Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-150)

10 MARCH 2004

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

  Q140  Lord Lewis of Newnham: I agree with everything you have said but one of the things I find rather worrying is if you look at fluorine containing compounds. You are going up by 20 in going from CO2 to methane in danger to climate change but here you are going up by 20,000 per molecule in going to C-F compounds. My understanding is that there is a tendency now to be using more HCFCs in air-conditioning in motor cars and things of this particular sort. That is now being released, but there is going to be what I shall call the fridge problem: we have to dispose of them. Is there any control being put into trying to reduce the CFC compounds and using, say, just straight hydrocarbons in your refrigeration processes? I know by comparison it is a minor point but it could be the straw that does the metaphorical job on the camel's back.

  Q141  Chairman: A brief answer, because we have kept you for an hour, and we must get back to the EU, for a moment, too.

  Sir David King: A brief answer would suit me very well, and I could give a written response to the question. Very briefly, though, the European Union does have in train a process of looking at, especially, the fluorine-containing carbon compounds that you have mentioned and bringing them under control. Perhaps I could amplify the answer in a written response.

Chairman: Thank you very much. That is much appreciated.

  Q142  Lord Haskins: I would like to bring us back to the Committee's remit. You have given us a very detailed explanation of what is going on in the scientific world, very impressively. The worry about that is that a lot of that is going to take a long time to come. Human behaviour, on the other hand, if we can change that quite quickly, produces quite short-term results, if we can do it. Eighty per cent of our regulation in this country on the environment is EU-based. It is actually quite convenient for national politicians to say, "We have to abide by this Directive because it is a European one" (one area where even sceptics find being a member of Europe helps, because they can run behind it). My question is: are we doing enough, is the European Union doing enough, in terms of affecting human behaviour, through regulation? The interesting other issue is the different reactions of various Member States' citizens towards these problems. If we could get the lowest common denominator up to the highest common denominator what difference would that make? With the arrival of the accession countries, where a huge amount of work has got to be done, is the EU facing up to these things and doing as much as it realistically can?

  Sir David King: I think, again, Lord Haskins is asking a very important question, which is more directed at the social sciences than the hard sciences, but I think it is very, very important. How do we change attitudes and cultural approaches on this issue? Of course, much of what we have been discussing is about the change in cultural attitudes towards this problem. Smogs used to cover London, and in 1953 there were 11,000 fatalities in London due to the terrible smog that year. It took that for the culture change to emerge where people said, "Let's do something about this." I am afraid it seems to take some kind of disaster of that magnitude. The scientists knew what was causing the smog—carbon particulates from incomplete combustion of coal—so it was a matter of banning coal burning, and the problem was dealt with. I think we need to see if we can avert that. Interestingly, I gave a talk on climate change at the Ambassador's residence in Paris, which was very well attended by the French community, and I pointed out that the 15,000 deaths last year in France alone from that excessive summer that they had could be directly linked into climate change. I was told that nobody had raised this as a climate change issue in France. So, interestingly, one cannot take it for granted that people do make these connections.

  Q143  Earl Peel: And, presumably, the increase in fires as well.

  Sir David King: Yes.

  Q144  Chairman: Also, in your article in Science you make the point that the countries which will suffer and where hundreds of thousands of deaths may happen are India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. In a sense, is part of the problem that it is a long way away, and the 15,000 in France, because of the very hot summer last year is a very interesting "at home" example?

  Sir David King: Yes. I am afraid the figure I give for South East Asia is more in tens of millions.

  Q145  Lord Haskins: On the behaviour theme, if you take food, which you mentioned, I guess 80 per cent of the food the world produces is wasted. If we could deal with that waste issue then we would be going a long way towards dealing with the other problem of having another 4 billion people in the world in the next 40 years, who are going to accelerate this problem.

  Sir David King: That is absolutely right. If you take energy wastage down power lines, it is enormous. We lose electricity in transferring it from power stations to homes at an enormous rate. High TC superconductors. We know we can put super-conducting lines in that will not lose any energy; so there are technologies and abilities to move this, and surely we can introduce technologies into the food chain to improve that situation.

  Q146  Earl Peel: On this question of wastage, something we have not really touched upon is the question of aviation fuel emissions. I suppose we really have to ask Sir David whether he feels there is anything the EU could or should be doing in that direction. Where food is being flown from all over the world it is negating a lot of local production and availability.

  Sir David King: The UK Government is currently pressing the EU on the aviation fuel issue, so we are certainly alive to that problem. If I can just free wheel on this, though, it is a major problem because what you need to stop is the possibility of planes landing at small, offshore islands simply for refuelling. It is a major international problem and I think it will require global agreement. We are pressing the European Union for action on it.

  Q147  Chairman: Could you, finally, give us an idea what further action, in your view, could be taken at a scientific level to persuade those countries who have not yet ratified the Kyoto Protocol of the need to take measures to reduce emissions? As a follow-on to that, what would it take for the scientific consensus to filter through to political actors?

  Sir David King: I think that the international scientific community has worked closely through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This includes scientists from right round the world, including Russia, Australia and, of course, the United States—the three countries that have not signed up to Kyoto. So at the scientific level the consensus is there in all of those countries. When I was in Seattle we took UK scientists with United States' scientists just to make the point that the US scientists were fully on board. The question is the conversion of the political group into understanding, I think, the severity of this problem. I am certainly planning to go to Russia in the near future because I do think that once they have settled the election in Russia we will need to discuss with the political people the importance of their signing up. I think they know the importance. I think I also know that we are in for some hard negotiations.

  Q148  Lord Lewis of Newnham: Related to this, it does seem to me that one of the critical features in all this is going to be how industry as a whole views it, because they are going to see this as a liability. Can it be presented to them in any other way than a liability?

  Sir David King: To the Russians?

  Q149  Lord Lewis of Newnham: Yes.

  Sir David King: For Russia, in essence, the major advantage is in carbon trading because, as I say, 1990 is the level on which carbon trading is based, and they are so far below that level that they could literally have millions of dollars on their hands in the carbon trading exercise. So it is actually quite difficult to understand why that instant—today—economic advantage cannot be seen as a means of powering their economic growth. Once they have got the economic growth they would be able to afford to be paying into the club. So the arguments, I think, are quite strongly in favour.

  Q150  Chairman: Sir David, you are obviously an extremely good missionary for this very important cause. It has been a delight for us all to listen to you and hear your answers. What is also very pleasing is that despite the statistics there is a clear note of optimism in your voice and in your thoughts as well. Thank you, and your colleagues, very much indeed for the time you have given us. You will be sent a draft transcript of the meeting and if there is anything you wish to correct, please do so. Thanks from us all.

  Sir David King: My Lords, thanks very much, and thank you for your kind comments.

previous page contents

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004