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Climate change: "the biggest diplomatic challenge of all time"

Sir David King

We are really honoured to be able to share with you today an interview with Sir David King.  Sir David is currently Special Representative to the Foreign Secretary in the UK on climate change. For 7 years, between 2000 and 2007, he was Chief Scientific Advisor.  Much of his current role is focused around the negotiations for an international treaty in December 2015 in Paris, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21).  He calls this "the big moment to achieve a global agreement", adding "I believe this is the world’s biggest diplomatic challenge, I’m even going to say the biggest diplomatic challenge of all time".  He spoke to Transition Network's Sarah McAdam. 

As you engage with governments around the world, where do you see the most positive action being taken to address climate change?

Britain set in train the process and I think it’s fair to say that we lead the world through our Climate Change Act in 2008. I was one of the players behind the generation of that Act and in that Act, the British government with an all-party agreement agreed to reduce its emissions by 80% by 2050 and also agreed that we should have four yearly carbon budgets going out towards that date so that we could make sure that we were on target. The carbon budgets are set out by a Climate Change Committee and a Climate Change Office and we have carbon budgets to date until 2028. They’re currently working on the budget for 2032.

Britain, I would say, leads the world because we’ve got this very detailed parliamentary process built in. It’s worth saying that for us, it was very heavily pushed on us, the carbon budgets into the future by the private sector, saying that if they invest in low carbon energy they want certainty that that is going to be the process into the future.

When we look outside Britain, the EU has adopted very close to the British position. The European Commissioners have agreed to recommend to the council, which happens to be meeting today – the council of prime ministers and heads of state, that we should across Europe reduce our emissions by 40% by 2030 and that will be our contribution that we will take forward to the international negotiations. So the 27 nations of Europe are leading the way with that announcement.

Mexico, you may be surprised to hear, has in effect passed a parliamentary process which is very similar to the British process and also commits their future governments to long-term programmes of reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

We are beginning to see actions in many of the developing countries around the world. Countries that include South Africa, Indonesia, Brazil. Many countries are already enforcing low-carbon futures and avoided deforestation actions. That’s not to say there isn’t more to be done but countries are aligning themselves. Russia, for example, president Putin in November last year made the first ever announcement of a presidential decree on climate change, stating that Russia will reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide by 27% by 2020 compared with 1990 levels.

There is a good deal of action, but as I say, a considerable way to go before we can be confident about an agreement in Paris in 2015 that matches up to the nature of the challenge.

Do you still believe that it is possible for global warming to stay below 2°?

Sir David KingLet me answer that by saying what is needed to keep within that target because the scientific panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the several thousand scientists who have recently put in their latest report, have phrased this in very dark terms.

At the moment, globally greenhouse gases are increasing by 1.8% per annum and have been doing this for the last 10-15 years. If we carry on burning fossil fuels and increasing greenhouse gases at that rate, by 2043 we would have completely consumed our carbon budget and would have to drop to zero immediately by 2044 if we were going to stay within that 2°C limit.

What this means is this is now a very urgent problem. If we do get good agreement in Paris in 2015, and if that agreement really produces the results in 2020, starting in 2020, then we can reduce emissions starting in 2020 at a rate of 3.2% per annum and stay within our carbon budget. That’s the nature of the challenge. By 2020, we have to switch from increasing emissions across the world at 1.8% per annum to decreasing at 3.2% per annum. That’s a very big challenge, but that is what margin we’re left with in managing this very very important problem.

Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre argues that it’s impossible adequately to respond to climate change and have economic growth. Where do you stand on this?

It’s impossible to have economic growth if we allow climate change to continue. I would say this with a great deal of certainty. If we look at the world we’re likely to go into as we move forward, if we don’t manage this problem, we are looking at a world in which, by the end of the century, we may have reached a 4.5°C temperature rise, sea levels rising by 75cm to a metre. We would be seeing major cities around the world, including London, under severe threat of continuation. The loss of farming and hence the ability to produce food and many other parameters, fresh water challenges, all of these challenges mean that it is simply pie in the sky to talk about growing our GDP under those circumstances.

Let me just paint a picture around the issue of environmental migration. For countries that are low-lying such as the small island states such as Britain and Bangladesh, as the sea level rises the civilisation on those areas of land populations will have to withdraw to higher areas of land. In Bangladesh we’re talking about an area of the world that is very densely populated and it is highly likely therefore that from all these island states and countries like Bangladesh, there will be an environmental migration at a level we have never seen before. This is going to cause all sorts of disturbance to the global economy.

We see the beginnings of this kind of action in the Arab Spring, where this rapid rise in food prices coupled with the rise in mineral prices and oil prices, all giving a threefold increase in a few years in these prices, caused real concern about people’s ability to buy the food that they need to continue to live. The notion of continued GDP rise in the face of the impact of extreme weather events is very unrealistic.

You paint a very stark, a very clear picture, but one that is very difficult for governments to take on board or acknowledge. Do you think politicians are recognising the description that you just gave?

There’s some good news there. The Foreign Secretary certainly recognises that and in making my appointment to this role, he was in a very clear position of saying “I want to underline my commitment to this challenge”. His counterpart in the United States, John Kerry, has been making around the world some quite remarkable speeches about what he considers to be the biggest challenge our civilisation has been faced with.

He’s describing this just to catch the attention of people as rather like a very large nuclear weapon that we’re sitting on. He feels that this is something that the world needs to act on. As I say, President Putin, and this may be a big surprise, has made a clear statement about climate change. Our own Prime Minister recently underscored the British all party agreement in 2008 with his statement about the floods and the impact of climate change here in Britain. There are good signs.

Amongst the developing countries I would say there are some extraordinarily good leaders who see the problems very clearly. Ban Ki Moon has called for a meeting of heads of states in September in New York, and this is going to be an opportunity for those voices who are at the helm, those people who are in a leadership position to express their views clearly to the international community.

In our recent interview with Myles Allen, he argued that only a huge roll out of carbon capture and storage could keep global warming below 2°. Is he right to put so much faith in a relatively untested and still experimental technology?

I don’t think he’s right. I think Myles is wrong on this issue because I fear that we should not pursue a technology as a potential solution before we know we can deliver it as a solution. We know that carbon capture and storage from power stations that are run by coal is a do-able process, and in particular we know that we can capture the carbon dioxide, and we can store it in oil fields that are depleted of oil. The oil companies have been using those oil fields to store carbon dioxide, but in particular to extract the remaining oil from them.

Sir David KingThat’s doable, but there’s not enough room in those particular underground caverns to contain the amount of carbon dioxide that we are emitting. We therefore have to shift over to saline aquifers. We need non-saline aquifers for the fresh water which we’re rapidly running into short supply across the world for. We need to be using saline aquifers for carbon dioxide capture and storage and that’s as yet an untested business. In other words, we don’t really know, once we’ve put the carbon dioxide down there, whether we can securely cap the stores.

Incidentally, and I think this is another important part of the story, the cost of carbon dioxide capture and storage is so high and the energy used in the process so high, we’re talking about 30% of the output of a coal fired power station going into the capture and storage process. The cost is so high that it would probably mean that coal fired power stations would have to be shut down because other forms of energy are rapidly becoming very competitive.  This is the bit that I think Myles Allen is completely missing out on.

If we look at the cost today of the installation of photovoltaic systems, it is five times cheaper to install PV systems today than it was 10 years ago. What has happened is that the feed-in tariffs first introduced in Germany in 1989 and then rapidly spreading across the European Union has meant that the volume of production of photovoltaics has increased year on year. With every year of production the cost has come down 17% on average.

Today, in many parts of the world where solar energy is available, in other words in sunny climates, the use of solar photovoltaics is already competitive in producing electricity on the grid. So who would use coal with carbon capture and storage if you could rather use a renewable such as PVs?

Now there is a problem with PVs, as with wind, that these are intermittent sources. A much more important piece of technology to focus on is the development of large-scale energy storage. That in my view is the Cinderella of research. I would focus heavily on developing large scale energy storage because it would be transformative. If you look at India today, I believe that India would rapidly switch across. They could use deserts in Rajasthan as a source of electricity from PVs, they would rapidly move across to that development rather than continuing the process of coal mining; coal miners still dying every year and at the same time pollution levels in the atmosphere in India and in China are so high that both countries are trying to see how they can avoid coal usage. I think this is a danger that we focus on the wrong expenditure in terms of technologies that can be transformative.

Given the benefits that you’ve just described that can be derived from storage technology, why is the focus not going in that direction?

That’s a very good question and I believe the answer is that feed in tariffs were meant to provide the solution that is appearing, which is the lower cost of installation of the energy sources. It’s not been as efficient as wind. With wind, the figure is more like 7 or 8% fall with every doubling of production, but I think that none of the mechanisms we’ve put in place have pulled energy storage technologies through into the marketplace.

A group of us are very keen to establish a major new programme, a global programme of research, publicly funded and privately, but I stress publicly funded research, aimed at developing the storage capacity we need. This should be an effort from the research and development end through the demonstration part of the process, and into deployment. In other words,  I would like to see heavily subsidised deployment of large-scale energy storage as it becomes available in the marketplace so that once again the cost can be brought down as the volume of deployment goes up, and that will then become a worldwide facility.

Sir David KingBy the way, and I think this is very important, most villages in Africa and India are off the electricity grid. The people in those villages, hundreds of millions of people without any electricity at all. Getting those villages onto the grid is extremely expensive, which is why the governments of those parts of the world have not yet extended into those villages.

But the cost of installing PVs with micro grids in those villages is on average about three times lower, even at today’s PV prices. This means there’s another big market for PVs emerging in those two parts of the world. Once again, volume will keep going up and the cost of PV installation will fall well below the cost of installing energy systems based on fossil fuels. There’s a very real future for sun power to become the major form of energy production in the future. Now you couple that with the availability of large-scale energy storage and you’re moving to a position where you can say we can actually crack this problem.

Where should leadership on climate change be coming from? We’ve talked quite a lot about government but there’s also business and communities. I’m particularly interested in the role you see communities having.

First of all, let me say there are a number of really outstanding business leaders who get this whole message and who are advocates of action on climate change and who are doing it in their own companies. This is extremely important because it helps politicians enormously to be able to say that the private sector is supportive of their actions. In terms of the public, we talked earlier about individual leaders in the political scene. Leaders of the visionary capability of a Mandela or a Gorbachev are actually in short supply. There’s an almost empty stage for international political leaders to step onto and really show the way forward to the rest of us.

But what will generate people to move onto that stage, I have no doubt, is public opinion. And so it is critically important that the NGOs and the public voice is heard through the media. I think that one could hardly overemphasise the importance of this.

In the run-up to Copenhagen, we had a good position across the media in western countries. In many developing parts of the world, it’s still quite good. But the arrival of the lobbies against climate change has seemed to turn the media’s attention away from the enormous challenge of this position. We are talking about something that the planet has never had to face up to before, because it requires joint action by all communities, by all societies, by all countries to manage this problem. We’ve never been in that position before. I think that the challenge therefore for the political system is so large that it needs the push and back-up from the public voice.

In relation to that, we’ve found that having access to information about climate change doesn’t necessarily engage people in a response. Similarly, being exposed to extreme weather events also doesn’t have that impact. I wondered what you thought was the most effective way of engaging the public with this issue?

Sir David KingYou’re quite right although there are many counter examples. It’s fair to say that many people understand the business of the floods and climate change being related in the UK and just to stress that for a moment, in 2004 I put in a report to government as chief scientific advisor from a very large scale study on flooding risks to the United Kingdom and what we needed to do about it.

That report was prepared by about 110 scientists, engineers, climate scientists, social scientists, and it took them three years to reach their conclusions. The conclusion was relatively stark. It was that we needed to improve our flood defences, we needed to improve water management because the biggest risk to the British Isles from climate change would be from flooding this side of the end of the century.

The floods that recently happened were just the kind of event that we were talking about managing risk to. It’s fair to say that many of our proposals were put in place and most of the country’s major assets were actually saved as a result of that. Anyone who studies this ought to know that that is the case. We probably have 10 to 15 billion pounds’ of damage, but it could have been hundreds of billions of pounds’ of damage if we hadn’t stopped the floods from going into our major cities such as London and into our major assets. It is quite important to somehow dig that message out and get it into the public domain.

But if you take a counter example, the new government in Australia has maintained the commitment to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide by 2020 by 5% but nevertheless are at the moment very slow to take action on climate change and to recognise the relationship the extraordinary hot summer that they’ve just had in South Australia, the highest temperatures ever recorded in South Australia, Melbourne. This follows 10-15 years of drought and high temperatures in that region which is, if you go to the climate science predictions, precisely what they were predicting.

You’re quite right, extreme weather events don’t always lead to the conclusion that people understand the nature of the challenge. Russia, on the other hand, are swinging around now. The severe summer in Moscow and the melting of the permafrost in Russia has been a wake up call. We may say that the hot summer in Russia was such an extreme event that it can’t all be attributed to climate change – of course that is true.

But it is nevertheless an indicator to the Russian population that climate change is a severe threat to the Russian people. It’s not just that a warmer climate is going to be nicer for them. It’s going to mean longer growing seasons which is what was said before. Just as in Britain we can’t say that climate science will be better for us because we’ll grow wine that will be competitive with France and Spain, however nice that will be, we’ve seen that the floods are so counter-productive that the impacts are more severe.

Extreme weather events, which are likely to increase in frequency as we move forward in time, are a wake up call but aren’t always read in that way just as you say.

You mentioned the importance of getting this issue discussed in a meaningful way in the mainstream media. The BBC’s recent coverage of climate change seems still to be labouring under the assumption that balance means giving a platform to climate sceptics. Is this still appropriate?

Of course it’s not appropriate. We’re in a situation where 99% of the climate science community believe that climate change is happening and is due to mankind’s influence over the last 50 years. They’re able to say this with 95% certainty. If we said this, say, about a new vaccine arriving to prevent some transmittable disease and the scientific community said they were 95% certain that this would stop the transmission of that disease, I doubt that you would have an outcry against the scientific community of the kind which happened here.

It is, in my view, quite extraordinary that we can still try to get a so-called “balanced view” between the clear scientific opinion and the people who, mostly, are not even close to the science themselves. I find it quite remarkable.

As you know, our theme this month has been “living with climate change”. As someone who works with this issue every day, how do you deal with it? How do you cope with the depth and the enormity of the issue and deal with it emotionally?

I cope by having a very exhausting schedule. I met with delegations from 10 different countries this year and so my waking hours are actually spent in negotiations and working with leaders in other countries, negotiating teams, talking to leaders of NGOs. When I make visits to other countries, so for example, to India, I met with leaders of major NGOs. I spoke to the parliament, the Indian parliament; I met the head of the planning commission in India, met the key ministers. I also met with a whole range of other leaders including people at the Bombay stock exchange where I gave an address. So I don’t confine myself to the political leaders but I try to meet as many of the influencers as I can on these trips.

And you’re saying that you find emotional support from seeing that breadth of interest in the issue and the commitment to the issue?

Yes, exactly. And I think because I’m so deeply involved in the actions and I think obviously what is critical is getting positive feedback and I am getting positive feedback wherever I go. But this isn’t a stress-free life I’m describing. I might also add I’m a bit of a stress-free zone. I still sleep well at night.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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