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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 May 2006, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
Global warming
On Sunday 28 May 2006, Andrew Marr interviewed

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Sir David Attenborough
Sir David Attenborough

ANDREW MARR: Now one of the most respected observers of the natural world is Sir David Attenborough.

And he has now joined the climate change debate, and caused quite a stir by announcing that he's no longer a sceptic.

It is happening, it is caused by human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels.

Now Sir David reviewed the evidence in a programme BBC Climate Change Chaos series. In case you missed it, here is the dramatic conclusion:

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: I find it sobering to think that while I've been travelling the world trying to record the complexity and beauty of our planet, that I too have been making my own contribution to global warming.

As I recognised, when I presented Life on Earth all those year ago we are a flexible and innovative species and we have the capacity to adapt and modify our behaviour.

Now we most certainly have to do so if we're to deal with climate change. It's the biggest challenge we have yet faced.

ANDREW MARR: So, what should we be doing about it? In a moment I'm going to be talking to the government's chief scientist, Sir David King.

But first, joining us from his home in Cheltenham is the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission.

Good morning. Welcome Jonathon Porritt. One of the big issues that the Prime Minister has put very aggressively on the agenda in a recent speech is nuclear power.

Now there are plenty of people on the anti-global warming side of the argument who say it's essential.

Sir Jonathon Porritt
Sir Jonathon Porritt, SDC

JONATHON PORRITT: To be fair to the Prime Minister he also put efficiency and renewables back on the agenda with a vengeance in the same speech. But it is true that we get the impression now that the PM is pushing as much as he can towards a nuclear option.

And whilst it's true that there are many experts including Sir David King, who you're about to talk to, who believe that nuclear power has a really important part to play in the UK's energy future, there are just as many experts who are not persuaded by that, on a host of different grounds which the Sustainable Development Commission surfaced in its recent report.

ANDREW MARR: Everybody is being lectured about global warming. A lot of people are worried that it means a new hair shirt future. Can you just sketch for us how you think life will have to be different in, say ten or fifteen, or twenty years' time, if we're going to do our bit to stop this, or slow it down at least?

JONATHON PORRITT: Yes, I don't think, yeah, I really don't think it's very helpful that people are sort of seeing this as the end of life as we know it. It just means that we'll do a lot of the things that we currently enjoy doing a great deal more intelligently, probably a great deal more cheaply because we'll get very efficient in our use of energy and our use of resources.

And we'll find that some things will actually improve our quality of life rather than worsen it. So, take living in a house like this, it's quite a big house, it takes a lot of energy, we need to be incredibly efficient in the way we use energy. Take the way people travel around the place - at the moment they just jump in the car without really thinking about it. More and more we'll take short journeys on foot, or by bike, whatever it might be. We'll take foreign holidays instead of just thinking this is a natural right, we will realise that we have to pay the real price for those holidays.

It doesn't mean to say that all air travel will come grinding to a halt. But it does mean to say we'll have to pay the carbon cost as well as the money cost of taking a holiday abroad. So, it's a rather different picture from the one that you hear sometimes in the contrarian newspapers, that this is the end of life as we know it. It isn't like that. Actually, I think it will be a much better life.

ANDREW MARR: And because most of us are natural hypocrites and slow to change, those changes - less foreign travel, fewer car journeys and so on - are going to have to be driven by government, aren't they?

JONATHON PORRITT: Yes I mean I think this is the issue really. I mean I think that government has sort of hoped that somehow green or responsible consumers will dig us out of this mess and just left it to them and the marketplace.

Now that isn't going to happen. The role of government really is to frame the markets, fashion markets, so that individual consumers find these more sustainable choices, easier choices, instead of finding it always the really difficult thing to do. And that's particularly true when you come down to energy actually.

And that's why I think there is such a very strong focus now on finding the right mix of energy efficiency, of renewables, of combined heat and power, doing much more of this at the decentralised, at a local level, rather than remaining totally dependent on big centralised power stations. It's only governments who can really force the pace on that. And the truth is that's the leadership challenge to the Prime Minister now.

ANDREW MARR: And possibly the leadership challenge to David Cameron, as well. I don't know if you've talked to him, but a lot of people are watching what he's been saying on environmentalism and this new green-blue agenda, as he's called it. And asking the very straightforward question, does he mean it, is it sincere, or is it a bit of spin?

JONATHON PORRITT: (laughs) Well, there is a lot of interest in it and it is quite entertaining to see the way in which he is beginning to stir things up a bit inside the Labour government, because he's asking some questions which opposition parties should have been asking a long time ago.

But there are going to be lots of big tests for him too, what is going to happen when, say, the government does come out in favour of nuclear power? What's going to be the Tory response to that? Are they going to say no that isn't the right way to go? Are they going to simply take the test of leadership, political leadership here, on climate change.


JONATHON PORRITT: What you feel about nuclear power.

ANDREW MARR: Absolutely. Thank you very much. Now, there is a different view on nuclear power, even among people like Sir David King, the government's chief scientist, who are absolutely sure that global warming is happening and that it's dangerous.

Sir David King
Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser

DAVID KING: There are different views on that. But let me first of all stress if I may, where Jonathon and I completely agree. What we need is a complete change in the way we produce and use energy. We need to move towards carbon-free energy sources. We need to move towards more efficient uses of energy.

And neither of us are looking for that hair shirt future that you mentioned. We can all live with the same comfort levels, but looking at different sources and better energy efficiency.

ANDREW MARR: And do you agree with him also about fewer flights, fewer foreign holidays, fewer journeys by car?

DAVID KING: First of all if I may take those, break those down. Take journeys by car - I've been to Brazil recently, the Brazilians are now running on bioethanol, a large proportion of their car travel on bioethanol, which is virtually carbon free. There is, in other words, a way forward that can be carbon free.

We don't have to eliminate car travel. I think as a matter of fact we would be misplaced if we were to even suggest that people would move away from their current dependence on cars. We have to...

ANDREW MARR: ..it's too scary for them and the politicians won't give a lead.

DAVID KING: I don't think it's because it's too scary. I think it's because of the way our cities are built. When it comes to urban renewal and urban regeneration, we can talk about better design of cities. But at the moment we have cities that are distributed the way they are, we are required to travel the way we do.

And we have become very fond of the car. Now I think we see ahead of us not only hybrid cars, we can see bioethanol coming on board. We can also see ourselves moving into a hydrogen fuel economy. All of these areas are being investigated and invested in.

ANDREW MARR: Let's return briefly to the question of nuclear power. That very, very distinguished thinker and scientist James Lovelock announced his conversion famously, to nuclear. Because he knew it was the only way quickly of getting, relatively quickly, of getting the carbon levels down.

DAVID KING: Nuclear in my view is one of the wedges that we need to bring our dependence on fossil fuels down. But it's quite a big wedge in the sense that at the moment it's 19% of our energy on the grid. It used to be 30% on the grid and one reason why we've seen a slight increase in carbon dioxide emissions in this country is because we've dropped in nuclear.

ANDREW MARR: Does that follow, then, that nuclear should rise as a proportion to, say, 40%?

DAVID KING: My favourite figure would be around 30%. We would then have baseline energy through the year from nuclear plus renewables with a growing level of renewables and we can then diminish our dependence on fossil fuels, also being in terms of security of supply that we have a better range of supply.

ANDREW MARR: You're a scientist. You're not a politician. But I'm going to ask you to make a political judgement. When the Prime Minister talks about putting it back with a vengeance, onto the agenda, he means he wants it, doesn't he?

DAVID KING: When he said put it back with a vengeance he did. And I repeat what Jonathon said. He did say energy efficiency renewables and nuclear.

ANDREW MARR: But that's not controversial. No one's going to say we're against efficiency (laughs) I'm talking about the nuclear stuff.

DAVID KING: Right. And the Prime Minister has had a preview of the energy review. The energy review will probably be published in July. I don't believe a decision is going to be made until that has been poured over. We also have the Stern Review into climate change and the costs of dealing with it.

That will be landing on the Prime Minister's desk in July. All the pieces are coming together for the nuclear option to be re-examined. But Andrew if I may say, this isn't going to be government using public money to build new nuclear power stations.

ANDREW MARR: Well in that case it depends on whether the city believes in it?

DAVID KING: It depends on whether the city and the market think that nuclear is going to be one of the sensible ways of producing a government policy which is very clearly determined to be 60% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. If we decommission all of our nuclear power stations, by 2020 we will be down to 5% from nuclear and we'd be almost at standstill with renewables coming on stream.

ANDREW MARR: Right. Let me go back to Jonathon Porritt, because a lot of people who are sincere environmentalists or would call themselves sincere environmentalists think that for all the problems of waste and cost nuclear has to be part of the mix.

JONATHON PORRITT: It certainly has to be part of what governments weigh up as a possible set of options. But if the Prime Minister wants to make nuclear power the test of his leadership on climate change here in the UK he is genuinely deluded because the real test is to compel all of those government departments who are luke warm on energy, on efficiency, on renewables, on combined heat and power.

On their own department's energy performance he has got to compel them to fall in line on climate change policies. And he has singly failed to do that so far. So the real test is looking at the 92% of our total energy needs, because David is right, it's 19% of electricity but it's only 8% of total energy needs in the UK.

ANDREW MARR: All right.

JONATHON PORRITT: Where the PM's attention should be focused is on the 92% now rather than the possible 8% contribution in 2020 and beyond.

ANDREW MARR: Jonathon Porritt, David King, thank you both very much indeed for joining me.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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