In an exclusive interview, Sir David King tells Ethical Corporation why Brown, Obama and Lula are on the right road to reducing carbon emissions

Sir David King is a leading voice in Britain’s climate change debate. The director of Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, for seven years King served as chief scientific adviser to Tony Blair, a position he used forcefully to make the case for strong and across-the-board cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

King sat down at a global warming conference in Aarhus, Denmark, with Ethical Corporation writer Eric Marx to discuss the UK’s role in the upcoming climate talks, the impact of the current economic crisis, and the role industry and the corporate responsibility community can play in leading consumers towards a more sustainable retail model.

Marx: We’ve seen a shift in energy and climate-change policy and also conflict between domestic economic policies and worldwide consensus. Those working for a treaty at Copenhagen seem at an impasse over emissions targets and how to finance them. The stage is set for a showdown among western countries and between western countries and those in the developing world. Are you alarmed? Is there a prescription?

King: The major factor is that the British government has said we will reduce our emissions by 80% by mid-century and I believe that is the correct position for every fully developed economy in the world. If we follow that through with equivalent statements from the rapidly emerging economies – particularly China, India and Brazil – then we would have ourselves on the right path.

But critics say 2050 targets are too far removed and a more rigorous 2020 reduction target is needed to avert a 2C increase in temperature – what some refer to as the tipping point of no return.

We want to manage this process without disrupting GDP growth, and reaching 18m tonnes of carbon by mid-century – roughly half as much as we are producing today – is the best possible pathway into the future. At that point we have a less than 50% chance of being below the 2C increase in temperature. That leaves us with a 20% chance of a temperature rise being 3.5C by the end of the next century.

What, then, would a palatable Copenhagen agreement look like?

There are four elements we need to see happen.
One: agreement on a global carbon-stabilisation level, saying we’ll stay below X parts per million greenhouse gases by the end of the century.
Two: agreement on national targets that set carbon trajectories on a country-by-country basis according to where they are now and where they need to be.
Three: establish fiscal mechanisms, such as carbon tracking or a cap-and-trade system.
Four: create a fund to transfer technology and assist developing countries in adaptation.

Are you encouraged by proposals put forward by the Obama administration?

Yes, he’s heading to 1990 levels by 2020 and then goes on a linear path to an 80% cut by 2050.

But isn’t the world looking for the US to lead by proposing a more ambitious target?

What we really need to see is Barack Obama and [China’s] premier Wen Jiabao standing together, saying: “We also are going to make a joint statement.” That would just unlock all the negotiation problems leading into Copenhagen.

What impact is the economic crisis having on the climate debate?

It creates an opportunity, for two reasons. One is the cultural change we see with people realising that if we just reinflate consumerism, we won’t move down a more sustainable road. The second is that governments now have an opportunity to invest stimulus money into areas of the economy that take us into a low-carbon future.

What green technology holds the greatest possibility?

My advice to the British government is to use a significant portion of the stimulus package to insulate homes and buildings. This puts a lot of unemployed contractors back to work and it would end up with the British built environment becoming much more energy efficient. After 2017 every new building in Britain has to be zero carbon from cradle to grave.

You’re also in favour of unproven carbon capture technology, more nuclear power and genetically modified food.

We have to use every tool in the bag, or we will not be able to manage this problem. Who is going to tell me snipping a rice plant gene from one plant to another is a bad idea if it leads to a flood-resistant crop capable of feeding millions more people? GM is some of the most sophisticated technology we have, but we have to properly regulate every product so there are no harmful effects to human beings, animals or the environment.

Regarding carbon capture and storage, this is an opportunity to fund demonstration projects whereby you gasify the coal and produce hydrogen and CO2, burn the hydrogen in the power station and then sequester the CO2. That is the far cheaper way of keeping coal-fire stations operational.

What’s the chance of creating a mechanism that halts destruction of Brazil’s rainforest?

When [Brazil’s] president Lula da Silva turned up in November at the climate conference in Poznan, he made a brilliant speech. He said: “Britain has promised to reduce emissions 80% by 2050, but Brazil will go further: by 2025 we will completely eliminate deforestation.”

In Britain we produce 11 tonnes of CO2 per person per year; in Brazil they produce 12 tonnes if you count deforestation. If Lula then follows that up by coming to the negotiating table in Copenhagen with that as his unilateral position, that will be a massive step forward. By 2025 it’s then possible for Brazil to be producing five tonnes of carbon per person.

But in terms of a financial mechanism for carbon credits linked to deforestation, are there viable options on the table?

The price of CO2 in the European Union, which was about €28 to €30 a tonne, has collapsed since the financial crisis and is now about €8 a tonne. This is awful for the world’s first experiment in carbon trading. If European commission president Jose Manuel Barroso were to suddenly announce a carbon-cap increase on each nation in Europe – in other words, a reduction in CO2 allowances – I promise you it would push up the price.

What role can industry and the corporate responsibility community play in moving us to a carbon-neutral economy?

Of course, corporate social responsibility is always going to be limited in business unless the consumer is in step with what the companies are doing, because businesses are beholden to their shareholders. We can’t get around that. The reality is that we are working within a market system, but the big part is consumer demand and it’s very clear now that consumers are beginning to more aggressively discern the sustainable issues.

So it’s possible for a new cultural paradigm to emerge – one that re-evaluates consumerism on a more sustainable grounding?

This is an absolutely essential part of the cultural shift we’ve been talking about. The green shoots of sustainable marketing that I see emerging are here, most notably with fair trade products. But we also need a great strengthening of global governance procedures in managing water, food and land.

What, then, can government and industry do to help spur consumer consciousness?

Gordon Brown has enlisted the support of 50 leading companies that are backing the defossilising of our economies. It’s very important for governments to realise that private sector companies are themselves backing this move. They understand the challenges that underlie it but the private sector alone cannot come up with a solution. Part of the solution lies with the consumer and part of it is with government.

And are you confident that if we act now, there’s still an opportunity for the world to come together and get ahead of global warming?

There have been a lot of questions raised about climate modelling, that it doesn’t back up our assertions. We have to be aware of the fact that some of this is scare-mongering. But at the same time we have to emphasise the massive challenges we’re faced with. We can’t have absolute certainty in forecasting but we are getting better and better science all the time. So what we now need to do is manage our economies in a sensible way – and I think 40 years is not a bad time scale. Over this period we can reduce our emissions in a very substantial way.

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