EcoSpeak: Part 2 of an interview with climate scientist Sir John Houghton

by Guest Contributor on October 11, 2007

in Uncategorised

This is a guest post by Jeremy Walters of

Sir John Houghton CBE FRS was co-chairman of the Scientific Assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1988-2002. He was previously chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (’92-’98), chief executive of the Met Office (’83-’91) and Professor of Atmospheric Physics, Oxford (’76-83). Sir John is still very much involved in helping world governments and organisations tackle climate change.

In his first interview, Sir John talked about climate change and the world situation as it currently stands. In part two of his interview, Sir John outlines how the wider issue is not just climate change but about ‘having a sustainable future’………

GoCarbonFree: What are your views on carbon trading?

Sir John Houghton: Carbon trading is a good way of trying to reduce emissions, but these things sometimes aren’t quite what they seem. For example, the European Trading System is not reducing carbon to the extent it needs to because the carbon allocations are far too great in the first place. People are also making a lot of money off the back of it and have got away with all sorts of things! The system has to improve and must become immune to exploitation. However, maybe that was the way it had to start…….

GoCarbonFree: How do you view the green wave in consumerism as opposed to reducing consumption full stop?

Sir John Houghton
: The hierarchy of waste reduction is (1) don’t make it (2) recycle what you can (3) recycle as energy if you can and (4) put it into landfill. The first one, however, is don’t make it. We all consume far more than we need to; we buy things we don’t really need; we replace things we don’t need to replace; we don’t buy things that will last us a long time etc. The market tells us to ‘buy, buy, buy’. This is a problem! It’s not just about climate change, it’s about having a sustainable future – to achieve this, our modern consumerist mentality will have to change.

GoCarbonFree: How will that change occur if there is no political and/or a populist will to do so?

Sir John Houghton: That’s a good question. A change can only occur if both people in general and Governments in particular realise that the world can’t carry on in this way. Green consumerism poses a big dilemma because by definition a lot of consumerism isn’t green! The bottom line is that we are using resources and environmental capital at a rate which is unsustainable and we are all going to have to learn to find different ways of doing things.

: What do you think of the media and its attitude to climate change?

Sir John Houghton: The media are too fond of putting over confrontation rather than genuine information. They have an enormous responsibility to tell people the facts and explain to people what its all about so that people are truly informed. Instead the media creates confrontation between people who are for and against a topic, including scraping up people who are sceptical about man-made climate change. The media doesn’t do this about flat earth theory!

GoCarbonFree: That brings us to Live Earth. The BBC wheeled out quite a few sceptics in order to present a ‘balanced view’ on the topic. Do you think the BBC will continue to present a ‘for and against’ view on climate change or will they start to readily accept it?

Sir John Houghton: I’m not close enough to the BBC to really know the answer to that.

GoCarbonFree: Are planting trees effective in combating climate change?

Sir John Houghton: De-forestation of the tropical regions is a major problem for the world – not only do tropical forests contain a huge range of bio-diversity and millions of species, but also the climate of the tropical regions will change if the forests disappear. Take the Amazon away, for example, and the rainfall will dramatically reduce and parts of Brazil would become semi-arid or even desert. This would have a large impact on the climate of South America.

Deforestation also causes the loss of a lot of topsoil making the re-forestation of tropical regions that much harder. The world is actually losing a lot of its soil and you must remember that soil is made over many thousands of years, not overnight. Forests also act as a sponge to soak up water, therefore if you have a region prone to floods, trees are very important. What I am saying is that, climate change apart, trees are good things to have, so long as they are the right trees in the right places.

From the climate change point of view, if you grow trees (which obviously consist of carbon), what happens when the trees reach maturity in 40 years or so? Are you going to dispose of the wood somewhere? Or just let it decay and release CO2 into the atmosphere in the form of methane etc? Put simply, there is a question mark over just how much carbon you are going to offset by planting trees. You must pose these questions to people using trees to offset carbon in order to ensure they are putting forward a consistent and robust scientific argument.

GoCarbonFree: Thank you Sir John for letting me interview you today.

About GoCarbonFree: UK-based GoCarbonFree Ltd has launched the world’s first shopping portal that allows customers to earn free personal carbon credits (and therefore reduce their carbon footprint) whilst they shop. It lets shoppers compensate for the carbon emissions produced by their purchases with a carbon saving – at no cost. GoCarbonFree users can offset their home, car, air travel, events and consumer purchases simply by shopping on the portal.

GoCarbonFree is committed to informing and educating people about the pressing climate change issues and offers a free online newsletter to all registrants to the site.

Photograph: Sir John Houghton and Jeremy Walters.

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