Q&A: David King On the Climate Crisis

Sir David King has been a climate guru since the earliest days of global warming. The director of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and the former chief scientific adviser to Tony Blair, King was instrumental in developing Britain's new $1.5 billion Energy Technologies Institute for clean power. He sat down in Aarhus, Denmark, with writer Michael Levitin to discuss Britain's nonpartisan approach to environmentalism, American leadership and the coming U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen. Excerpts:

LEVITIN: How hopeful are you about reaching a climate agreement in Copenhagen?
KING: There are four elements we need to make the talks work. One: agreeing on a global carbon-stabilization level, saying we'll stay below X parts per million greenhouse gases by the end of the century. Two: agreeing on national targets that set carbon trajectories on a country-by-country basis according to where they are now and where they need to be. Three: putting fiscal mechanisms in place like carbon tracking, a cap-and-trade system, etc. And four: creating a fund to transfer technology and assist developing countries in adaptation. If the package is any less than that, then it's got to be an interim package.

What do you make of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's climate policy?
I'm really pleased about Brown's speech to the U.S. Congress, pushing stimulus funds toward creating a low-carbon economy. In Britain, all three political parties are vying with each other to be tougher on climate change. It was the opposition leader, David Cameron, who announced his Conservative Party's policy should be 80 percent CO2 reductions by 2050, and the next thing we knew Brown was calling for 80 percent reductions by 2050.

What impact is the economic crisis having on the climate debate?
It's an opportunity, for two reasons. One is the cultural change: we're all suddenly waking up to the notion of greed and where it's leading us. The second is that we're getting government to decide to spend vast sums of money to stimulate the economy.

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What about a rebound for carbon markets?
The price of CO2 in the EU, which was about €28 to €30 a ton, has collapsed since the financial crisis and is now about €8 a ton. This is awful for the world's first experiment in carbon trading. If European Commission president José Manuel Barroso were to suddenly announce a carbon-cap increase on each nation in Europe—in other words, a reduction in CO2 allowances—I promise you it would push up the price.

What is preventing him?
The question is, can he carry 27 nations in Europe? The nation that is most reluctant is Poland. I'm actually very sympathetic to Poland, a country with vast amounts of coal and an economy that's a long way from the European average. There's one big neighbor next to Poland with a lot of gas who'd be delighted to sell it to Poland, but you only have to look at what Russia is demanding from its former satellite nations to see how tough [Moscow] can be. The Polish government's argument for a special allowance of 40 percent of EU carbon cuts was so that Europe shouldn't push them into the lap of Russia.

What can the U.S. bring to Copenhagen?
More important even than a G20 summit right now is a G2 summit between Obama and China's Wen Jiabao. I want to see those two heads of state standing together onstage saying, "This is the situation, this is what we're going to do," setting the tone for international change.

You've questioned biofuels, a key component in Obama's energy plan.
Corn-to-alcohol fuel produces 90 percent of the emissions of regular fuels and is very water- and fertilizer-intensive. But sugar-cane-to-alcohol biofuel—like the kind used in Brazil—emits just 10 percent. We need biofuels, just not the ones in the negative category.

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What's the chance of creating a mechanism that halts destruction of Brazil's rainforest?
When President Lula da Silva turned up in November at the climate conference in Poznan, he made a brilliant speech. He said, "Britain has promised to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050, but Brazil will go further: by 2025 we will completely eliminate deforestation." In Britain we produce 11 tons of CO2 per person per year; in Brazil they produce 12 tons if you count deforestation. So he brought the biggest issue straight to the negotiating table.

Failing car companies like GM—how do they fit into the carbon picture?
Let GM collapse. Then you make available billions in funding for small high-tech companies with new car designs.

Obama, Brown and others are asking people to make hard sacrifices for planet Earth. Will the green stimulus package succeed?
That is the underlying message to consumers: that it's going to be a period of austerity. If we just reinflate consumerism, we won't move down the road.

How would you spend those billions?
Put people back to work. Those people will become consumers again. Think of projects like the great Hoover Dam. I think the Hoover Dam is a wonderful paradigm for what we should be doing now.

Q&A: David King On the Climate Crisis | World