Interview: Sir David King on nuclear power and Ferraris

Lifestyle change and nuclear power is what we need and fast, says Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK Government.

A few months ago Professor Sir David King landed in hot water. Asked by a woman at a lecture what she could do to help tackle climate change, he replied: “Stop admiring men who drive Ferraris.”

Owners and dealers of the legendary Italian marque were outraged, and a good many women too. Others thought the remark was plain silly. After all, why single out such a comparatively rare machine? At the time Professor King was winding down as chief scientific adviser to the UK Government, a post he held for seven often controversial years, covering crises such as the UK foot and mouth epidemic in 2001.

“That was not an attack on Ferraris at all, of course. It was an attack on the culture of admiring people who are big energy consumers,” he says. “But I was quite amused by the response.

“The important thing I was trying to say is that we need is a culture change. At the moment we have a strong correlation between high status and high energy consumption, and I would like to invert that.”

In 2003 Profressor King told President Bush that climate change posed a bigger threat to the world than terrorism. He was taken to task for that, Whitehall asking him to tone down his remarks for fear of upsetting the so-called Special Alliance. He refused, and now he expands on his views in The Hot Topic, the book he has co-written with the science journalist Gabrielle Walker, sub-titled ‘How to tackle global warning and still keep the lights on’.

Starting at home

First, what changes has Professor King made to his own lifestyle? “Well, I no longer drive around in a sports car,” he says with a slightly rueful laugh. A hint of his native South Africa is still discernible in his accent, though he has lived in the UK for several decades.

“I certainly have adapted all the easy energy-saving processes in my house. For example, I use solar heating. And one of the issues we make in the book is standby electricity, which produces 1% of all global carbon dioxide emissions. That’s just incredible – more than half of the total from aviation.”

Like many, he has deep reservations about biofuels, partly because of the environmental impact of production. Richard Branson’s flight last month on a Virgin jet using some biofuel was “frankly, a gimmick”.

As chief scientific adviser, Prof King insisted on using a Toyota Prius, and hybrids are now all the official rage among his former colleagues. More to the point, he is credited with getting Tony Blair to shift climate change up the agenda. The former prime minister committed the UK to 60% cuts in carbon emissions by 2050, a target exceeding Kyoto. Prof King recommended it on the basis that it was necessary to stop the Greenland icecap from melting, with disastrous consequences.

“After that little episode with my statement over climate change and terrorism, Blair really got the bit between his teeth and decided Britain should take an international leadership role on this issue. Gordon Brown looks like carrying that on. In terms of investment in the UK science base he is particularly strong. It was £1.4 billion in 1997 and £3.7 billion this year, so he is a great believer in what science can bring.”

However, not everyone is so impressed by the Prime Minister’s green credentials. Earlier this month Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, derided them as “embarrassing”.

Scotland is aiming for an even bigger cut in emissions: 80 per cent by mid-century. But here Professor King is at odds with the SNP Government and environmentalists, not over the target but over energy sources. “Scotland is still dragging its feet. It must get round to the fact that we will not manage this problem without nuclear power.”

Nuclear dilemma

If the scale of the challenge is pretty much taken as consensus these days, some of Professor King’s views, particularly his support for nuclear power, are anything but.

By reprocessing the stocks of uranium and plutonium already at Sellafield, he argues, the UK could “probably supply all our electricity needs for another 100 years.” The alternative, he says, will mean dealing with these substances as a more awkward form of waste, which will cost billions anyway.

“I can see no other way of handling our supplies of uranium and plutonium except to use them as energy sources. That satisfies three criteria: carbon dioxide emissions close to zero; no longer being dependent on external sources for energy supply; and thirdly, it’s cost-effective.

“With gas and oil prices where they are now, nuclear is actually likely to be competitive with gas-fired power stations. But as soon as you add in to the latter a price for carbon dioxide in the cap and trade within Europe, then it becomes even cheaper.”

Solar potential

Professor King’s own faith in technological innovation such as renewables, particularly photovoltaics, remains strong. “There are a number of really promising developments emerging from small hi-tech companies around the world,” he says.

To this end he set up the Energy Technologies Institute, a partnership between Government and business that will receive £1 billion over the next 10 years, half from the private sector and half from the public. “It will be up and running this summer and it will deliver, no question,” he says.

“For example, with solar energy, what we all really want to see is plastic and ceramic photovoltaics that are cost effective and efficient so that architects simply put them on all the external parts of our houses. These are in their nascence now but they need to be developed sharply towards the market place.

“And I think that’s what’s uniquely strong about this body – it’s going to be very market oriented. Because of Government policy, all these companies are going to need the technology, so they have an interest in seeing it developed.”

Overall, is he optimistic? Professor King forged much of his reputation at Cambridge University in the 1980s with his work on the ozone layer. As head of chemistry then, he developed key models that helped get CFCs banned, thus limiting damage to the vital protective band in our atmosphere.

“The ozone hole over Antarctica will probably have repaired itself by mid-century, so we know we can manage these big problems. I’m old enough to remember the culture change of the 1960s – it’s already happening with climate change.”

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