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Meet Professor Sir Brian Hoskins

In advance of Wednesday’s ADBA National Conference 2012 we spoke to Professor Sir Brian Hoskins to find out a bit more about him, why he became interested in climate change, and his thoughts on the part that anaerobic digestion could play for a sneak preview of his conference session ‘The role of AD in meeting carbon budgets’ 10.10 am.

What motivated you to become involved in climate research?

I have spent my career trying to understand how the atmosphere works, weather systems and fronts, and many aspects of the climate.

I studied maths at Cambridge and then did a PhD on the formation of weather fronts in the atmosphere. It was fascinating to apply the things I had studied in maths, like fluid dynamics, to the atmosphere and use them to understand what happens in the real world.

I didn’t really intend to work on climate change, but I started my research on climates in the 1970s, when research science was beginning to discuss the effects of the greenhouse gases we were pumping into the atmosphere, and I felt it was important to tell people about the risks. I gave my first public talk on climate change, on whether we would freeze or fry, to the Clean Air Society in Scarborough – I suggested that the real problem we would be frying… From then on I did a lot of things related to climate and climate change, but climate change has never really been the focus of my work, though it has been the subject of the majority of my contact with the public and politics.

What do you think needs to happen in order for the country and the world to make significant progress on climate change?

Well if I knew the answer to that I’d be a wealthy man. What I say is that we only have one planet, and we are performing a dangerous experiment with it by continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the air. If we had lots of planets to test the long term effects on the climate and measure the extent of the warming then that would be different, but we don’t. It is still possible that the warming changes we anticipate will be at the lower end of the scale but that is a big risk to take.

The only way to deal with the problem is to grasp the metal and say yes, fossil fuels were great, they brought the Victorians the industrial revolution and steady economic expansion over the past 200 years but now, sooner or later, we have to find something else and do things differently. Climate change has only made this a more immediate problem; fossil fuels were never going to be limitless. There are so many benefits to a low-carbon world: opportunities for new market development; to become less reliant on other states for our energy; and improve air quality. Now is the time to develop the alternatives, we need to be miserly with our energy – it is very precious but it does not follow that we have to lower our quality of life to do this.

We have a tremendous advantage, in that we have a far sighted climate change bill already through parliament – it is fantastic that we have our direction laid out for an 80% reduction by 2050, setting out the background for R&D spending and providing the certainty that there would be profits to be made. This is a unique position as it has provided us with the basis of a home market. I sincerely hope we are not going to fritter this opportunity away because things are ‘too difficult’, the Victorians did not say oh this is too difficult – they went out and did it.

Where do you think anaerobic digestion (AD) fits into this?

The one thing that is clear in all this is there is no silver bullet, no magic technology solution to all our energy needs. The future of energy is a mixture, and there are going to be lots of contributors of various sizes. Anaerobic digestion (AD) is definitely one of these contributors.

At the moment it is hard to know how much difference different contributors will make, but bioenergy as a whole will make a sizeable contribution. There has been a lot of fuss about shale gas recently but the energy delivery of biogas could well be comparable to shale gas. Yes shale may have its uses but biogas could be just as useful so let’s make more of a fuss about that, we need all the help we can get from all the different renewable technologies.

The opportunities that AD and biogas present in terms of minimising organic waste to landfill, reducing methane emissions from the breakdown of these organics and using that for energy, as well as using the digestate biofertiliser to grow new food, whilst reducing the use of commercial fertilisers is too good to be ignored.

So you do not think that there will be a ground-breaking discovery before 2050 that will solve all our problems?

Realistically we know what technologies will be around and feasible in 2050. We cannot afford to sit and dream of a miracle solution, the climate system will not wait, so neither can we. If something is found that makes things easier on the route to 2050 then that’s great but I don’t think something will arise that will sweep all before it.

If you remember that all energy comes from the sun, then when we burn fossil fuels we are using the energy from the sun from the past, and if we use renewables we are using energy generated in the present, but all the energy still comes from somewhere – you can’t make it from thin air, it has to be in the system already.

Perhaps in the latter part of the century fusion will take over as a significant generator of energy but who can tell. We are in the most difficult period at the moment, if humanity can get through to the end of this century without destroying itself then I think it will be ok, but we have to make changes now in order to move forwards.

What do you say to those that say they ‘don’t believe in climate change’?

I say I don’t believe in it either; climate change is not an act of belief but science working with evidence and the evidence available is strong. If some new scientific theory came to the fore saying that climate change isn’t going to be such a problem then that is what I would be saying too. The question isn’t, are we going to warm the earth? It is, by how much?

When people say they don’t believe in climate change what they are usually saying is they do not like what it implies – they do not want to act, they do not like the economic implications – but we have to move on. There have always been situations where the established way of doing thing stops being the way forward. The luddites didn’t want to change the way they weaved, people don’t like change but in the end change has to happen and the question is for us is whether we are going to be the masters of our change.

Your conference session is called ‘The role of AD in meeting carbon budgets,’ in brief and without giving too much away, what will you be talking about?

I will be talking about our targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction, the background to these targets, how they work in time, and how we are going to meet them with bioenergy and biogas, keeping in mind that they are part of a broader solution.

If you would like to hear more from Professor Hoskins please visit our event page for the ADBA National Conference 2012 for more details on the programme and how to register.

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