Sir David King
Founder & Chair
Centre for Climate Repair
at Cambridge University
About Sir David King
Sir David King was the UK Government's 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.
Sir David King, Founder & Chair of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss innovative technologies to tackle the climate crisis.
The following is a full transcript of the conversation.
Alberto Lidji: Hello and welcome to The Do One Better! Podcast in philanthropy, sustainability and Social Entrepreneurship. I'm Alberto Lidji your host from London. Please subscribe to the show and please share widely with others. It makes a huge difference indeed. Today it really is an absolute pleasure to welcome onto The Do One Better! Podcast Sir Dave King -- former UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and he is passionate about tackling the climate crisis that we face today. Welcome to the show, Sir Dave!
Sir David King: Alberto, delighted to be with you.
Alberto Lidji: It is so good to have you on the show. Tell us a little bit about what keeps you busy these days.
Sir David King: Well, I think what has been keeping me busy for the last 20 years and I mean very busy, has been primarily climate change. I'm referring to 20 years because it's 20 years ago that I was sitting comfortably in Cambridge in a position as head of the chemistry department when I was headhunted for the position of chief scientific advisor to work with Tony Blair in his government. And I decided to accept that post, principally because I felt there wasn't enough action being taken globally on climate change. And this would give me an opportunity. I hoped to make an impact.
Alberto Lidji: And how are we feeling today about the way things are progressing?
Sir David King: Well, I have to say, Alberto, things are not progressing in the way one would have hoped. We have a system working through the United Nations where 190 plus nations really have to reach an agreement on any action. And this is unfortunately a painfully slow process, whereas climate change is proceeding at a much faster rate. So we begin the discussions in 1988, 1990, first grade meeting, 1992, and it takes until 2015 before we actually get the first full agreement, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, to limit temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees, if at all possible, and much less than 2 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial level. And also saying we would review the process in 2020 this year to see how well we were doing and whether we were matching up to that commitment. So the answer to how well are we doing is we're not doing well at all. The rate of CO2 level in the atmosphere is climbing and climbing even more rapidly than it was back then. And so we have not actually closed the circle and got rid of emissions. We've got a very, very short timeline now left to manage this enormously serious problem.
Alberto Lidji: And it doesn't help that we're facing this madness, with the pandemic in terms of what the new normal, as it were, might look like. Are you feeling optimistic that we will be savvy enough to build back better, to try to structure things in a way that isn't just going to be back to the way things were?
Sir David King: No, I couldn't be optimistic about that at the moment. I think we have to be extremely active and careful in our activity in order to achieve all the objectives that we need to meet. And really, that's what I'm fully focused on. So I think the answer to your question is that the covid-19 pandemic, which is proving to be disastrous for human health, but also for the human economy around the world, that this is a massive distraction.
We have already seen a one year delay on COP 26. The big international program should have been in November this year. It's now delayed to November 2021. And some people have said, well, at least emissions are being reduced. Actually, emissions are insignificant to being reduced. And we can be confident that once the pandemic is over, the emissions will rise again.
However, my sense of optimism is that the stalling of the global economy and the creation of large debts in many countries in handling that actually gives us a platform to launch into rebuilding the economies of the world along the direction needed to manage this climate change challenge. And I think that is a very, very important objective that very few countries at the moment are stating that they understand the full extent of this objective.
But what it means is we must see no more investment in fossil fuel technologies, which means we go forward with oil, gas and coal, but we limit each year the amount we spend in those areas. And we certainly do not spend any more money on infrastructure in the old fossil fuel technology world.
What instead we do is rebuild the economies by building them in a completely green direction. And by green I simply mean the new non fossil fuel age, which is very exciting. It's a massive wealth creation opportunity. I just point to the British economy. A little known fact is that the most rapid evolution of the British economy of the last 10 to 20 years has been the development of the low carbon technologies so that we can produce all of our electricity without burning coal, oil or gas.
And you may know that this year we're achieving almost zero usage of coal to produce electricity. And that is since the Industrial Revolution, we have relied almost totally on coal. So this is a big transformation. And in that transformation, we have discovered that the new renewable energy sector is a big employer of people. And this is really what the economy requires. And it's also a big wealth generator. And what is interesting, neither I nor anybody else predicted that offshore wind would be by this time cheaper than any new fossil fuel technology on British land, cheaper to produce per kilowatt hour of real time electricity for Britain.
So we can see the opportunities, the economic opportunities. But the roll out across the world depends on moving away from the incumbent industries, the incumbent industries, of course, by which I mean the fossil fuel industries. The incumbents feel threatened by action on climate change and have a lot of power. But more than that, it's it's a matter of people not realising that there are alternatives available and that these alternatives not only deal with climate change, but get rid of most of the pollution that we're suffering from.
Alberto Lidji: Fascinating. And you mentioned wealth creation, do you think that in order to have sustainable solutions to the climate crisis, to the problems we're facing right now, that you necessarily need to align business incentives, as it were, with doing good?
Sir David King: I wish that I could answer that by saying, yes, we can get 100%, there by aligning in that way. I think that wealth creation is an important way forward. So let me just expand on that. If we were to invest in infrastructure based on fossil fuel technologies, there is not one bit of doubt in my mind that these investments will not pay through on the investment made, by which I mean the recovery of that investment fund will never happen.
They will not yield a profit. And the reason is because we are going to realize in the next five to 10 years what a massive problem we have with the use of fossil fuels. So we really need to roll back hard on carbon dioxide emissions and on methane emissions and methane usage as we go forward. But at the same time, and this is really my most important message, I was one of the negotiators in the climate change discussions leading up to Paris in 2015.
I was responsible for leading the negotiations from the British government end, I was put into the Foreign Office to represent the foreign secretary in the negotiations. And what we decided to do was aim for the 1.5 degrees centigrade target instead of 2 degrees. That was very much driven in Britain by my commitment, and my commitment was made at a meeting in Papua New Guinea of the Pacific island nations, the heads of government of Pacific island nations or their representatives.
And I was there representing the British government. But most of the islands were represented by the heads of governments and the heads of the governments of Australia and New Zealand were there and. At that meeting, I put a call through to Number 10, or at least the Fijian ambassador put the call through to Number 10 Downing Street, and I got permission to support the islanders in the move to push from 2 degrees to one 1.5 degrees as the limit.
And so that support was really important. And so by the time we got to Paris, the British government was able to take along with it quite a few of its friends from the European Union and perhaps surprisingly, but from the United States as well. So I have now changed my position. I'm now saying to everyone, I was wrong. 1.5 degrees is far too much.
Look at where we are today. We are at 1.1 to 1.2 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial level today. And already, for example, the Arctic summer ice has virtually gone right, so the Arctic sea is now heavily exposed to sunshine, the 24 hour sunshine during the Arctic summer. And what that means is that the entire Arctic Circle region is heating up at about three times the rate of the rest of the planet. It's up there at 3 degrees above the pre-industrial level on average. But in the Arctic summer, that region is really quite warm. And so what we learned this year in northern Russia, the temperature rose to 30 degrees centigrade; I mean this is incredible.
Last year it was 20 degrees centigrade. That was already a massive record heat. And this is an area where there's permafrost and the permafrost is where roads and railway lines are built on them. Towns and cities are built on the permafrost because it's been there and it's solid. It's been there for a long time and it's melting. And so the cost to the government is immense. But more importantly, as the permafrost melts, it releases methane. And methane is roughly 100 times more effective in raising temperatures than carbon dioxide per molecule.
So what we see is that there's an enormous threat from what is just happening in the Arctic region to the entire planet. More than this, Greenland sits in the Arctic Circle region and now Greenland is losing ice faster than before, and the rate of loss each year is increasing. So what we see is a potential disaster for the whole planet because sea level rises when all of the Greenland ice melts. It would be for the whole planet an average of seven metres.
But if we just look at where we will be in 2050 -- that's not too far away, just 30 years from now -- we will have sea level rises in the region of 50 to 60 centimetres, around half a metre. At half a meter, some of the world's major cities go underwater, Calcutta, the first, we can see that Calcutta is already suffering floods when there are big storms at sea. But we see this for many, many coastal cities.
Jakarta, another one will be completely underwater by then and I'm talking about mid-century. So what I am now pushing for is a global pressure to remove greenhouse gases that we have already put into the atmosphere. So we are at a total of 500 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent today, roughly speaking, whereas in the pre-industrial era we were at 260 to 270 parts per million. So we've almost doubled the amount of greenhouse gases that capture the heat from the sun.
And that is pushing up temperatures, but it is dramatically removing ice from land. The ice has only got one way to go, one place to go, and that's, of course, the oceans. So what we are pressing for is a three way target, three pillars. I formed the Center for Climate Repair here at Cambridge University. Tremendous support right across the university and including the vice chancellor and the Center for Climate Repair has three pillars.
One is deep and rapid emissions reduction. We're emitting about 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year today, and we need to get that as close to zero as quickly as possible going forward in time. We don't want to upset all the economies of the world, but if we can do this in 15 to 20 years, that would be wonderful. Doing it over 30 years would also be good. But I think the longer we take, the more difficult it will become.
But secondly, we need to be removing greenhouse gases that we've already put into the atmosphere. We need to get ourselves back down to 350 parts per million or less carbon dioxide equivalent. So what we need to do is remove greenhouse gases at scale. And so the Center is working on listing all of the technologies that could possibly achieve this, working on all of these technologies to see which of them can be scaled up. We wouldn't look at a technology that couldn't remove around a billion tons of greenhouse gases per annum or more.
And then thirdly, the third pillar is determined what technologies we can develop to refreeze the Poles, to refreeze the Himalayas as well, because the loss of ice from these is going to continue even if we manage to remove greenhouse gases at scale.
The objective in removing greenhouse gases, we believe we've got to get the level down by about 35, 40 gigatons, billion tons of greenhouse gases every year, roughly the level that we're emitting at today. And I say that because in order to achieve that, less than 350 parts per million, even at that scale, it is going to take us 40 years. So it's going to be a very big task. Now, we are actually quite optimistic. Some of these technologies really look as if we can remove that scale and achieve that target.
Alberto Lidji: Tell me a little bit about the technologies and particularly the second and third pillars. So in terms of removing the carbon dioxide, what's out there? I mean, instinctively, one thinks of a tree, you could plant those that should do the trick, but probably not at scale the way you're looking at it. And also pillar three really sounds fascinating about refreezing. And what does that look like? And that seems to be technologically possibly what's furthest away.
Sir David King: Yes, and you're quite right. So if we take the second pillar, then removing greenhouse gases, there's quite a bit of work going on, particularly in the United States and Europe on developing technologies, direct air capture, which is simply pushing air through a system where you capture the carbon dioxide and sequestrate it, that is store the carbon dioxide permanently, that there's is work going on achieving that. It is expensive. So I come back to your question about wealth creation.
This is a risk management process. It's not a wealth creation process because there's no product for the process to offset the cost. Perhaps a more promising technology, but there's a lot of work to be done to make sure there aren't bad side effects, is you mentioned planting trees. And of course, that's a very good way of doing it. That's the way the planet has kept the balance right. But the landmass is relatively small and we're making very good use of that land mass as we approach 8 billion people, 9 billion people on the planet surface.
So what about the other 72 percent of the of the world's surface, which is oceans? And so the the other project is -- and this I know sounds quite fantastic -- is effectively growing ocean forests in the oceans. Now, this is already a natural process. When the wind blows over, the Sahara Desert, picks up a dust storm. The dust storm, of course, is tiny particles of dust from the from the desert. And if the wind blows over the Atlantic and then suddenly dies down as it dies down, it peppers the ocean surface with the small dust particles.
And after that has happened within a week or two, that entire area is green. And the greening occurs because there is really one element that is essentially missing to create a green forest in the in the oceans, and that is iron and iron is present in deserts and that's why it's reddish yellow. And so the the dusting the ocean with these iron systems is going to produce a lot of green matter under the influence of sunlight. And included in that green matter is the stuff that fish feed on.
And so the oceans of the world are full of fish eggs. Each female fish on average lays around 100,000 eggs in a year. A lot of eggs, just the larvae hatch. There's no food and they die. But wherever there's a green area like this, the larvae have plenty of plankton to eat on. And so they survive. And within a few months you have millions, if not billions of fish in that area. And, you know, the bigger fish and the whales eventually arrive.
A large blue whale might take a million of these fish in one gulp. So what you have is an ocean forest in the sense that it is a full ecosystem that is being created. Now, what we're looking at is how you would mimic that process by deliberately salting the surface of the ocean with iron containing compounds. We know this works because of the effect of the dust. And it's all been tried out with iron sulfate. It works pretty well.
But what we are not sure of is whether there will be any negative impacts of this process. But if we are right, our calculations indicate that every year, if we cover about 2% to 3% of the deep ocean surface with iron in this way we would remove about 35 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. I'd suggest with that one technology, it is possible that we could deliver a massive potential solution.
So this is, in my view, the most important technology that needs investigation. And what it needs is really good experiments. And we're talking to universities around the world to join with us in running experiments in the various deep oceans of the world to see if we can do this without any negative impacts. What we've got to do is see that as the green matter dies, it doesn't remove all the oxygen from the water, which will obviously then all those wonderful fish will die and it doesn't reform carbon dioxide and emerge back into the atmosphere.
They're very good reasons why we believe this isn't going to be a dominant process and that the sequestration of the carbon dioxide will be permanent as long as we operate in deep water. But that all has to be proven with very detailed experiments, which will probably take about four years.
Alberto Lidji: I was going to ask you about that, the time frame. But four years is basically tomorrow.
Sir David King: The time frame is very short and we have to proceed by getting permission from the London protocol against dumping on the oceans. And it's very, very important that we proceed properly. And the London protocol wouldn't allow us to go up to scale at the moment. We have to do all the experiments to prove to them that there are no deleterious effects -- and to prove to ourselves. So, yeah, it's a long process and it's even going to be a little while before we can get there. But that that is just one major technology.
Alberto Lidji: Fascinating. And what about the third pillar?
Sir David King: This is the one that most people think is...
Alberto Lidji: I'm rubbing my hands with anticipation to hear what this sounds like!
Sir David King: ... Yes, well, I mean, there are some very obvious things already being tried out. Why is ice on the Himalayas important? Well, quite simply, the freshwater runoff in the spring from the ice and in the Himalayas is critically important to the agricultural economies of China, India, Pakistan, all of the countries in that region. And the Chinese government has instigated a series of experiments using white sheets. So white sheets in the summer over the ice reflect the sunlight away and keep the ice there so you can stop the ice melting in the summer. Remove the sheets, more ice is created as the snow comes in the winter and you've got the problem solved, that, however, that, of course, is an extraordinarily expensive way to proceed over hundreds of thousands of square kilometers.
So another technology is to create white clouds and to create these white clouds in a situation where the wind is blowing towards the North Pole, the South Pole, the Himalayas and of course, the white clouds sitting over those mountains and over the Arctic region and the Antarctic region would reflect the sunlight away in the summer in the same way as I'm describing from a white sheet.
And you can do this much, much more cheaply. It sounds like a very big experiment to do, and it is. But nevertheless, it would be considerably cheaper.
The payback in all of these things really has to be examined very carefully. We have to look at these processes as a risk management. So when I say risk management, if we do have half a metre sea level rise by mid-century and going higher as we move on through the century, many of our global cities will be inundated with water very frequently.
The problem is not the stable sea level. The problem is when there are storms at sea, the water inundates further in as the sea level goes up. So it's a very, very real challenge going forward in time.
Economies of the world will be devastated by this effect. So we need to understand risk management is going to be a very, very important investment for the economic future and the well-being of mankind.
Alberto Lidji: And if we're looking to attract private investors, the government would need to deploy fiscal tactics, different methods that would make this palatable for the well-meaning investor, the ESG-integrated investor, the individuals who may not necessarily have a product to back right now but by tweaking a few things you could.
Sir David King: You're quite right. Alberto you put your finger on it. And so now it brings me to another level of activity that I'm heavily involved with, which is how do we persuade governments that this is an endeavor worth investing in, in in the way you're describing? And I think the answer that we have foreseen is to try to create a global climate alliance of nations and states, an alliance of willing states who understand the nature of the risk, come together and decide on action.
Now, this is running not against, but with the COP process, the United Nations process. It is just providing a group of willing nations who will spearhead the actions instead of waiting for 190 plus nations to all agree to take this action. Now, my reason for optimism in this is that back in 2010, 2012, I was out of government for a period of time. And in that time, a group of us, Lord Richard Layard, was one of the key people in this group -- he's an economist from LSE -- a group of us formed this idea of creating what is today called mission innovation by inviting countries to join this mission programme to spend public money on research and development into developing all of the clean energy technologies we need to replace the fossil fuel era. And the idea was that the nations coming together to do this would be spending 30 billion dollars a year by 2020. Now, if I tell you that we we got 22 nations to agree to this plus the European Union, and this year we are spending 23 billion dollars public money in research and development into the new technologies required.
But each of those technologies can then be picked up on or the most promising of them by the private sector to take into the marketplace. So the idea is to use public money to de-risk the process of producing the necessary technologies. Now, this was very appealing to the governments that are contributing to this precisely because it's a wealth creation exercise. So the investment of 30 billion dollars a year would yield a much, much bigger profit than that. And that profit goes to the countries that are investing.
The countries include the United States. They include the European Union, include major countries around the world, including and really importantly, China and India. So what I'm really hoping we can do is build on what became mission innovation. This was on the first day of the COP meeting in Paris. So once again, the idea was to stimulate the Paris meeting rather than to act against it. And so what our objective is, my objective but I think others agree, is that on the first day of the COP meeting in Glasgow next year, when the heads of government are there, we'll invite -- outside the formal meeting -- we'll invite the heads of governments to all meet under the banner of climate repair to make these commitments, but not only to make these commitments. I would invite them to join mission innovation and refinance mission innovation with another 40 billion dollars a year, which is required for the greenhouse gas removal and the refreezing programs. Now, I think that is not just a realistic program, but it's the kind of program that is absolutely necessary to take us forward into a safer world.
Alberto Lidji: Fascinating. If somebody is listening to this, well many of our audience are philanthropists or investors in the impact or ESG-integrated space, where would you recommend they go to get more information to get involved, to explore this further?
Sir David King: Do come to me. We have formed the Center for Climate Repair here at Cambridge University in the U.K. We are talking to universities around the world. What we are mandated to do now by the University of Cambridge is to talk to leading universities around the world to get sister hubs to work on this. But at the moment, we are the central hub.
By the way, if I may say this, we also need philanthropic donations to help us to build this up very quickly. I need to raise 50 million pounds in the shorter term, but we are up and running, and so do contact me. Can I give my email, please?
Alberto Lidji: Please do. And just to underscore the point, a lot of global philanthropy in terms of climate -- backing climate causes -- global philanthropy is quite shy. I think the percentage of overall philanthropy that goes to climate is actually very, very small indeed. So by all means, go ahead, give your details, and hopefully this will encourage some folks to get in touch.
Sir David King: So as Alberto introduced me, I'm Sir David King in my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org -- we also have a website, Center for Climate Repaired Cambridge. Please do approach us. We would be delighted to respond.
Alberto Lidji: Excellent. Sir Dave, before we wrap up. Let me ask you for a key takeaway. What would you love our listeners to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode? And perhaps it's simply a recap of what we've been talking about. But what is that salient point you'd love somebody to keep in mind after they finished listening to you today?
Sir David King: My salient point is going to be a reasonably lengthy sentence, which is we are faced with the worst, biggest challenge humanity has ever had to face up to in terms of its future with what is now happening much more rapidly than was predicted by climate scientists, even 10 or 15 years ago. If we don't act quickly, we are really going to be unable to cope with this enormous challenge. But we know what we need to do and we need to get support from governments, we need to get support from companies, and we need to get support from philanthropists in order to manage this problem. I believe we can do it.
Alberto Lidji: Perfect. Perfect. Sir Dave, it has really been an absolute pleasure having you on The Do One Better! Podcast today. I sincerely wish you the best of luck and success with your endeavors because as a father of two young children I'm taking this quite personally. So good luck with everything and I really loved speaking with you today, it was really great.
Sir David King: Alberto, I enjoyed that too. Thank you.
Centre for Climate Repair - Website