In Conversation with Lord Krebs: full transcript

Rod Keenan: What do you see as the challenges of adapting to climate change in the UK?

Lord Krebs: In the UK we’ve done what we call the Climate Change Risk Assessment, which is a formal analysis of all the potential risks that climate change may pose. It wasn’t totally comprehensive but as a “first stab” it was pretty good. It highlighted the two top-level risks — both to do with water.

On the one hand, too much water: flooding events, coastal flooding, riverine flooding and heavy rain as we’ve seen over the past couple of months.

At the other end of the spectrum, slightly oddly, the UK is is quite water-stressed, particularly in the south east where there is a combination of high population and relatively low rainfall.

So in the longer run we expect an increase in long periods of drought, and we expect periods of intense rainfall to become more common. Sea level rise is going to be an issue for low-lying areas, particularly the east coast.

Rod Keenan: How have some of the recent events, particularly extensive flooding, affected how people perceive climate change?

Lord Krebs: On the one hand, weather is weather and you can’t attribute any single event to climate change.

In the news coverage and public discourse, people were horrified by the events and the need for emergency action. But over days people began to ask the question “is this something unusual?” So it did then move into a discussion of is this a consequence of climate change.

When I was asked on the radio and on television, I took the line from the UK Met Office that you can’t attribute any single event to climate change, but the likelihood is that these kind of extreme events will become more common in the future. So if we’re thinking about how we prepare ourselves to be a more resilient nation, we should be thinking about how we handle these events, and how we can invest to prevent damage.

Explicitly when the Prime Minister was asked in the House of Commons if the recent flooding was due to climate change, he gave a pretty good answers. He said that scientists this kind of event will happen in the future as a result of climate change.

So I think public perception is yes, these floods are a sign of things to come in the future. If you look at public perception studies in the UK you find two-thirds of the population accept that climate change is real and that it’s going to impact on our lives.

Rod Keenan: How do the implications of climate change differ in other parts of Europe?

Lord Krebs: The EU has a very general and overarching climate adaptation policy, which states that all members states ought to develop an adaptation plan. Most of the big countries have some sort of program and anticipate change.

The projection from climate models suggests what we expect to see in Britain — wetter, warmer, stormier in the winters, and dryer summers in the south east — is probably applicable to northern Europe.

When you come to the Mediterranean, some of the climate models predict that it will become very much more arid. One view, which may be a bit extreme, is that by the end of this century many parts of the Mediterranean will be more like the Sahara desert. This is concerning because the Mediterranean basin is a major agricultural centre.

Rod Keenan: What are the policy arrangements for adaptation in the UK?

Lord Krebs: In the UK, as in Victoria, we passed a climate change act in 2008. This had two strands: mitigation and adaptation.

On the mitigation side the act sets a target to reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. It established an independent body — the Climate Change Committee — to advise the government on how to achieve this target, and report to parliament on progress.

The other half deals with adaptation: an independent sub-committee which I chair. This has two roles: to advise the government on risks that may arise due to climate change, and to report to parliament on progress on the government’s adaptation program. The program was published in 2013 and we’re due to report to parliament in 2015.

Structurally it looks very good. We report to parliamentarians so we can hold the government’s feet to the fire if we need to.

Rod Keenan: What developments in climate change mitigation have we seen in the UK?

Lord Krebs: Since the climate change act in 2008, the Climate Change Committee developed a plan of policies that, if implemented, would take you through a series of milestones on this path to 2050.

We produce a series of carbon budgets — what you have to achieve between 2009 and 2013 for example. We’re onto our fourth carbon budget at the moment for the mid-2020s.

Some of the things the government is doing to meet the targets are to do with energy efficiency — home insulation, energy efficient cars and washing machine.

On the electricity generation side, the Climate Change Committee’s key recommendation is to largely de-carbonise the electricity supply by 2030. If you can get there can start running a lot of things off de-carbonised electricity, which creates savings for later years to get to our 80% reduction.

How do you de-carbonise electricity? We’re not prescriptive about the precise lengths, but we say you need to do three things. One is invest heavily in renewables. In the UK that has largely meant offshore wind. There’s some onshore wind, and also solar.

The second part is there needs to be renewed generation from nuclear power stations. At the moment the UK has half a dozen nuclear power stations, most of which are ending their useful life, and they provide between 15-20% of electricity. There’s no way you can fill that gap without building new nuclear power stations.

The third element will be continued use of fossil fuel, but with the development of carbon capture and storage — taking CO2 emissions from power stations and pumping them underground. The UK is lucky in that sense because we have a large oil reserve under the North Sea which we have substantially exploited. There’s quite a bit of space there to put CO2, potentially many decades of storage. But carbon capture and storage has never been demonstrated at scale.

The government is doing pretty well on renewables. They’re behind target on nuclear. We’ve found it difficult to get companies to bid in to build. The first station will be built by Hitachi, because the UK, although the first country to have civil nuclear power, through decades of dithering about whether we actually wanted to have nuclear, lost our technical capabilities.

On carbon capture and storage we’re a bit behind, but we’ve now commissioned a number of demonstration works. On energy efficiency measures, the government is rather behind. We’re always pushing for faster action.

Rod Keenan: Has view on nuclear changed since Fukushima?

Lord Krebs: The UK public is not been hostile to nuclear power, and interestingly public attitudes didn’t change in the aftermath of Fukushima. Unlike Germany, where Angela Merkel announced that Germany is going to go nuclear free.

The big unresolved issue in the UK is waste disposal. We have two problems. One is a legacy problem from the 1950s nuclear industry when little thought was given to disposal. Other countries have gone for deep underground storage at geologically stable sites with the possibility of retrieving it later, or to reprocess it, like the French. The UK doesn’t yet have a clear policy.

Rod Keenan: Is energy security and reliance on Russian gas weighing heavily on Europe?

Lord Krebs: In the UK we don’t rely on Russian gas. But Germany in particular is very reliant on Russian gas.

Energy security, or sovereignty, is another very important argument for reducing reliance on fossil fuels. We have some reserves left in the North Sea, and potentially reserves in the Atlantic if technology makes it economically feasible. But that’s a long shot.

With the incredible success of fracking in the US, many people in UK are very excited about the possibility of fracked gas. Areas that have historically had very large coal reserves are also associated with natural gas.

A recent workshop at Oxford University suggests there’s huge uncertainty about the amount of gas — anywhere from a year to decades; it’s not going to be easy to get out unlike in the US, because the rocks are highly fragmented; and some of the places where gas is likely to be abundant are densely populated or sites of natural beauty.

Politicians have talked fracking up. The Prime Minister has stated that fracking promises cheaper gas, which is not true because UK gas is part of the European gas grid and linked to European prices. The hype that has been built is over-optimistic, when people become aware of environmental concerns fracking will likely be more difficult to get through.

Rod Keenan: How are Australia’s climate policies viewed in the UK?

Lord Krebs: What we read in the papers in the UK is that Australia is a country likely to be very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. You already have many areas that are water-stressed, and you’ve had some interesting weather events in recent years.

I would have thought Australia ought to be very alive to the risks of climate change, and the need to adapt and play a part in mitigation. The political environment doesn’t seem uniformly positive, so I can see an interesting challenge to maintain momentum.

Rod Keenan: Internationally, we’re aiming for an agreement at the end of 2015 for binding targets. How optimistic are you that we’ll have binding targets, but also the finance that might be required for adaptation in many other parts of the world?

Lord Krebs: It’s disappointing that we haven’t had a new global agreement since Kyoto. Maybe 2015 will be the year. But in the absence of an agreement, many countries around the world are taking action themselves, ncluding big polluters like China and the US. China has set quite strenuous carbon intenstity targets to reduce its carbon footprint. The US, partly by switching from coal to gas, has reduce emissions and many of the states have emissions targets.

A recent study by an organisation called Globe (parliamentarians from around the world) on climate actions surveyed 66 countries around the world, responsible for over 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. In those countries there were around 500 different pieces of legislation to do with climate mitigation or adaptation. There is a hell of a lot happening out of self-interest.

It may be that a global agreement emerges from a kind of synthesis of national action.