Interview with Sir David King: Putting forward the climate restoration agenda

| 11th April 2018
Interview Sir david King Climate Restoration
Nick Breeze
Sir David King stepped down this year having been chief science advisor to prime ministers Blair, Brown, Cameron and May. In this interview with NICK BREEZE, he makes his case as to why we need a climate restoration agenda to avert ecological disaster

I worry about the future of my children and grandchildren if we don’t manage to make this critical transition.

Nick Breeze (NB): The term 'climate restoration' seems to be gaining traction in a number of circles. Can you give me your definition of what this entails?

David King (DK): Climate restoration is really saying that we need to restore the global climate system back to the state it was in 50 years ago. This not only means de-fossilising the global economy reaching net zero emissions but also that we need to reach negative emissions. This means pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere more efficiently than we are today.

NB: When we look at greenhouse gas emissions, the numbers are so huge - tens of billions of tonnes - that the task to not just stop but actually reduce atmospheric concentrations to safer levels seems impossible. Are you daunted by these kind of numbers?

DK: I think the first thing is the business of stopping the use of fossil fuels - and finding alternatives to concrete and steel is essential. We need to stop emitting the stuff.

Secondly, we need to pull carbon dioxide out of the air. Well, actually, we have been doing that on the planet for many many years. There is a balance between what green matter does in sunlight - taking carbon dioxide out and converting it into hard trees - and the business of reforesting, to create more forests and pulling the carbon dioxide out. That is one very important part of it.

But the second important part is what is happening in the oceans. We have wonderful deep blue oceans and not much thought is given to the fact that most of the deep oceans are actually almost deserts. There is very little living matter there.

“Can we re-green the deep oceans?” is another very big question, because the amount of carbon that can be stored at the bottom of the deep ocean, several miles down, is simply enormous. That is how, over the past thousands or millions of years, carbon has been stored in the past.

NB: Restoration is a term that implies “intervention” and this word is very often loaded in the direction of geoengineering. How do you think about intervention in the climate system?

DK: It is intervention in the sense that we are already intervening in the climate system by emitting greenhouse gasses. So the intervention we are now talking about is, “can we also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we have put up in intervening with the climate system?"

Now the first and most important thing is to return the planet to the sort of equilibrium that it was in before, by increasing natural carbon sinks.

The second thing, and this is where intervention, I think, becomes more of an item for discussion, is can we, for example, refreeze the Arctic? All of us scientists are really worried about what is happening in the Arctic and the Antarctic, because if the Arctic melts, and all the Greenland ice melts, global sea-level goes up by seven metres.

So can we prevent that from happening by intervening and trying to refreeze the arctic? These are measures that all need investigation and discussion and that is certainly part of the climate restoration agenda.

NB: What do you see as the most critical place to start in terms of restoring climate?

DK: I think the most important place to start is, when it comes to mitigation, reducing emissions. I think we are all clear where we stand on that. When it comes to restoration, in terms of pulling carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere back down below where they are now, we must start with investigative experiments, demonstrating whether or not there are going to be, whatever attempt we try, negative consequences.

The first thing is investigation. Setting it all up so that, as the need arises, and we all know it is going to arise, we can start using the techniques which are very unlikely to have a negative impact on the planet.

NB: Much of the research in these areas seems to be fringe compared to the amount of scientists actually working on, for example, modelling the climate system. Is there a way to scale up our engineering / restoration solution response?

DK: Five or six years ago I began to think of this in terms of what do we do about the business of switching to renewable energy right across the world. So that 100 percent of our electricity, for example, and our heat is produced from renewable energy?

Feed in tariffs - very successful in Europe, in subsidising a new market for photovoltaics and wind turbines - for example. Very successful and the whole world has benefitted.

But what about energy storage, smart grids, all of the other technologies, replacements for steel and concrete? What we needed was a big burst of research and development publicly funded around the world. We got that in Paris on the first day of the Paris meeting, when we had 20 heads of government on the platform, under a banner of ‘Mission Innovation’.

They all agreed to double their funding for research and development from public purse money and that meant going from $15 billion a year as it was in 2015 to $30billion by 2020. Now we have got that up and running. I believe we need a similar exercise for the business of learning how we pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere safely and cheaply!

NB: What have you seen that most excites you in this solution space?

DK: I think many different things and one of them, that has been going on for a while, is re-greening the oceans. What we know historically is that green patches in the oceans develop when the wind blows off a desert.

For example, when the Sahara has a wind blowing over the ocean, it carries dust particles from the desert. When these settle on the ocean, what we realise is that these particles contain a high content of iron.

The iron is used to form chlorophyll with other particles of matter on the surface, and in sunlight, this produces an algae bloom. Wherever you get these algae blooms, we also know, there is a massive stock of fish emerging.

The reason is quite simple: the fish lay an enormous amount of eggs into the sea. Most of them when they hatch, die. But if there happens to be a large amount of algae food around, they live, and so you get millions, if not billions of fish, suddenly blooming in the blue ocean.

That’s a model for saying: could we take sand from the desert, grind it so we only pick up small particles, so they will float on the ocean. The wind does that automatically. Then drop it on the ocean so it creates these algae blooms. While it is alive, it is producing oxygen, increasing the oxygen content of both the sea and the air, and taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

But when it dies, like we know what happens in small ponds, it takes up the oxygen in the pond. The pond is deoxygenated and the fish go belly up. This has to be avoided.

If you are in the deep oceans, and I say this can only be applied in the deep oceans, once the algae dies, it falls down a hundred metres into the cold sea below, but it may go down for miles. It is no longer going to oxidise, it is simply sinks to the bottom and stays there. It becomes carbon that is carefully sequestrated at the bottom of the ocean.

So this is what we need: a good bunch of demonstrative experiments to show that what I have said actually happens.

I personally would be in favour of a moratorium against any experimenting of this kind in the shallow waters, such as the Baltic ocean, because you may end up reducing the oxygen content even further in those oceans that are not very deep.

NB: Restoration - whether it is referring to soils, forests, oceans, agriculture - all involves management in someway. It is a big step for humanity to move from extracting from the Earth to being custodians of it. Are we up to the task?

DK: This is a very, very big and important question. In 2012 the Chinese government pushed their Communist party, which is binding on the Chinese government, to add a new part to the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party.

That part is headed ‘Scientific Development of the Country’. Under that they developed a phrase, ‘Eco Civilisation’ and they explained this phrase as meaning: we cannot manage human development without also managing our eco-systems on which we all depend.

The Chinese government, I think, is the first to explicitly state, “we fully understand that human development means being fully in-step with nature”. And they talk about the circular economy, which means there is no waste. This means that every manufactured object has to be designed so that it can be recirculated and reused, as nature does.

So getting back into equilibrium with nature is a key part of what the Chinese government set out for itself. Of course that is a very difficult pathway to follow. Particularly after 100s of years of just taking whatever we needed, recking the state of the oceans by throwing plastic into it, wrecking the state of the atmosphere by causing greenhouse gas emissions.

All of this mining has just been taken as a freebie, that we take these things and improve our economy. It is a very big change for humanity. I happen to think personally that I worry about the future of my children and grandchildren if we don’t manage to make this critical transition.

NB: What would you say to people who spread a narrative that “it’s too late” to save our climate?

DK: Very recently a wonderful scientist working with NASA out of Columbia in the United States, Kate Marvel, has suddenly announced after giving brilliant talks about the need for action, that we all never do it. She has given up all hope that we can manage. And she simply said that, “we need courage, not hope, to face climate change.”

Now, I’ve got to say, after the Paris Agreement we now have 195 nations all signed up to one objective for the first time ever. That objective is to aim for 1.5oC and no more above the preindustrial average temperature level.

This isn’t the time to give up hope at all. We have finally got an agreement. We now have to push each government to take more action. No government is doing enough. Not even the British government. We all need to focus, therefore, heavily on how we raise the profile of managing this critical problem.

Giving up is simply not on. I look at Kate Marvel’s position just to raise the profile of just how important it is not to give up!

This Author

Nick Breeze is organising a high-level panel discussion on climate restoration as part of Green Culture Week in Montenegro on 24th May 2018. For more information or to attend the event visit his Envisionation blog. Follow on Twitter: @NickGBreeze