David King, the controversial former chief scientific adviser, is still making waves with his support for nuclear power as an answer to slowing climate change, writes SAM PHIPPS.
AFEW months ago Professor Sir David King landed in hot water – again. 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 King was winding down as chief scientific adviser to the UK government, a post he held for seven often controversial years.
"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 what 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.
"That sounds as if I'm being hair-shirtish about it. I'm not at all a hairshirt-and-sandals person. I think we can all live exceptionally well while also making sure we're energy conscious."
In 2003 King told George 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 Washington. 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.
Subtitled How to tackle global warning and still keep the lights on, it is a clear and readable exposition. However, if the scale of the challenge is pretty much taken as consensus these days, some of his views, particularly on nuclear power, are anything but. We can therefore expect further lively moments when King speaks at the Edinburgh International Science Festival this month.
First, on a personal level, what changes has 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 per cent of all global 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 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. Blair committed the UK to 60 per cent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050, a target exceeding Kyoto. King recommended it on the basis of trying to stop the Greenland ice cap 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."
However, not everyone is so impressed by the Prime Minister's green credentials. Recently 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 King is at odds with the Scottish 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."
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."
All are contentious arguments, not least when you consider King's own faith in technological innovation such as renewables, particularly photovoltaics. "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 ten 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 marketplace.
"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."
King is also director of a new centre at Oxford University, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. "It will look at the economic, political, social and cultural aspects of climate change," he says.
Overall, is he optimistic? 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."
• The Hot Topic, Bloomsbury, 9.99
• David King will be at the National Museum of Scotland at 6pm, 27 March in an Edinburgh International Science Festival event.