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Wed. May 22, 2024
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Formulating a Strategic Plan to Tackle Climate Change: Interview with Sir David King

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You have held several government posts, advising four UK Prime Ministers - Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May. In what is likely to be an election year in the UK, what would be your advice to the next Prime Minister on the top climate priorities?

The current Prime Minister seems to be backing off from actions on climate change and I am expecting that Keir Starmer will be the next Prime Minister. My advice to him is to return to the all-party agreement made in 2008 which was to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. Subsequently Theresa May made the commitment to reach net-zero by
2050.

These commitments have been developed in government policy since that commitment was made, but have gone through Parliament and the Climate Change Committee was established, which means that Parliament was setting challenges for each government, whatever their color. We are in the peculiar situation now where the Chair of the Climate Change Committee retired one and a half years ago, but we still haven’t got a new chairman: this is up to the Prime Minister to confirm what the
selection process produces as the replacement chair.

Keir Starmer is already committing to actions that would take us back to this original 2008 commitment. This is good, but not enough. The world is in a different place and the biggest difference is the asymmetry in temperature rises across the world. We’ve seen that the Arctic circle region is now heating up at 4 times the rate of the rest of the planet. In Greenland, we already have ice looking as if it is melting irreversibly. Even in 50 years, that means several metres of sea rise.

What we need to agree on, and this is what my advice would be to the next Prime Minister, is a major policy to reduce emissions. Second, to achieve long-term stability for humanity, we need to capture greenhouse gases at scale. A manageable future means bringing down the level in the atmosphere from 500ppm to approximately 350ppm. This means removing 10bn tons of greenhouse gases per year even to the end of the century. Third, how do we buy time so that our manageable civilization isn’t destroyed before we reach the 350ppm threshold? To achieve that, we need to repair those parts of the climate system that have headed towards irreversible change. How do we retain Arctic Sea ice through the Arctic summer as well as the winter? Fourth, we must develop resilience in every part of the world. But this varies by location. Along coastlines, rising sea levels is an enormous challenge. For the whole world, food is also a major challenge: if we look at the third biggest rice producer in the world, Vietnam, the whole country is close to sea level. By midcentury, 80% of the country will be under seawater at least once a year. We’re looking at massive potential loss of rice production and all sorts of challenges on a short timeline.

This is why the group that I run is called the Climate Crisis Advisory Group. This is a global crisis. So, I would take all of that to Keir Starmer and say what you must do, Prime Minister, is what Tony Blair did. And that is, do what you think every country should do. And then we’re in a powerful position to persuade other countries to do it as well.

Another area of your expertise is the energy transition. How effective do you think policies like the European Green Deal are What further steps should be taken?

The EU Green deal is a continuation of policies since 2000. It was haphazard at that point, but it is important to understand that Britain, from 1997 onwards, put an obligation on electricity utilities to produce a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. That percentage was increased every couple of years, with penalties if energy companies failed to meet targets. The utilities did this without complaint as they simply passed the costs on to the consumer.

The cost of renewable energy then was about ten times higher than it is now. But other European nations like Germany, Italy, and Spain followed suit. So, we had a number of European nations following this process and thereby creating an artificial market for renewables to produce electricity. As this artificial market has grown in volume, it has pulled renewable energy prices down dramatically.

Even in Britain, solar energy is cheaper than installing new fossil-fuel based energy systems. In terms of wind power, Britons seemed to get fed up with wind turbines construction on land, so we built turbines in the North Sea. You would think that would be much more expensive, but the outcome is the reverse. The UK brought over the engineers who were working with the fossil fuel industry in the North Sea to assist with wind turbine construction. These marine engineers knew how to use shipping to transport the components to each of these turbines. It meant that we could build the turbines with the longest blades in the world. Therefore, Britain has the most efficient turbines in the world - it turns out that it is cheaper than any other form of electricity.

To get the market operating, you first must put government regulatory systems in place to allow it to compete with the mature fossil fuel industries. But once you’ve got that in place you no longer need any form of subsidy. That’s why the International Energy Agency is indicating that the most cost-effective new form of electricity production in most parts of the world is now renewable energy.

In terms of further steps following the EU Green Deal, we need to deliver all the alternative technologies to fossil fuel technology. For example, electric vehicles. China is in the lead on electric vehicles: 30% of vehicles on Chinese roads are electric and China is producing photovoltaics for solar energy production for themselves and for virtually the whole world. Their product is extremely good, very difficult to compete with, and cheap. This could inspire the EU.

You have emphasized the role of indigenous people in the climate crisis, both in terms of the impacts they face and the knowledge that indigenous peoples possess about climate mitigation and adaptation. How can we ensure that climate action is equitable so that vulnerable populations, such as indigenous communities, are not left behind in the climate transition?

These people have been marginalized in every part of the world throughout our colonial history. Whether it is Australia’s Aboriginal people or the Khoisan people in South Africa who live in the Kalahari Desert, wherever you go these people have been marginalized. In the North Pole, the Sámi and Innuit people have lived for thousands of years on the permafrost region. These people, still today, do not have rights to the lands they live on.

We are still very short of being equitable to indigenous people, and indigenous people have a cultural advantage to offer us. These are people who learn to live with their natural surroundings. It is a desecration to spoil those natural surroundings because that is what creates their ability to live. Our global economic system regards us as apart from nature, not a part of nature. We have put no value on what our ecosystems essentially deliver for us. And without the ecosystems, we come to an end. There is an important aspect of the cultural attribution of indigenous people that we must learn from: how do we learn that we are a part of nature?

Daoism is a philosophy of the Chinese people that is still taught in Chinese schools. An important part of Daoism is that one should care for nature. The Chinese Communist Party, which changed its constitution when Mao Zedong died and introduced market principles, have changed it again to introduce a new principle, eco-civilization. This principle is defined as managing ecosystems as well as our human well-being with equal importance. This is a huge step forward. Because there is no afterlife in Chinese philosophy, they have the longest view into the future of any of our civilizations. Chinese people are happy to talk about the next 1,000 years, but we seem to be unable to look forward more than 50 years into the future. There is much that we can learn from this Chinese philosophy.

You have proposed 4Rs to tackle the climate crisis - rapid emissions cuts, removing atmospheric carbon, repairing the Arctic, and greater resilience. What strategic plan would you present for moving ahead with adjusting for climate action?

The strategic plan must adapt because times are changing. You might have come across Mission Innovation, a plan I developed with several economists in the UK because I felt that the COP process, with 197 nations negotiating an agreement, will tend always to go the Lowest Common Denominator. Mission Innovation tried to reverse that process by inviting countries to join if they believed in committing about $30bn per year to technologies in the post-fossil fuel world.

In the two-year runup to the COP in 2016, I made 96 official country visits. Wherever I was, I raised the option for countries to join Mission Innovation voluntarily. 22 heads of governments, representing 75% of global GDP, committed themselves to the $30bn a year target. We need willing nations to step up and make the strategic commitments that are required to take us forward in the 21st century.

Mission Innovation continues alongside the United Nations. The UN is critically important as it is proper democracy to have each nation represented in the decision-making. But if those nations include Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other change-resistant oil-producers, we will never reach the right decision. However, if we get other countries to come together with a coherent strategy for a manageable future, I believe that everyone else would fall into place.

That’s my idealistic strategic approach, but there is something more challenging. We have an economic system where greed is seen as valuable. Recent analysis shows that the top 5 wealthiest people have doubled their wealth since 2020 while the world is impoverished at the other end of the spectrum. We must move towards an economic system in which we understand there is the public good. The public good includes ecosystems, but also education, health, and everything that gives us a reasonable capacity to live. Then the market system can operate in the rest of the sphere. We must move ourselves into a much fairer world.

As the scientific understanding of climate change becomes clearer, we have witnessed a rise in climate change denial and disinformation, particularly in the United States. What would you prescribe for tackling these false narratives?

The fossil fuel lobby is very powerful in the United States and there is evidence that they have been spending more than $1bn per year on this exercise of trying to explain that climate change is nonsense. The impacts of climate change are more severe, yet they are still successful. The fossil fuel lobby has had an enormous influence around the world. I have been fighting the official negotiators from the United States, who I feel were representing the fossil fuel lobby, until President Obama’s second term.

Tackling climate change denial is only possible if there is greater public understanding of the nature of the crisis that we are in. The science community began putting this challenge to the world with Jim Hansen who, in 1988, spoke to a Senate Committee before the loss and damage from climate change that we experience today.

The accuracy of scientific predictions has improved over the years, with thousands of scientists dedicating themselves to the cause. Still, we are up against these lobbies. More information needs to get out there from those who do understand. That was the reason I set up the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, comprised of 16 members from 10 nations who represent the best of climate scientists. Over the past two-and-a-half years we have released 20 reports and in July last year we reached about 1 billion people. We’re not doing too badly, but we must do much better.

Sir David King was the permanent Special Representative for Climate Change from September 2013 until March 2017. Sir David was previously the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor from 2000 to 2007, during which time he raised awareness of the need for governments to act on climate change and was instrumental in creating the Energy Technologies Institute. He also served as the Founding Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford; was Head of the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge University 1993-2000 and Master of Downing College at Cambridge 1995 -2000.

Sir David has published over 500 papers on science and policy, for which he has received numerous awards, and holds 22 Honorary Degrees from universities around the world. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1991, a Foreign Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002 and knighted in 2003, Sir David was also made an Officier of the French Legion d’Honneur’ in 2009, for work which has contributed to responding to the climate and energy challenge.

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