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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 April 2007, 21:19 GMT 22:19 UK
Science holds key to greener future
Sir David King (Image: DTI)
Sir David King

The environmental problems facing the world in the 21st Century are the legacy of human activities, argues Sir David King. But he says, in this week's Green Room, we also hold the key to solving these problems by attracting the brightest young minds into the world of science.

Woman covering her mouth in polluted street (Image: AFP)
It is easy in our day-to-day lives to believe we are detached from the wider environment, but that is an illusion

Mankind has never had a greater need for science, and for the spark of human ingenuity to apply this to tackling today's great global challenges.

Built on centuries of tradition and endeavour, the UK is second to none in the diversity and excellence of its scientific heritage.

Our nation punches well above its weight in the quality and number of academic papers and citations, above Germany, France and Japan, and trailing only the far bigger economy of the US.

It is vital therefore that we pay equal regard to ensuring that the UK's outstanding scientific outputs flow through to enhance the quality of life and prosperity for people in the UK, and beyond.

The challenges facing science, and humanity, as we move through the 21st Century are manifold. I would place none higher than the test we face in our stewardship of planet Earth.

Even with our best efforts, we must be prepared for further global temperature rise as a result of past emissions

It is a stern test, as demonstrated by a few stark facts. From around three billion people on the planet in 1950, global population has risen to over six billion today. By the middle of this century, it will exceed nine billion.

Most future population growth will be in the developing world, where people quite reasonably aspire to the living standards enjoyed today by "western societies", such as our own.

Yet it is estimated that, even with today's population, we would need the resources of three planets for people across the world to imitate western lifestyles.

Climate signals

I do not advocate a hairshirt future, but clearly we need to find new ways to develop both our lifestyles and the planet we share.

A flooded road (Image: AFP)
Negative impacts will dominate in all regions, says Sir David

It is easy in our day-to-day lives to believe we are detached from the wider environment, but that is an illusion.

Climate change presents us with a particular stringent test, which unmitigated will magnify many of the existing scourges of mankind: famine, drought, flood, disease and conflict.

The scientific evidence is compelling beyond any reasonable doubt that unless we very radically transform our economies to reduce greenhouse emissions to a fraction of current levels then future generations will reap a heavy price.

Indeed, the signals are already with us of the sort of changes that we can expect to continue and accelerate, as land ice melts, sea levels rise and extreme weather events become more severe.

Even with our best efforts, we must be prepared for further global temperature rise as a result of past emissions, and the climate impacts associated with this. The outcome will initially be mixed, with positive and negative effects depending where in the world you live and on other factors.

But in time the negative impacts will dominate in all regions, and will fall earliest and heaviest on the poorest countries, which are least able to adapt and which have contributed least to the problem.

Car exhaust pipe (Image: PA)
Carbon levels in the atmosphere continue to rise

It will take an unprecedented international effort if we are to avoid the most dangerous climate changes that are predicted, and for individual countries to adapt to those impacts it is already too late for us to avoid.

From climate change I move to another linked challenge - energy. Since the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have powered our economies and brought new levels of prosperity.

But by releasing into the atmosphere carbon, as carbon dioxide, that has been naturally sequestered underground over tens to hundreds of millions of years, we have raised concentration levels in the atmosphere in just 150 years beyond anything seen for at least one million years, and probably far longer.

At the same time, world energy demand is expected to rise by half as much again by 2030.

Even with a major push on energy efficiency, there is a critical need for step changes in the pace at which we deploy current low-carbon technologies in developed and developing countries alike; and we must quickly advance the more innovative technologies such as carbon capture and storage, wave and tidal power, and solar photovoltaics.

No quick fix

There are no simple solutions and there is certainly no single "silver bullet" technological fix. The pathway for advancing new energy technologies to technical and economic viability at scale is complex, difficult and inevitably takes time, even with major efforts to accelerate progress.

The 1bn public/private Energy Technology Institute, launched by the UK Government, is an important new initiative in this area, providing good starting levels of investment, focus and ambition, and I hope in time will develop as part of a global network of similar centres of excellence.

Students in a laboratory (Image: Science Photo Library)
There has never been a greater need for inquisitive and determined young minds to develop the solutions needed for the 21st Century

Nor can we tackle the problem by focusing on one sector alone. It is not a question of whether we should reduce emissions from our vehicles, or our houses, or industry, or in aviation or shipping, or through curbing deforestation.

The scale of the challenge is such that we must do all of these things, whilst using our actions as a stimulus to galvanise the wider international response.

And we must continue to prosper, not just for our own sakes but because those we seek to influence will not follow our lead if they perceive that environmental sustainability means economic decline.

It is a powerful demonstration that in the UK we have been able to grow our economy in real terms by around half since 1990, whilst greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 15%. Action is affordable and is the pro-growth strategy. It is inaction that we cannot afford.

Returning to where I began, science and technological innovation must be at the heart of the UK's approach as we tackle these and other of the great national and global challenges we face in the century ahead. But science does need to be redirected to meet these challenges.

My message to any young person today mulling over their future career path is this: there has never been a better time to consider a future in scientific discovery; or in engineering to bring innovative technologies to real world application.

And there has never been a greater need for inquisitive and determined young minds to develop the solutions needed for the 21st Century.

Sir David King is the UK Government's chief scientific adviser

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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