Sir David King: Net-zero transition ‘a massive opportunity for every business’

Pictured: Sir David King dialled in from his home in Cambridge to address more than 350 attendees in London 

King began his keynote speech on Day One of edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum on Tuesday (8 March) with a brief history of climate science, stating: “We do understand the basis of climate change and what is happening to us at a level that most people are unaware of. By 1900, we already understood the role of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.”

Fast-forwarding to the present day, he summarized: “The impacts of climate change are not some vague future events, they’re already happening. They will, of course, continue to get much worse unless we have a strategy.

“Over the last summer, we had a series of extreme weather events of a kind we have never seen before. It has been happening over previous summers, but, this past summer was easily the most impactful. What we saw from Germany, across to Canada and the US, were extreme weather events occurring during the three months over the summer.

“This was not a chance occurrence. It is all explicable in terms of what has already happened as a result of climate change.”

The explanation, King told listeners, lies in the fact that we are beginning to approach several climate tipping points. We will have seen news of this regarding deforestation in the Amazon recently, and King also discussed how ice melt in the Arctic circle is already creating several ripple effects. These include warming seas – white ice reflects heat and light, whereas dark blue ocean absorbs them – and the “massive distortion” of the jet stream. This distortion was why, last June, some parts of Texas hit -16C while, in California, dozens died of heatwaves exceeding 50C.

Strategy-making and acting as solutionists

King’s speech was timely, coming a week after the publication of a report dubbed the “bleakest warning” from climate scientists to date. The Sixth Assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group 2 was published last Monday (28 February). It stated that istoric failures to cut emissions and slow progress on adaptation efforts have left more than 3.3 billion people – half of the world’s population – “highly vulnerable” to the impacts of the climate crisis.

But, the report concluded that there still remains a window – albeit rapidly closing – to act, and secure a “liveable future” for the entire population. King, during his speech, reiterated this.

He said: “The Centre for Climate Repair’s three-pronged attack to create a manageable future for mankind is as follows – and frankly, every prong is required. Otherwise, humanity has no chance of growing anything like a future as we know about the past. Reduce, remove and repair.”

Reduction refers to “deep and rapid” cuts to emissions, largely through the “defossilisation” of the economy. Remove refers to taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere using a combination of nature-based and man-made solutions. On the nature-based piece, King implored listeners to look beyond tree planting and consider marine carbon sequestration as well as land-based solutions.

Finally, repair refers not only to restoring nature, but also to repairing the polar regions. King spoke briefly about geoengineering solutions such as cloud brightening but cautioned that they need to be based on natural processes and that they cannot be an excuse not to also reduce and remove.

He added: “If we don’t focus on the solutions, then, frankly, we are cooked. There is no future for us.

“I’m not going to be around in [2050], but many of you will be. What sort of a world are you prepared to face? Is it when rice production collapses in China and Vietnam, as we are seeing in Indonesia? Is it when cities are being flooded?

“When we look at all of this, we need the three Rs. Of course, we need to build resilience, because the challenges of climate change are with us already, wherever we go.”

Business opportunity

King acknowledged that delivering reduction, resilience, removals and repair at the scale and pace needed will require political actions regionally, nationally and internationally. But he maintained that all businesses are “involved in at least one of these enterprises”.

Beyond pushing for policy change and international collaboration, King argued that the role of businesses now is to innovate.

He said: “Reducing emissions deeply and rapidly is a massive opportunity for every business in the world. We are so used to being based – ever since the industrial revolution – on fossil fuels. Energy is the biggest industry in the world.

“So, as we move forward, we must ask what non-fossil-fuel-based technologies we need. There’s an enormous raft of them, and each one of them must be taken into the marketplace. Most companies that do this are going to find an enormous marketplace awaiting them, because our world is now understanding. That was the big success at COP26 – no big question as to whether we had the climate emergency on our hands.”

King did have one word of caution on innovation, though. He said that, in some cases, while existing modern technologies are the easiest options to use, they are not always conducive to “good and healthy” lifestyles. In some cases, simpler, lower-tech solutions are needed. The example he used was the need for, in the transition away from petrol and diesel vehicles, not only electric options but also better active transport systems.

Sarah George

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