Our estimate is that if we were to do that to 3% of the world deep oceans, we would be soaking up about 10 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases per annum.
Nick Breeze, journalist and organiser of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series, interviews Professor Sir David King, who served as Cheif Science Advisor to the British Government under Prime Minsters' Blair, Brown, Cameron, and May. He has recently set-up the Centre for Climate Repair Cambridge to accelerate global efforts to avoid climate disaster.
Nick Breeze (NB): What were your thoughts when hearing Theresa May’s decision to bring net zero emissions by 2050 into law?
David King (DK): I have been very impatient about the government's need to move on from the 80 percent reduction by 2050 which we established in 2008 because all of the signs are that we need to get to net zero much more quickly. So I think it is late in the day but at the same time it is very welcome.
NB: How timely has it been considering the launch of the Centre for Climate Repair?
DK: The Centre for Climate Repair has got three principal objectives. The first principal objective is to speed up the rate at which we achieve net zero emissions by reducing emissions.
NB: So it is a catalyst?
DK: It is absolutely the sine qua non. We are not going to manage this massive problem when we are emitting 50+ billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere every year and, yet, that number is increasing year on year. So globally we have got to hit net zero by 2050 or before, and that is not enough.
So the second part of the Climate Repair Centre’s objectives are to work on the techniques that will enable us to bring down the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to a much more manageable range which I would say is 350 parts per million (ppm). Currently we are at 415ppm.
The next objective is to deal with what is happening in the Arctic and the Antarctic, which I think is probably the most worrying factor of all. Arctic sea ice in the summer has virtually gone, so a good proportion of the Arctic Ocean in the Arctic summer is exposed to sunlight. The Arctic region is now heating up at about 2.7x the rate of the rest of the planet, which means that in the middle of the North Pole region in the Arctic Circle we have not got a hotspot and all that strange weather we are now having, is following on from that hotspot.
But much more seriously than that, right next to that exposed summer Arctic sea is Greenland. When Greenland loses all of its ice, we are talking about a 7-metre sea level rise. One or two metres is too much for London and for 80 percent of the world's cities.
So we are looking at potential disaster. We have got to refreeze the Arctic and we have got to refreeze the Antarctic as well. So the objective of the centre we are setting up is to sort out how we are going to achieve all these objectives.
Not to actually achieve them but to get the technologies in place, to get the political climate in place as well, to create the need and therefore the desire to deal with the problem.
NB: One thing I have seen on social media is that this centre is a reframing of ‘geoengineering’. Is that fair, and if it is, are we at a point now where we have to take greater consideration of the seriousness of where we are at?
DK: I have avoided using the word geoengineering because I think it has got a bad notation. There is one form of geoengineering that I don’t think we will ever need, and I very much hope we don’t, and that is to put sulphates into the stratosphere in order to create particles that would reflect sunlight away from the planet surface.
This would obviously cool the planet down. We know this because when volcanos erupt they create that same effect but of course we don’t know what the unintended consequences are. What we do know is that one of the issues with that is going to be what it does to the ozone layer in the stratosphere.
So just when we are getting rid of CFC’s and managing to reach the point where the ozone depletion layer is refilled with ozone protecting us from ultraviolet radiation, we then put a bunch of sulphates into the stratosphere and we lose the ozone.
I am labelling this as geoengineering and the other technologies that we can discuss as climate repair.
NB: You have previously mentioned the oceans as a part of the climate system. Is that still in the mix for climate repair?
DK: Very much so. In fact there is a group of us communicating around the world on this issue and working out exactly what is needed. Let me give you the latest information on how the group is developing. The paper is not published yet so not really in the public domain.
In essence, the oceans are probably down to something like 10 percent of living things compared with where they were 100 years ago. We have been very destructive of the state of the oceans.
So one possibility is to fix that while at the same time removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and this is really by greening the oceans. There are two ways of greening the oceans, one is in shallower waters around coastlines.
For example, on the Californian cost there used to be a lot of seaweed and kelp. That has been removed because it gets in the way of shipping. Seaweed and kelp is green matter; it takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It is like an ocean forest. It creates a living system, and yet we have been getting rid of them. We have also been poisoning the coastlines by putting our waste into the oceans.
DK: So re-greening the oceans means learning from nature. You can see this in David Attenborough’s films: when the wind blows over the Sahara desert and it is heading towards the Atlantic Ocean, it can pick up very small sand dust particles into the atmosphere, carrying them over thousands of miles and dump them into he ocean when the wind stops blowing. And when that happens, as Attenborough very clearly shows, you rapidly get a greening of the ocean.
We now understand the science behind this. The iron in the sand catalyses the formation of chlorophyll and then all of the small beasties of the ocean, starting with the beginning of the food chain, that eats the green matter, forests the ocean with living matter within months. It becomes millions of fish in a few thousand square kilometres of space which has been greened by this process.
Our estimate is that if we were to do that to 3 percent of the world deep oceans, we would be soaking up about 10 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases per annum.
People say, ‘what is the coast of that?’. I actually think we can charge for the fishing rights in these regions and if we do that we are going to much more than cover the costs.
What we do have to worry about with that, and this is what the Climate Repair Centre will work on, is whether there is any negative impact? Are we going to see, for example, what happens in your fish pond when it greens over, the fish go belly up because when the green matter dies it takes the oxygen out of the water slo the fish can’t live?
I don’t believe that is going to happen and we have evidence for this but we have got to delve into the science deeply.
NB: You mention the figure of 10 billion tonnes from 3 percent of the deep oceans. Is 3 percent the upper boundary or maximum?
DK: No. It is just an illustration to get to the 10 billion tonnes.
NB: There has been a lot of talk recently around negative emissions technologies (NETS) and a lot of proposals, when we look at the scale of the problem, will never make it outside of the lab. This seems like an area that does have scale on its side?
DK: Yes and we have said that we are only going to look at technologies that are scaleable and by scaleable we mean a billion tones of carbon dioxide equivalent per annum. There is the minimum level we are going to be looking at.
NB: There seems to be a mode of thinking that these solutions will arise and we can carry on emitting in a reduced way. Are you saying we have to get right down to net zero emissions and work on these negative emissions technologies if we are going to stabilise climate?
DK: I think getting to net zero is critically important but I am not sure we can get our human emissions to zero and I am not talking about the fact that we breathe out carbon dioxide. What I am talking about is our farming practises. Rice growing emits a lot of methane, a lot of our livestock has a lot of methane production. Of course we can move away from meat; that is a possibility, but I think the reality is that it is going to be very difficult within the 20-30 year period to get to zero emissions.
So we are going to need these negative emissions technologies in order to achieve even net zero but what I am saying is that is certainly not enough. I am also saying that we are not providing a fig leaf for the oil and gas industries to carry on.
NB: You alluded to this earlier, that we are starting now to see real impacts from climate change around world impacting industries, especially agriculture. 30 years as a target to net zero emissions… what will the world look like in 10 years? What will be facing then?
You have alluded to the need to accelerate our ambition, can technologies, like the ocean restoration for example, be scaled up in a timeframe where it helps us accelerate that ambition?
DK: Your question is absolutely pertinent because I believe what we do in the next ten years, we being humanity, in order to manage this problem, determines the future of humanity for the next ten thousand years. We have got a very short timeline.
It is because of what is happening in the Arctic and Antarctic in particular, just releasing that much ice into the ocean is going to be more than our economy can manage. More than we can manage in terms of the billion or more people who are going to be moving from where they are living etc.
So I think the problem is extremely urgent. What I want to do is get this up and running quickly. We want to set-up in Cambridge as a global hub. We are going to be humble about this and work with people in every other country, every other institution around the world. We are already doing this with email contact and so on. We want to have workshops and conferences so we can push this very quickly to the point where we can satisfy anyone.
For example, on greening the oceans, Greenpeace has set its face against this, saying we should not interfere with nature. Now I think the whole problem is that we have already interfered with nature. We want to recover the natural world. So we need to actually meet Greenpeace and have these discussions and get to the point where they are satisfied this is the right way forward.
NB: Given the scale of the problem we can’t take anything off the table at this stage.
DK: Right, it’s important, because I have just taken off the table putting sulphates into the stratosphere
NB: And there are people who disagree with you on that.
DK: I know there are so let me quickly say that we may come to need that but I don’t think it is a new technology so I think we can send a rocket up and the estimate is that we would have to send 10 million tonnes of sulphates up into the stratosphere every years to achieve the one or two degrees cooling that we need. I think the technology is there but I just think hold back on that!
If we are desperate we do that but it doesn’t anything for ocean acidification or any of the other problems that we face.
NB: So where are you right now with the Centre for Climate Repair?
DK: It is totally a virtual centre at the moment and we are still in a very fluid situation. We are raising money. We are in fundraising mode. How much are we hoping to raise? In two years £50 million and within five years £100 million.
These are the figures the university is trotting out and I think frankly, given the nature of the problems we are talking about, they seem quite reasonable!