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On the biggest challenge facing our civilization

Sir David King was appointed by the British Foreign Secretary as his new permanent Special Representative for Climate Change in September 2013. Sir David was previously the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor from 2000 – 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 King travelled to Ethiopia last month during which he discussed with senior officials issues such as the Dec. 2015 climate change negotiations in Paris and Ethiopia’s role on climate issues. Sir David King met with our editor-in-chief Tsedale Lemma for an exclusive interview on the global challenges of climate change. Excerpts:

Addis Standard – I understood that your visit has to do with the preparation for the Dec. 2015 climate summit in Paris. Last week [mid Feb.] in Geneva the UN has agreed on a new draft text aimed at having a new global climate agreement in place by the end of 2015, which will be one of the agendas in the Paris summit. Where previous agreements have fallen short of meeting targets, do you really believe this one to be any different?

Sir David King – 2015 is the point where we all have to come to an agreement. Once before we have been up that road, that was Copenhagen in 2008; we didn’t manage to get an agreement. So this is our last opportunity to get a good legally binding global agreement that attacks the biggest challenge facing our civilization. The British government sees this as the biggest diplomatic challenge of our time and we are putting a very good effort behind attempts to reach a good agreement. [While] the year 2015 is the last moment to get an agreement, 2020 is when all the actions agreed come into play.

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The period from March to June this year is when individual countries announce their plans to reduce CO2 emissions. Do you agree that this is going to be quite a challenge? Which countries do you think would meet this deadline?

Some countries are already there; the EU was the first to declare our position that we will reduce our emission across the 28 nations of Europe by at least 40 % by 2030. The Presidents of China and the US have made a joint statement following the EU statement in which they each committed their own countries to CO2 reductions. In China’s case to passing through a maximum in CO2 emissions by 2030, and in the US case they set themselves a target from 2026 to 2028 of reduction by 27%. But we don’t believe that those are final positions, which is why the EU has said at least 40%. By March to June, we will see countries declaring what we call ‘nationally determined contributions’. Once [this is in place] then we can integrate what these contribution mean in terms of the future pathway for the world. That integration process will enable us to have further bilateral discussions to see whether we can meet the target, which is to stay below 2° temperature rise.

That was also the point made during the Lima climate summit in Dec. of last year, a year the World Meteorological Organization declared as had been the hottest on record. How pressing do you think would this report make the upcoming climate change negotiations?

I don’t think the report on the temperature in 2014 makes any difference at all, frankly. It is important that we have it monitored and that once again out of the first 14 years of the century we know that ten of those years have been the hottest on record. That is just underlining what the scientific community has been telling us over time and it can only get worse unless we manage to massively reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. It is a very big demand that the scientific community has been putting to us. In terms of the agreement in Paris, I think it’s fair to say, and I am a scientist, that the rate of change from 2020 onwards is quite dramatic in order to stay below the 2° limit, which means we can’t leave it to a later point in time. At the moment emissions (globally) are increasing at about three percent a year. To stay within the 2° limit, we need to switch that over to a two percent per year decrease in emission. That is a five percent change. That’s quite a big demand, which means that all have to pull their weight in order to achieve that.

Your current work, if I understood it correct, is mainly focused around the negotiations for the Dec. 2015 climate summit in Paris. You are touring many countries; you just said you were in Kigali and Nairobi and now in Addis Abeba. Where do you see encouraging efforts being done?

I am leading the diplomatic position for the British government. I work for our foreign secretary permanently and full time as his representative in the climate diplomacy challenge to try to take other countries with us in managing this problem. My work will not finish in Paris; the next stage of the work begins after Paris, by which I mean we have to see a full implementation of all the promised programs. The British government has created an international climate fund, purely British, [of nearly US$7 billion] to enable us to do that. We are not treating this lightly; this is a big task and we are rolling it out in countries around the world. This happens to be about my 46th country visit in 15 month.

I am getting a good view of the positioning of countries around the world, and on the basis of that (now I am answering your question), I would say that an agreement in Paris is highly likely. I don’t think we are going to slip up in the way we did in Copenhagen. I think the understanding of the need for an agreement now exist in every country in the world, and I don’t think anyone is going to risk that by trying to block agreements for one reason or another. [However], I think the appetite for action may not yet be high enough; the agreement in Paris may not be ambitious enough to deal with the magnitude of the problem. Between 2015 and 2020 there is going to be a considerable amount of work to be done in ramping up the ambition. But that in itself is an interesting challenge because we are seeing a rapid rollout through technological advancement in low Carbone technologies, low Carbone energy development…

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has, in its latest report, expressed its concern about the realities of keeping global warming below 2°. How hard does such report make your job, given that it’s from a collection of scientists who are not otherwise climate change deniers?

If I can I just separate two issues out here; I think when we talk about people who are climate skeptics – I call them climate deniers – we are talking about people who are acting like Ostriches who put their heads in the sand and say there is no such thing as climate change. It is worth looking at who is funding the climate denier community. There was a paper published in 2013 that [revealed] the total fund estimated was just US$100 million short of a US$100 billion a year available to spread the of climate deniers’ position. A big fraction of that comes from the coal community in the US, a lobby system that doesn’t want to see action on eliminating coal fired power stations, which is the President’s position. So we just need to see the origins of the denial movement.

The scientific community is really saying we are 95% sure that climate change is happening and it’s due to our use of fossil fuels and our deforestation. If we were talking about vaccination against EBOLA we would go ahead and use it; we wouldn’t question whether the scientist understood EBOLA or the vaccine they produce. The IPCC, of course, is very clear about climate science. [But] it’s concerned that the political appetite is insufficient to respond to the nature of the challenge.

The British government’s position is that we are going to reduce our emission by 80% by 2050; we will achieve that by producing low carbon dioxide from electricity production. We are also going to shift our ground transport system into the electricity grid…and honestly, if in our cold, wet northern country we can deliver electricity without CO2 emission, then I think the rest of the world can do it.

You once responded to Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre on his challenge on whether there was a relationship between climate change and economic growth saying, I quote: `It’s impossible to have economic growth if we allow climate change to continue. I would say this with a great deal of certainty”. How do you substantiate this argument for countries like Ethiopia, where growth means something that should come at any cost, including climate change?

I think my position in what you just quoted could be misunderstood so let me clarify. I have worked closely with the Rwandan government to create a green growth from climate resilient policy which, like the Ethiopian policy, is embedded across government. Before I produced that I talked to President [Paul] Kagame and I said: “not one bit of this program will slow down your economic program; just the reverse.” Here is the reason why that makes sense [in both Rwanda and Ethiopia]. In Ethiopia you have a very little fossil fuel reserve; you have to import all of the diesel to run those electricity generators, it is not all hydropower. In Rwanda a high percentage of electricity was produced by building diesel. It is extraordinarily expensive and for both countries you export, you earn dollars and then you buy oil. It is not good for your economy both in terms of the cost of cost of electricity and in terms of balance of payments. Green growth for most of the developing world is the correct strategy for fast growth as well. If we continue with unabated climate change the impact of climate change is going to be such that we will not be growing our economies.

Here is I think what you refer to as “environmental migration” comes into play. If you could help our readers connect the dots in what you refer to the relationship between “environmental migration” and the decline in GDP growth and eventual poverty and social crisis.

My country is surrounded by water, we are an island nation and as the sea level rises my country gets smaller. [Or] let me take an obvious example, Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a country of relatively high density population. While I said the British as getting smaller, Bangladesh is getting smaller more quickly. As you see sea levels rising Bangladesh suffers from typhoons and hurricanes and people have to move to higher and higher land. If we allow this to continue Bangladesh will not be a country that can sustain its own population. Where does that population go? The most obvious place is going to be India. If you go and check the border between Bangladesh and India, barriers have been built up there. I don’t think the Indians are unaware of what I am talking about. In other parts of the world we see increased drought. In Africa the climate models are showing an extension of drought…in the region around the Congo increased rainfall, but in other parts increased drought. That is going to create environmental migration.


Speaking of Africa the UN estimates that by 2020 between 75 and 250 million people in Africa are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. As you know Africa is at the bottom compared to other continents when it comes to its contribution to climate change and yet it’s a continent that’s paying the price. That is not all it’s also a continent underrepresented in global climate change negotiations. How do you reflect on this paradox?


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I am not going to disagree with that. I think that this is the whole basis for the negotiations that there are differentiated responsibilities. How do I respond in terms of Britain? The first thing is the British aid program is now the biggest in the world, 0.7% of GDP; that is about US$16 billion a year. That program is aimed at raising the least developed countries’ capabilities of delivering to the wellbeing for their people. Within that program, we don’t differentiate (I think this is a critical point) between development and resilience against climate change impacts; we see it all together. Compare that basket of money with the global green climate fund, which is US$10 billion and is specifically designed to dealing with climate change problems. My little country is putting that effort to manage the climate problem [and] alongside that Africa’s long sustained need for development.

But on the other hand as a continent with 54 countries Africa is represented by just Ethiopia at the forefront in global climate change negotiations. Many believe that may be the reason why Africa is underrepresented. Do you agree with that?

Within Africa there is a group of countries who really understood the challenge of climate change and are doing what they can to create resilience against climate change and to leapfrog into the modern low carbon technology. I would say Ethiopia and Rwanda are the two leading countries, but Kenya…there is a whole range of countries….South Africa is also working hard on that program.There is every sign that African countries are moving in the right direction.

On ways of harmonizing political decision making and climate change advocacy, who do you think are the major players? And how do you bring that down to ordinary citizens?

I am here to suggest that my talking to you right now is a critical part of that process. Everywhere I go in the world, I ask my embassy to try and set up meetings of this kind. It’s all very well for me only to meet up with politicians; I meet up with NGOs and university people as well. [But] I think the outreach from media such as yours is absolutely a critical part of that process. This isn’t a problem that can be tackled by politicians alone, by NGOs alone, or by university people alone; all of the above are required. Within our democracies the politicians are weakened if there isn’t an appetite for action from the population at large. So we do need to take all that into account.


Photo: Addis Standard

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