“We now have no time on our hands” – In conversation with Professor Sir David King

Interviews, Sustainability | Tue 8 Jun | Author – Business & Finance
Pictured: Professor Sir David King

Professor Sir David King has had a storied career. A former Head of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, he has, in recent years, gained international renown as Chief Scientific Adviser to former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. His tenure as Chief Scientific Adviser was marked by dogged attempts to increase public awareness of climate change and its adverse effects on the world and its people. This is a fight he continues with the same determination today. In conversation with David Monaghan, Deputy Editor of Business & Finance, Professor Sir David King outlines the large-scale threats climate change holds, what is being done to circumvent the damage being done, and the economic incentives available to the business community in the move towards a sustainable future. 

Professor Sir David King will be speaking at the Sustainability Summit & Content Series on 22nd of September 2021. Register here to attend.

Note: This piece was originally published in Business & Finance magazine, vol. 58, no. 2, available to read, with compliments, here.

David Monaghan (DM): How did you reach the conclusions you currently hold?

Professor Sir David King (PSDK): I have been involved in climate change for many, many years – for decades – and I went into government as Chief Scientific Adviser with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The only reason I took that position when it was offered to me was because I thought I could have some impact on climate change. It was like that in the sense that Tony Blair responded very well, and I was able to take the leadership on this in the government.

During that period, for example, I worked with the Foreign Secretary, and we set up 165 climate attachés in our embassies around the world. These were experts on climate change in our embassies to help with our negotiations. I then went into the foreign office where I was effectively our climate ambassador, and I led, from the foreign office, the negotiations, working with ministers of course.

This meant that I was heavily involved in keeping up with the science, I am a Physical Chemist. I used to be Head of the Chemistry Department in Cambridge. So, I have always kept very close contact with scientists who are making measurements out in the field, and the modelling scientists.

My current position really emerges from all of this in the sense that, I left government in 2017 to deliberately set up a centre for climate repair in Cambridge, and the reason I wanted to set up a centre for climate repair is because I don’t think there was a real understanding of how critical the climate emergency has become.

It was excellent that Theresa May, who was my last Prime Minister, made that commitment for Britain to be net zero emissions by 2050. That was made in 2017. We’ve now got 72% of the world’s emitters, 80% of the world’s GDP, all committed to that programme of net zero emissions by 2050.

DM: How do you find working within the government system to advocate for climate action?

PSDK: It has been very successful. We set up the climate change committee of parliament, which is the committee that oversees each government’s commitment, because we had an all-party agreement on 80% reduction.

The committee has the task of holding each government’s feet to the fire to say that, ‘you are on that path to reduce emissions.’ We have successfully reduced our emissions very substantially over this last period, probably more than any other country in Europe, and we have also produced the cheapest offshore wind turbines producing kilowatt hours of electricity in the whole world. Those wind turbines are now producing 50% of our electricity.

I would have to tell you that I believe the agreement reached in Paris (the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference) would not have happened without the British effort. The British effort was bigger than all the rest of the world put together. It was just enormous. We had climate attachés, every ambassador working on it, and David Cameron also created a negotiation budget of, in the end, 8 billion pounds to be spent over a period of ten years. So that fund, beginning in 2015, was spent up by 2020.

DM: Where are we today?

PSDK: I think it’s important to understand that, in 2015, we were working under the assumption that if we could get emissions down to zero by 2050, we would manage to keep within the target of no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial era. It turns out we are no longer in anything like that position.

We have been counting only carbon dioxide, but we know that other greenhouse gasses should be included, including methane particularly. And over the recent period, methane emissions have been rising more rapidly than carbon dioxide emissions. Today, carbon dioxide emissions are 415 parts per million (the pre-Industrial level was 275), and the methane added on takes us up to 508 parts per million. That just indicates how serious methane emissions have become.

Much of the methane emissions have in the past been from what is called ‘fugitive methane’ from oil, coal and gas recovery, and from old coal mines, but now in the period from 2006/2007, it’s quite clear that methane emissions are rising because of agricultural practice. So we now have this very demanding situation where methane is as much of a problem as carbon dioxide.

We have 4-5 years to put in place everything that is required to manage civilisation for the next millennium.

DM: How can we engage with someone in the farming industry about methane emissions?

PSDK: It’s not just the farming industry because we are the consumers. And, to be honest, the big rise in methane emissions has occurred alongside the rapid growth in the global middle class. I’m defining the middle class as those who spend between 10 and 100 dollars a day. In 2000, the number was just over 1 billion in the whole world, and today we are well over 3 billion.

That threefold increase in the middle class has all occurred in the emerging economies, which is very good news. Their economies are growing much more rapidly than ours now. And the net result is, we have many more consumers wanting to eat more farm products than before, and the big methane releases are from rice, and from livestock. If we’re going to manage this problem, we have got to shift away from meat eating in such abundance. We eat far more meat than we need for our health, and a better diet would be wonderful, but frankly, that’s a very tall ask to get people to change their dietary habits. It’s happening slowly in western countries, particularly in Europe. People are eating more green matter, more vegetables, but this is going to be a very difficult trend to reverse.

So, the problem is, we’ve put too much in the way of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere already, and we not only have to get down as close to zero emissions as possible by 2050, we also have to remove greenhouse gasses that are already in the atmosphere. And so, climate repair is, first of all, aimed at deep and rapid emissions reduction. Secondly, greenhouse gas removal at scale, to bring us down from 508 parts per million today to something like 350 parts per million. That would create a safe future for humanity.

The third thing is the most challenging, which is happening in the Arctic Circle region, where the arctic sea ice has been melting far more quickly than any of the theoreticians predicted. It’s got a very sharp feedback effect, which means the ice beginning to melt, melts more and more quickly as it goes. And so, the great volume of sea ice sitting over the arctic sea has now effectively gone, and in the Arctic summer, about half of the Arctic sea is now exposed to sunlight.

When you expose a sea to sunlight, the blue sea absorbs a very high amount of it, therefore the blue sea gets warm in the sunlight, which is why we like going to Greece for the summer. If it’s covered with ice, the sunlight is 90% reflected away. So what is now happening is that, while the whole planet is heated up 1.1 or 1.2 degrees above the pre-Industrial level on average, the Arctic Circle region has heated up over 3 degrees. So what we see is the Arctic Circle is now heating up at three times the rate of the rest of the planet.

Sitting in the middle of the Arctic sea is Greenland, and it’s now blue sea. Greenland has enough ice that if all of it melts, global sea levels will rise by 7.5 metres, 23 or 24 feet. That’s endgame for civilisation. We just wouldn’t survive that. Even by mid-century, this is going to be a much bigger risk than we previously anticipated. What we’re saying is, we have to re-freeze the arctic region, and we have to refreeze it quickly. So we are now also looking at mechanisms we can devise, and we are focusing on what we call ‘biomimicry’, so we’re mimicking natural processes here, to see if we can refreeze the arctic quickly. We do have a very promising process that we are getting moving now.  

Professor Sir David King

DM: What slows governments down in the move towards combating climate change?

PSDK: Basically, the biggest challenge comes from those who think their vested interests are at stake. So, obviously, the fossil fuel companies, those producing coal, oil and gas in particular. Those using coal, oil and gas. The biggest expenditure on trying to downgrade the climate change challenge, has come from the Koch brothers, who own most of the coal mines and coal industries in the United States. We believe they have put half a billion dollars a year into trying to destabilise the climate change debate. There’s no other organisation in the world spending half a billion trying to get the climate message across. It’s quite a challenge.

At the same time, we now have a situation where China is very committed to action on climate change. I went into China more times than in any other country in the world when I was negotiating. We did a risk analysis with China and India using our actuaries from the city of London, from the insurance sector, and as a result of that risk analysis – working with them for nine months – we have got China and India to understand fully the big challenges that climate change has for them.

What we know is that John Kerry [was recently] in Shanghai, talking to his opposite number in China, Xie Zhenhua. I know both these people, and Minister Zhenhua and John Kerry get on very well. What is really significant is that, when President Biden announced Kerry’s appointment to run the climate negotiations, that same day, President Xi Jinping announced Minister Xie Zhenhua coming out of retirement to do the negotiations. That was a very clear indication that China and the United States want to work closely. We have never been in this position before, and frankly, if China and the United States running up to COP26, November this year, decide to work together, I think they can take the rest of the world with them.

Russia is more of a naysayer behind the scenes than in front. They say, ‘Yes, climate change is a big problem,’ but they do all sorts of things to try and downgrade the negotiations. The United States has, for years, been playing a very similar game, except for a period in Obama’s second presidency period. We are now, for the very first time ever, in a position where we could have really strong leadership from the two leading countries in different parts of the world.

DM: Who is most at risk from rising sea levels?

PSDK: The region of the world most at risk is south-east Asia. As the ice melts on Greenland, it is already beginning to melt – again, looks like it is going to positive feedback – it means that sea level rises are much higher.

Let me concentrate on 2050, just 30 years from now. If we look at Vietnam, which is basically a country that is a delta, it’s the Mekong River which created this enormous delta, so it’s very close to sea level, the whole country. Vietnam, we now understand, is likely to be flooded at least once a year by 2050, 90% of the country. Bangladesh, 67% percent of the country. If we look at Indonesia, Jakarta was already underwater in January and February of this year.

The reason south-east Asia is so much at risk is, it’s not just the rising sea levels, but the fact is, when you get storms at sea, the water moves further inland. This is an area of the world that suffers most from hurricanes. Hurricanes pick up their energy from the ocean. So when a hurricane is passed over the ocean, it picks up more and more energy, and gets bigger and bigger, and behind the hurricane, the ocean is considerably colder. All the heat has been taken up into the vortex.

They have experienced over the last ten years, the most severe hurricanes ever observed by man. This takes water further inland. We are seeing a threat which indicates that 200 to maybe 300 million people in south-east Asia will probably need to find somewhere else to live. It’s a vast challenge to the future of humanity.

DM: If you were to speak directly to climate change deniers, what would you say?

PSDK: I say to everybody much the same: There’s no argument. We have 4-5 years to put in place everything that is required to manage civilisation for the next millennium. We have really done so little – 1992 to 2015, 2015 the first international agreement with 197 nations backing it. We now have no time on our hands, so I’m pushing this whole agenda very quickly.

By the way, I am very, very keen to be working with the business sector, because it’s the business sector that’s taking these new solutions into the marketplace that create wealth, and also spin the whole process forward. If we look at those offshore wind industries, that is the biggest growth sector in our economy. Totally in the renewable sector, we are employing about half a million people, and of course, the profits are high, because electricity is a valuable commodity.

I think you’ll find that a lot of people are understanding the agenda to get away from fossil fuels provides massive opportunities with those in the private sector prepared to develop new technologies that can replace these old technologies. The energy industry is the biggest industry in the world by far. If you look at the opportunities there, there are so many. And electric vehicles will be on the road soon.

Note: This piece was originally published in Business & Finance magazine, vol. 58, no. 2, available to read, with compliments, here.