Image of Photograph of ice melt

A fresh look at climate change: climate risks and COP26

The China Centre lecture on Wednesday 3 March 2021 was delivered by Professor Sir David King, Founder & Chair, Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, Senior Strategy Adviser to the President of Rwanda, former Chief Scientific Adviser, HMG and former FCO Climate Envoy. 

Professor King’s lecture analysed the existential risks that climate change poses for the human species. He pointed out that human activities are ‘already potentially over-cooking the atmosphere’. In addition to those arising from CO2, climate change risks are heightened by methane production consequent upon consumption of meat and rice. Professor King analysed the consequences that rising sea levels would have for the huge populations in low-lying coastal areas, including densely populated regions in South Asia, Southeast Asia and China. He drew attention to the profound implications of Arctic Ocean warming and retreat of the Greenland Ice Cap. Huge methane explosions are taking place in Siberia as the permafrost becomes warmer. He raised the startling possibility that in the worst-case scenario the global sea level would rise by 7.5 metres. He warned: ‘We must act now’.

As well as analysing the risks that faced the human species, Professor King stressed the opportunities for science to provide solutions to climate change. Innovative technologies to contribute to an ecologically sustainable future include not only wind turbines, solar power and electric vehicles, but also transport technologies such as giant helium airships, technologies that ‘return fish stocks to the oceans’, ‘marine cloud brightening technologies’ for solar radiation management and revolutionary plant science technologies. He emphasised the huge cost reductions that occur as new technologies increase their scale.

Professor King argued that there was great potential for a small number of key countries to cooperate and lead the rest of the world towards the measures needed to reverse climate change. Key among these are China and the USA. He drew attention to the importance of the concept of ‘eco-civilisation’ in China, which ‘places the state of the planet alongside the state of human beings’. This concept has deep roots in China’s history and is now embedded in its national constitution. He drew attention to the important role that the UK can play due to its extensive application of green energy technologies. He stressed the critical importance of the COP-26 meeting that will be hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November 2021.

He engaged in a wide-ranging Q&A session with the large audience drawn from across the University.

Professor Sir David King is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, University of Cambridge; Founder and Chair of the Centre for Climate Repair in the University; an Affiliate Partner of SYSTEMIQ Limited; and Senior Strategy Adviser to the President of Rwanda. He served as Founding Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, 2008 -2012, Head of the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge University, 1993-2000, and Master of Downing College Cambridge 1995-2000.

He was the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, 2000-2007, the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative on Climate Change, 2013-2017, and Chair of Future Cities Catapult, 2012-2016. He has travelled widely to persuade all countries to take action on climate change. He initiated an in-depth risk analysis approach to climate change, working with the Governments of China and India in particular, and initiated a collaborative programme, now known as Mission Innovation, to create a £23bn pa research and development international exercise, which involves 22 countries and the EC, to deliver all technologies needed to complete the transition into a fossil-fuel-free world economy.

Sir David was born in Durban, educated at St John’s College Johannesburg and at Witwatersrand University, graduating in Chemistry and a PhD in physical chemistry.

As Govt Chief Scientific Adviser he raised the need for governments to act on climate change and was instrumental in creating the British £1 billion Energy Technologies Institute. He created an in-depth futures process which advised government on a wide range of long term issues, from flooding to obesity. He was Member, the President’s Advisory Council, Rwanda, and Science Advisor to UBS, 2008-12.

Sir David has published over 500 papers on surface science and catalysis and on science and policy, for which he has received many awards, medals etc. and 23 honorary degrees from universities around the world.

He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1991; Foreign Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002; knighted in 2003; made “Officier dans l’ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur” in 2009.