From a political perspective, Sir David King has played an enormous role in shaping the sustainability and climate change discussion in the UK and elsewhere. Especially, when he was the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor in 2000-07, he was a vocal and articulate man talking about the need to rise up and act on climate change. With a body of work that stretches over 500 published papers on science and policy, Sir David is regarded as one of the foremost authority on the subject.
In his current role as new permanent Special Representative for Climate Change, Sir David is taking that role further. Not only is he helping shape the sustainability movement in the UK, but also inspiring other countries and governments to take it up through his talks and interactions. On a recent trip to India, Sir David sat down with Shashwat DC for an engaging discussion that spanned from climate change to energy security, from sustainable development to CSR. Here’s the interaction as it happened.
Can conferences like Warsaw aid in the reduction of emissions? Are we on a pathway to achieving low emissions with conferences like Warsaw?
The latest report on the inter-governmental panel on climate change tells us that if we continue at the present rate, ie increase in GHGs by 1.8 percent per annum, by 2040, we would have burnt up the entire planet’s budget for carbon. Let’s convert that into a simple equation. Suppose we get a very good result by 2015 and we are increasing at 1.8 percent per annum, what we need to do in 2018 is to turn this around and decrease the emissions by 3.2 percent year-on-year, per annum to stay within the budget after 2018.
In other words, we know what we have to do, but if we leave it for later, say 2020 or 2030, then we have to decrease much more quickly. My question is, will we actually manage to see a turnaround from this continued increase to a continued decrease? When I was in the British government, I managed to persuade the Prime Minister down this route, thereby reducing our emissions year-on-year. So by 2050, we would have reduced our emissions by at least 60 percent compared with 1990. This policy was in 2004; in 2005, we persuaded the European Union to join us, so now we have even the EU committing to reduction of emissions. Europe understands the need to reduce by 80 percent by mid-century. This means we will be emitting in Europe two tons of carbon dioxide per person. Because by 2050, we will be nine billion people in the planet and if you multiply that by two, you have 18 billion tons of carbon dioxide.
Many are, however, terming the Warsaw conference on climate change a complete washout. Do you agree with this?
I don’t think Warsaw was the disaster that the media is making it out to be. I think we’re on the right path. We have to be very careful of creating a mood of despondency around the negotiations. What we have to do is play up the positive sides. If the media goes back saying, “NGOs have walked out, everybody is only arguing”, without watching what the final conclusion was, we are all going to be left with negative thoughts. We were determined to reach an agreement—and we reached it. The problem is, not one newspaper has published what I’m saying now. The three points to the agreement were:
- Right Global Trajectory: Every country will now contribute its trajectory for its contribution to the problem by February 2015, so that it can be put through a process of peer review. By the time we get to December 2015, we will have all had peer review discussions to see if we’re on the right global trajectory
- Green Climate Fund: We all know that we need a green climate fund and the green climate fund will need to be around a $100 billion a year in 2020
- The Loss and Damage Programme: This programme was formed because a representative from the Philippines went on a hunger strike and said, “Look what happened to my country that suffered on account of extreme events.” Now, the details of the loss and damage fund will still need to be worked out. Extreme events like the floods in Russia, the Philippines disaster, even New York being hit by hurricane Sandy, are coming up in numbers and are becoming more extreme. We, therefore, need to set up a kind of insurance fund so that we can immediately help the people who’ve been hit by the climate change impacts.
The typical argument India is making is that while the climate change has been exacerbated by the rich and developed countries, developing countries like India have to bear the brunt of this. Do you agree with this?
That’s the purpose for setting up a green climate fund—we accept the differential responsibility. That is why we have agreed to lower our emissions now instead of leaving it until 2025.
You have been a strong proponent of solar energy, but in India’s growing population, can solar truly be the solution, given the high tariffs?
I spoke to a number of people from the Indian private sectors, who have been telling me all about the money-making operatives like solar power and clean energy. We are reaching a point where electricity produced by solar power is cheaper than electricity produced by coal. The Europeans were the ones who introduced feed-in tariffs. Solar PVs going on roofs didn’t just happen, it was encouraged by governments who said, “We will create a regulation, which means, if you put solar panels on your roof, we guarantee that if you put the electricity you don’t need back on the grid, we will pay you a high price. And it will cover the cost of your solar PVs installations.” So, of course, many people did it. The cost was very high initially, but now the cost of PVs, on account of the high demand, has come down and is still coming down. So in the last ten years, the cost has come down 80 percent.
The only reason why it is now cheaper to produce electricity in many parts of India using PVs is because the Europeans paid for it upfront. India is poised to be able to go into a low carbon energy future to benefit its economy and the environment precisely because Europe pushed it through. Britain doesn’t have quite as much as sunshine as the rest of Europe and certainly not as much as India. So we have been doing the same with wind. The British PM in parliament is announcing a huge subsidy for offshore wind in Britain. And the reason we’re doing it is because we’re driving the price of offshore wind down. And this is beneficial not only for British companies, but for India and the rest of the world.
Sustainable development is important but how practical is it when it comes to meeting the consumption needs of people?
I have been working in Rwanda in Africa, one of the least developed countries in the world. I had nine people working with the President and the cabinet and we produced a green growth and climate resilience policy for the country. That policy is embedded across the government in every department now. I said to the President in the beginning, nothing in this new policy will mean that your GDP growth will be less, it will be more.
Rwanda is a land-locked country and imports oil to make electricity. They buy the oil from Saudi Arabia, it comes by ship to Mombasa, and from Mombasa, trucks take it to Rwanda. So 90 percent of the electricity comes from burning oil. We pondered, “How can we create energy from within the country, what are the alternative sources that Rwanda has?” It turns out that they don’t have much wind, but they have a fair bit of sunshine, and they certainly have geothermal energy. They probably have five times the amount of geothermal energy they are using. Now when they develop geothermal energy, they’re putting Rwandan people to work, investing in their future by creating jobs, using local energy and are not importing energy from outside. Earlier, they were selling coffee and tea, making dollars and using it to buy oil. They were barely managing to invest, but now their ability to invest more in their own country will be much higher.
So every bit of the policy was focused on improving the wellbeing of their people, the GDP growth and lowering the environmental stress. Two years ago, Rwanda won the global Green Globe award because of their enormous success. They’re managing eco-systems and their wellbeing. The average income per person in Rwanda today is $700 per annum. And now they’re generating 140 MWagainst 80 MW five years ago. By 2017, it will be close to one GW. All of the additional energy will come from alternative sources. For every country, you have to make a separate analysis, so for every region in India, the same theory applies.
You have advocated aiming for emissions to reach two ton per person, but considering population is constantly rising in India and China and all across the world, do you still think we can reach a plateau point?
I believe population growth is a done deal. We had six billion people in the year 2000; contrast that with what is now seven billion and we’re rising towards eight billion, but we will stop rising at nine billion. Because the average number of children per woman on the whole planet is now 2.2–2.1, which is what is needed for a stable population. You and I can certainly not claim the credit for this, because ‘female education, female empowerment and availability of contraceptives’, these are the three things that have transformed the number of children per woman. For example, the child mortality rate is collapsing in Rwanda; even with this low level of income, every mother with her child goes to a clinic to get her child immunized—90 percent of children in Rwanda are immunized already. Now the mothers know that their children are going to survive, so they don’t see the need to have six or seven children. If you have two, it’s enough for a family. Now globally, we’ve got a cohort of 15 year olds that are two billion, and as they grow older, they’ll replace a cohort which was one billion at the top, the over 60 year olds. So that’s the only remaining population growth.
However, the growth in the global middle class, that is those spending between 10 and 100 dollars a day on commodities, is the real challenge. The figure was one billion in 2000, and now we’ve reached two billion. That big increase has happened mainly in the Asia Pacific region—one billion more middle class people in the Asia Pacific region in 13 years. It’s the middle class consumers that we need to look at. Are they going to continue to consume as they did in the 20th century? No way, they can’t. What will stop them? The prices, the market will stop them. Today, food prices are three times higher than just five years ago, oil prices compared to the year 2000 are ten times higher. They cannot live the same as they did before. So we have to convert our mode of living from a linear economy, which is the waste economy, into a circular economy.
Sustainability is not just in terms of lowering emissions and saving energy; it also goes down to the small nitty-gritties like our eating habits, right?
Of course, the growth in meat consumptions is unsustainable. One kilogram of beef uses 12,000 liters of fresh water to be produced. And the funny thing is, we don’t need that much protein. We are over-consuming protein. In Brazil, one beef animal occupies one hectare of land.
Do you think that even at nine billion, we are already drawing more from our planet? Are those numbers according to you still sustainable?
I believe that we are smart enough to make it sustainable, not at all like we did in the 20th century. People in the 20th century didn’t care about what they did to the air or the oceans, or how they consumed scarce resources. We cannot afford to do that now. We have to value our environment, the ecosystems that support us etc. Otherwise, we are finished. We are perfectly adapted to the ecosystems that we evolved into. We are in danger of changing those ecosystems so that we can no longer live. The only remaining question is, are we smart enough to think our way through this? I’m suggesting we are. We all have to work on it.
In 2004, you had said that climate change is a greater threat than international terrorism. Close to a decade has passed now; do you think we have woken up to the threat? How big is the threat?
The threat has become more apparent now then it was then. Everyone is now much clearer about the short time scale and is, hence, pushed to act and do something about it. That’s the new message. Back then, people explained the gravity of the situation as a threat for our grandchildren, but now this is a threat to us. And we have to handle it because it is in our lifetime that we’re going to see these challenges. And we are already seeing them. The intensity and the number of extreme events are going up. So all I can say is, it’s become a much more urgent problem now than it was back then.
How important is it to you that we change?
The seriousness of extreme events and the impacts are coming across to people. When I went to Russia on my first mission in my new job, I discovered that a week before I arrived, President Putin had made a Presidential decree that Russia will decrease its emissions by 2020 by 25 percent compared with 1990. That was the first time President Putin had ever made a commitment on climate change. Why? Russia has suffered terribly from floods, heat waves etc. Now those floods are from melting permafrost, causing enormous infrastructure damage, loss of lives, the receding summer ice in the Arctic circle, which is now 40 percent less than what it was before. And they know that their permafrost is melting on account of global warming, so Russia is already concerned. Natural calamities like hurricane Sandy will be a driving force for people to take action. But there’s another very important driver for action, and that is we know the solutions. We know how to manage this. We can go to a low carbon, sustainable future and our wellbeing can be improved. So here’s the reason for change.
I believe oil will continue to be used, but we’ve reached a point where we should stop burning oil because it’s too rare a commodity. The oil prices increased from $15 in 1999 to $142 in 2006, and nobody predicted that, except a group of people who were talking about peak oil. Now what they should have said was, peak crude oil. So crude oil production has already reached its peak, which is 75 million barrels a day, but we’re consuming 91 million barrels a day today. The difference is made up from expensive non-crude sources, such as tar sands. For example, DSM, a Dutch company, the world’s biggest nutrition company, aimed at improving the nutrition of children by finding a cheap way to make all the vitamins that we need. What they’re now doing is, manufacturing 90 percent of the world’s vitamins on the market and using oil as the feedstock. So they’re converting oil into a very high value product. Now this is an example of putting oil to good use, instead of burning it to drive vehicles. So again, I think the market and the price will take us in the right direction.
You’ve also been a supporter of nuclear power. Considering what happened in Fukushima, what is your stance on nuclear power now?
I think the disaster was not Fukishima, the disaster was the tsunami that hit the east coast of Japan. Whenever anyone talks about Fukushima, I ask them, how many fatalities from radiation have there been, compared with the direct impact of the water hitting the land? Not one fatality of radiation have we seen so far. So let’s keep it in context. Fukushima was a disaster, but perhaps the biggest disaster now is that Japan has switched off 46 nuclear power stations and replaced those with coal-fired power stations. Japan had to announce at the meeting in Warsaw that they are not decreasing their emissions by 2020 by 25 percent, but will increase their emissions by 3.4 percent. That for me is the real disaster.
The lessons from Fukushima have to be learnt by the nuclear industry. Imagine if another jumbo jet fell out of the air, and 600 people were killed, would we stop flying? Or would we be improving the safety of the plane? And I have the same approach to nuclear power stations. Every time there’s an accident, we should learn the lessons and improve the regulations. Britain now has the most heavily regulated nuclear power stations in the world. So we’re building very safe power stations which have, incidentally, virtually no risk of being hit by a tsunami. We need this to meet our targets if we wish to have zero carbon electricity on the grid.
When it comes to the private sector, we’ve always seen that regulations are what make companies aware of doing and undertaking certain initiatives. What according to you is the right approach?
There’s no right approach. It’s an interdependent process. Take, for example, the carbon budgets that UK has up to 2028. The private sector asked the government to set the carbon budgets into the future, so they know when they make a low carbon investment; it’s going to pay off into the future. I think we have a very robust system in place now, but that’s driven by the discussion between the government and the private sector. Because when the private sector pushes the government in the direction of good regulations, the government is more likely to undertake some action. This almost gives the government permission to regulate. However, I will say that it’s not just the responsibility of the government or the private sector; it’s also the public and the NGOs.
There are some companies in the USA that have completely changed their behaviour. These companies are neither driven by governments nor other companies, but by public anger. For instance, one of their major chemicals companies, which has associated with accidents in America, was faced with a major NGO campaign against them and threatening their business. So they turned themselves around and slowly became one of the leading green chemical companies of the world. This is a messy non-linear business, with NGOs sometimes playing a key role. In other cases, companies are driven by visionary CEOs, who want to transform their companies, like DSM and Unilever. So what you see is a combination—leadership, bottom up, top down, government, public action−that actually drives the change.