Sir David Attenborough: ‘Radical’ battle against climate change can be a ‘huge opportunity’

Sir David Attenborough has welcomed that the UK's net-zero carbon emissions target, noting that any nation that can "get ahead of the game" on the climate movement can generate huge economic and societal opportunities, provided "radical change" is introduced.

Sir David Attenborough: ‘Radical’ battle against climate change can be a ‘huge opportunity’

Sir David Attenborough was questioned by MPs in front of a large audience

Speaking at a Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee hearing on Tuesday (9 July), Sir David Attenborough fielded a range of questions from MPs on notions of ecological and climate crises.

During the discussion, MP Mark Pawsey, a committee member, asked whether the UK could successfully pursue a net-zero climate target while attempting to drive prosperity and economic growth for UK citizens.

In response, Attenborough claimed that combatting climate change can be viewed as a “huge opportunity” for nations willing to carve out a leadership position and “get ahead of the game” by setting and achieving robust policies.

“Someone said if you believe you can have infinite growth in a finite situation you are either an economist or a madman,” Attenborough told MPs. “But, there are also huge opportunities for development and huge opportunities for getting things right and benefitting as a consequence.

“I have been speaking with the international finance bodies, for example, and it is clear to them that actually this is an opportunity to get things right, this is an opportunity to make big profits and to innovate new systems. If we’re ahead of the game, we’ll benefit from it.”

Last month, the UK made history by officially enshrining a net-zero emissions target for 2050 into UK law, becoming the first major economy to do so. The decision has sparked debate in other major countries, with France joining the likes of the UK, Sweden and Norway in placing a net-zero target into law.

The UK has already reduced emissions by 42% while growing the economy by 72%. The Government claims that it’s Industrial Strategy, which focuses on the decoupling emissions, could boost green jobs by two million and grow low-carbon exports to £170bn by 2030.

Youthful reminder

While the Committee on Climate Change claims that the target can be reached using an existing cost envelope envisioned for the previous 80% reduction target, Attenborough and MPs noted that progress would be driven by policies that could influence citizen behaviours.

The ongoing youth climate strikes, pioneered by Greta Thunberg, have acted as a “great source of comfort” for Attenborough, but he admitted that “radical” lifestyle changes would have to occur.

“Because it costs money in realistic terms, dealing with these problems mean we have to change our lifestyles. The question of how fast we can go is how fast we can carry the electorate with us,” Attenborough said. “The most encouraging thing that I see, is that the electors of tomorrow are already making themselves and their voices very, very clear. And that is a source of great comfort in a way, but also the justification, the reality, that these young people are recognising that their world is the future.

“The problems in the next 30 years are really major problems that are going to cause social unrest, and great changes in the way that we live, and what we eat. It’s going to happen. I suspect that we are right now at the beginning of a big change. Young people, in particular, are the stimulus bringing it about.”

Attenborough likened the public views on pollution to that of slave labour, in that it used to be “morally acceptable to actually own another human being for a slave”, before public perception shifted, and policies followed. According to Attenborough, a similar movement was taking place regarding manmade contributions to climate change.

With negative perceptions of climate change in mind, MPs asked what lifestyles would have to change, notably in regards to flights and holidays. The UK is moving ahead to expand Heathrow Airport, much to the frustration of green campaigners, and Attenborough was asked how this growth could be aligned to climate mitigation. The answer, it seems, was one of cost.

“There is a way of course in which those in power as it influences how many people take it, and that’s economically. You adjust the price to the various restrictions you have,” he said.

“I think that one way of reducing these things is to count the cost of what it is that air travel costs in real terms in terms of the environment. And if you cost that, you would see that the tickets are extraordinarily cheap.”

Attenborough noted that energy storage and the transportation of renewable energy would be critical in driving decarbonisation across the globe, and suggested that electrification would be the long-term solution for aviation.

Global standstill

With countries like Germany and Spain discussing legislation for net-zero targets, Attenborough expressed concerns that nations like Australia and the US were hindering the global battle against climate change due to “climate sceptic” leaders. He also hoped that the UK wouldn’t “backslide” on its own commitments – “It’s actually a practical commitment, and I hope to goodness that we can achieve it and stick by it,” he added.

But, addressing concerns that limiting global emissions to 1.5C, as envisioned by the Paris Agreement, would prove a fruitless endeavour due to a lack of political will amongst some nations, Attenborough offered MPs a sense of optimism.

“I see no future in being pessimistic, because that leaves you to say to hell with it, why should I care. I believe that way disaster lies,” he said.

“I feel an obligation. The only way you can get up in the morning is to believe that actually, we could do something about it. And I suppose I think we can.”

When asked on his own role in raising awareness of climate change, Attenborough noted there was a “paradox” that he had to catch flights in order to film documentaries. But, the renowned presenter claimed that his part in the climate debate wasn’t to be part of propaganda.

“I didn’t wait for public opinion to change,” he said. “I waited until the facts seemed incontrovertible. We actually know that people depend upon the natural world for their very sanity and that in moments of crisis in their lives, the natural world is the one place and the one climate in which they can get solace.

“I’m not, by nature, a propagandist. I started making natural history programmes because I thought there was nothing I would prefer to see more than the beauty of the natural world. And I would love to just go on doing that. That’s what I enjoy.”

Matt Mace

Comments (8)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    Throughout the report, there is not a single mention of just how, if we abandon coal, gas and the fossil fuel needed for transport and heating, we are going to obtain the energy we need.

    This energy must be, in this situation, electricity. The problem of generating a reliable supply, far greater than the present network, is never mentioned in any of these learned discussions.

    Did I say learned??? Sir David is a zoologist, and a very fine one, he also studied geology; he is not a physical scientist, chemistry of physics, or an engineer. But energy is these latter, it is not zoology . The only other named individual is MP Mark Pawsey, who has a degree in Estate Management.

    When is somebody going to appear, anywhere, and propose a scientifically demonstrable mechanism to explain how CO2, at about one fiftieth of concentration of the principal greenhouse gas, water vapour, manages to punch so much above it weight, hugely above??

    Richard Phillips

  2. Ken Dunstan says:

    Granted, water vapour is a more powerful greenhouse gas that Carbon dioxide and is a greater component of the atmosphere. That said, it is part of a cycle which is currently in reasonable balance, although ocean warming is increasing evaporation and that can be part of the reason for more violent storms -though I don’t have exact figures. In the case of CO2 we are now at double the pre-industrial CO2 content of the atmosphere, and the research of well over a century ago concluded that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 content would lead to an increase in average global temperature of 2deg Celsius. that’s where we’re heading. We’ve added huge amounts since Al Gore presented "An Inconvenient Truth" and the increase doesn’t seem to be slowing down world-wide. If, as also seems to be happening, there is enough extra heat in the atmosphere, melting of permafrost can lead to ground emissions of methane, 20 times more powerful than CO2. The key is not just "How much is there?" but "How sensitive is the system?"

  3. Nick Bromley says:

    Nice theatre – so what do ordinary people need to do?

  4. Richard Phillips says:

    Yes, Nick, theatre. Ordinary people can do little or nothing, we just have to put up with the great body politic "fighting climate change", now apparently an "emergency". A totally unexplained emergency, but that is because Green body politic understands little, but shouts ever louder!!!

    Now Ken. We are not yet at double pre industrial levels, which I understand to have been 280ppm, and we are now at about 415ppm. we have some way to go. The IPCC favour a figure of 3 degrees as the result of doubling. Note "favour", no proof, just preference. This figure is the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity. Measurement of its value from historical data, ie in the recent past, indicates a value of about 1.4 degrees.

    The "heat in the atmosphere is measured by its temperature, there is no hidden heat. There has been little if any increase in global temperature during the last two decades.

    Richard Phillips

  5. Dominic Winter says:

    how CO2, at about one fiftieth of concentration of the principal greenhouse gas, water vapour, manages to punch so much above it weight, hugely above??"

    Well it doesn’t, others such as methane are even higher per part and together contribute as much as CO2 so it’s hardly hugely ‘above its weight’, just we use CO2 equivalent as the measurement as it is the largest single contributor due to larger amounts of that than others…

  6. Andy Kadir-Buxton says:

    Coal subsidies in the UK are 10.5 billion a year, we should be spending it all on renewables.

  7. Richard Phillips says:

    No, Andy, disagree absolutely!

    The biggest renewable is wind. Since the 19th of last month, the 20+GW of wind power has suffered periods of 4.5, 6, and 6 days when the generation did not rise above 5Gw and was at or below 1GW for some 3.5 days. This is not untypical. A source as unreliable as that is only a liability; it has to have an equal back-up on tap, gas generation. Because this is an uneconomic way to run gas generation, it has to be subsidised!!!
    It is all in private hands , don’t forget.

    Solar is no better, nor are tidal lagoons, wave power is hopeless.

    Hydro, is now about at its maximum, little more there.

    Put your 10.5 billion into nuclear, this can work for weeks on end at near full design power if need be. In the 1962/3 winter, it was at 98.5% of design power for some 5-6 weeks when the UK temperature never went above zero, and coal was arriving at the power stations full of ice, not good news. I remember it very well, a new Dad, in a prefab, on top of the Berkshire downs!

    Renewables— Bah- Humbug!!!!

    Richard Phillips

  8. Richard Phillips says:

    Dominic, the Forcing Effect is used by both the IPCC and the Met Office to explain the effect of CO2. It is postulated that a small effect in the heat generated from CO2, evaporates more water which has a large effect. When examined in a little more detail it begins to fall to pieces.

    Richard Phillips

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