem . I do not want, though, to ignore the lobbyists who do fight very hard. There is a very frank lobbyist whose name is Frank Luntz, who has a website in which he appeals to his supporters for action. I just quote from his most recent website. It says: "The scientific debate is closing against us, but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science". These lobbyists I think are funded not by the oil companies based in the United Kingdom but very largely by an oil company based in the United States.

  Q114  Chairman: Who is that?

  Sir David King: Exxon.

  Q115  Lord Lewis of Newnham: Briefly, I would not disagree with anything that Sir David has said. I do feel he has given a very good assessment. I do feel, of course, the main difficulty with science is that you can never actually prove anything; all you can do is disprove something. You are in a dilemma here when you are trying to deal with certain types of arguments that come forward. May I just ask the question: it seems to me that one of the important features to me about this particular area is that we are talking about timescales of 2020 or 2050 and the possibility of new technology appearing is really quite significant. I am reminded of the fact that if you now look at one of the modern techniques to get rid of NOx, which is to take TiO2 and bury it in concrete or something of that nature, and then you utilise a chemical reaction of light activation. This is now being used by the Japanese as a method of reducing NOx emissions. This has also been applied to paints, for instance on buildings. These are quite revolutionary concepts which are not within our present ken. My point is: I hope that there is money being put into various of the research councils to ensure that this sort of work will be continued. It is very speculative, I realise, but it does seem to me that you only have to get one of these things turning up, for instance the storage of hydrogen would be a very important consequence and possibility, or even the storage of electricity other than by batteries, things of this nature, and you have an open-ended question in front of you.

  Sir David King: May I take the two questions? The first was "you can prove anything"; I might take that as a note of scepticism and so let me respond to it.

  Q116  Lord Lewis of Newnham: I said you cannot prove anything by science.

  Sir David King: What I simply wanted to say is: however, what is very sound science is to have a theoretical methodology and experimental measurements. That is precisely what has been done here with prediction. The predictions from the Hadley Centre, for example, back in the 1980s have really come true. They predicted the temperature rise that has occurred over the last ten years and, within this theoretical framework, we have a rather good understanding of this complex climate change. However, non-linear effects come in and that is what leads to sudden climate change. That is why more research needs to be done. The new unexpected technologies: that is absolutely right. When I first got this job, I set up an Energy Research Review team to look at the current state of energy research in the UK. We found, my Lords, something very unnerving, which is that, faced with the climate change issues, the UK's investment in energy research had dropped very sharply. The reason for that is very simple. The Central Electricity Generating Board had been privatised and the utilities, as they took it over, shut down the research laboratory that they had inherited. The net result is that our major repository of energy research, which was within the Central Electricity Generating Board, has closed down. We proposed the establishment of a new UK energy research centre. I am not arguing against the liberalisation of our energy resource but what we did not do at that time was forecast what would happen to energy research as a result of that. We are picking up on this. A new UK energy research centre I hope will be announced within a few weeks. There has been a competition. That UK energy research centre will have quite significant funding. In the first few years, the funding may not appear sufficient, looking at the size of the problem. Nevertheless, there will be something of the order of £50 million there. I would like to see, and I am talking to the utilities about this, the utilities contributing to the funding of energy research. It is in their own interests and I am talking to them along those lines, and also, our big energy companies: BP, Amoco and Shell. I think that we can persuade these companies to join with the research councils in funding these projects.

Chairman: Sir David, thank you very much. We have to move on in a moment to what the EU is doing, because that is our remit.

  Q117  Baroness Maddock: Sir David, you have talked about the situation in America. I wonder if you could tell us about Russia and how the scientists there view this issue and how they interact with politicians and policy makers?

  Sir David King: We are interacting at many levels with Russia. Let me preface my comment by saying that our interaction with Russia is terribly important because if Russia signs up to the Kyoto Protocol, the Kyoto Protocol mechanisms will come into play automatically. It is critically important that we persuade the Russians to sign up. We were expecting them to sign up when they organised a climate change conference in Moscow in November, but they did not, and so I can take your question in the manner of: why did they not sign up? I believe one reason was given by their Economics Minister who referred back to this question of the cost to the country. Previously it was thought that Russia would gain financially from the emissions trading because their emissions since 1990 had actually gone down as their economy had spiralled downwards. However, their economic forecasting now indicates, with the re-charging of their economy and its growth, that they may become economic losers in the longer term. Although there is a short-term financial benefit, I am afraid I think the economic argument is overtaking the scientific argument in Russia.

  Q118  Baroness Billingham: I have two very quick points. I was interested in your response about the United States where you said that you felt your litmus test was when California started to take note. I suspect it will more important when Florida does. The second thing that I would like to say to you is this. One of the things that we have given ourselves is a determination that we want to be useful in this report in influencing public opinion. You have obviously led the way in this in the last few days, but your public opinion is of a certain strata. In order really to be positive and helpful in this area, we felt that, in shorthand, we had to look at the Daily Mail audience. We really do feel that we want to engage in the public debate on this in a way that there has not been a debate in the past. One of the reasons why there has not been a proper debate is as you have already said: there is conflicting evidence and people switch off when they hear one side and then the other side and they do not know which side to take. As the evidence grows stronger and stronger, we feel that our report should be stronger and stronger. I would like you to comment on that.

  Sir David King: I think that this is an area where the scientific community is at one. I do not think there is a conflict here within the scientific community that really measures up to the basic question: is climate change serious? Is it caused by our use of fossil fuels? I do not think you will find any significant scientist questioning the answers to those questions. In terms of the public debate, I could not agree more. In fact, my visit to the United States that has caused a bit of interest was really built around the premise that it was rather important to reach out to the American public. Through the visit, which was organised through our Embassy in Washington and also through the Foreign Office and the British Council, we made an enormous impact at the AAAS meeting in Seattle. I certainly had an audience well in excess of 1,000 people—and these are people who are movers and shakers in the United States. Contrary to what you might have heard, I did face quite a few press briefings and in the United States press quite a bit of what I said at those briefings was quoted widely.

  Q119  Lord Crickhowell: Sir David, in your memorandum, not surprisingly with your background, you put enormous emphasis on the need for research. You talk about the need for a step change in energy efficiency and a radical shift from the use of fossil fuels to low carbon energy generation. You talk about in the longer term the EU policy goal of new and renewable energy sources, the new carriers, such as hydrogen. We have talked about the United States and about Russia. We have talked about the UK research. I want to bring you now to the subject of our own inquiry, which is: how can the EU enhance the research and development efforts that are already under way in Member States, and indeed outside Member States? What is it that the European Community can do to get the kind of research effort that we really need on the scale that clearly you indicate is required?

  Sir David King: I will take your question in two ways: one is through the Framework Programme funding. The current level of funding is

2.12[4]billion over four years. This is a fairly significant sum, but then I have to point out that in the previous framework programme it was

2.125 billion, and so it has not increased as we have moved along in time, and we do need to keep pressure on Brussels to see that this budget is increased, in my view. It is, however, a significant budget. I think the UK is beginning to attract a bigger proportion of that funding, just to take a UK view of it.

m. Source: Indicative budget FP6 COM 2002 draft of Interservice working group on communication.

3   Note by Witness: The EU/UK aim is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a level which prevents temperatures exceeding 2°C above pre-industrial levels and that stabilisation of CO2 at concentrations below 550ppm should guide mitigation efforts. The IPPC synthesis report (to the Third Assessment Report) shows a range of impacts that we can expect for different stabilisation scenarios but does not suggest a stabilisation target that should be adopted. Back

4   Note by Witness: FP6 Budget; sustainable development, global change and ecosystems-2120 Back

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