Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, has not retired into quiet obscurity since leaving that position. He co-authored the book The Hot Topic (reviewed here) in 2008 and works as director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford, which addresses the major environmental threats and opportunities facing the world. He’s written two articles in recent days which seemed to me worthy of mention. Yesterday in New Scientisthe urged readers not to despair despite the apparent lack of progress at the recent Bonn talks.
He acknowledges that there’s reason for gloom at the failure of December’s Copenhagen summit to come up with a successor to Kyoto — failure which he puts down to a combination of serious organisational issues and glaring, often naïve, political errors. He describes the end result as “the victory of unambitious realpolitik over correct, but wishful, thinking.” But some positives resulted.
First, climate change now has the full attention of the world. “The anger of poorer nations is a powerful and lucid expression of their full appreciation of the scale of the problem.” Second, we realise that a single collective leap won’t bring a successor to Kyoto. Third, we now have global agreement to avoid a dangerous 2 degree temperature rise and deforestation is now part of agreements.
However, the main reason for his optimism is that he sees alternative ways to regulate carbon through national and regional commitments to emissions trading.
He points to the European Union whose Emission Trading System is the largest of its kind in the world. If the US introduces its own version, Mexico’s president is keen to join and wants to see Canada sign up too, forming a North American trading group. Another emissions trading market may emerge among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Harmonising such parallel markets would be a challenge, especially for international trade policy, but co-ordinating across a small number of commodity markets is likely to be easier than across a large number of sovereign states. There is the issue of regional schemes initially leading to industries in different parts of the world paying different prices for emitting carbon and thus giving an advantage to manufacturers in regions where the price of polluting is low. King’s reply is that high-price countries would impose tariffs on imports from low-price regions to level things up. He has said elsewhere that if this causes trouble with the WTO it also presents an opportunity for the WTO to step in and “persuade nations to get their act together”.
He is sceptical about attempts to create multibillion-dollar funds to help poorer nations adapt to climate change, since he’s not sure that the pledges of the developed world are credible. A better approach in his view would be to extend existing trading schemes to these nations.
“This would encourage them to develop lower-carbon economies and generate income through taxes on high-carbon imports. It would also unify emissions trading, overtaking troubled efforts to devise a global trading scheme with a single carbon dioxide price. Regardless of the details of the mechanism, it is plain that one of the central challenges for climate policy is to find a credible way to meet the concerns of the poorest countries while offering the right development incentives.”
Add to these factors the increasing confidence of the growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, and King sees hope ahead by the time of the meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012, the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit in the same city that started the Kyoto process.
“We are all custodians of a global commons, and we have moral responsibility to future generations to curb our greenhouse emissions. I am optimistic that Rio can deliver.”
On Sunday, King wrote in the Observer about the different but closely related question of oil supply and demand, under the heading We must abandon oil before it’s too late. In the context of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster he presses the point that demand for oil may outstrip supply sooner than people realise. Analysis undertaken at Oxford suggests that the IEA is overestimating the reserves in fields yet to be developed by some 30%. He expects oil prices to rise very considerably soon to be more than $100 a barrel, peaking at $130 a barrel by 2015.
The effect of this on importing countries will be harsh, especially on developing countries. King is scientific adviser to the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, and has recommended that the country do all it can to decouple its currently rapidly growing economy from oil.
Kicking the oil habit is increasingly necessary for economic reasons, but when added to the imperative to reduce carbon emissions and prevent dangerous climate change he considers the case for change is overwhelming.
He briefly sketches the kind of measures that will need to be taken. The efficiency of transport will need to be increased by reducing air friction, improving engines and running smaller, lighter vehicles. Alternative fuels will be important, moving from petrol to new generations of biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells and electric vehicles. We will also need to go beyond the designs of the vehicles and fuels and look at changing urban design, at building and improving mass transportation systems, and changing the ways that people drive.
His organisation is holding a World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment between 27-29 June in Oxford on the theme of low carbon mobility. There’s an interesting short video clip launching the forum here.