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Q&A with Professor Sir David King

The NS talks to David King, director, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford Univers

The NS talks to David King, director, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford University.

Why is sustainable mobility important?
Ever since the Industrial Revolution, our ability to move about has been based on liquid fossil fuel - oil-based petrol. There are two reasons why we need to be worried about that. One is availability of oil. The second is the inertia in switching from dependence on oil to a non-oil-based economy.

What should governments be doing?
To switch from an oil-based transport sector to an electricity-based ground transport sector, we need to defossilise our electricity. The private sector needs to see that this is the biggest missed opportunity for wealth creation in our economies.

What about the developing world?
The developing world must not imitate the way the west developed, because that is a dead end. We're advising the Rwandan government on designing the city of Kigali so it is sustainable for a 21st century in which there is no oil. That is an opportunity that we don't have in the advanced western countries.

Are these opportunities in the developing world being maximised?
No. The Chinese government is probably the most progressive, because it is a very top-down arrangement - a capitalistic economy run by the Politburo. The cities that are moving in the right direction are very small in number.

Is high-speed rail a risk or an opportunity?
High-speed rail is a means of rapid transit of passengers across the UK. I tend towards the view that it is an opportunity to open up the north
of Britain to the economic development taking place in the south. The other factor is the shift from air transport to rail transport. Long-haul flights will always be with us, but for shorter distances - anything less than 1,000 kilometres - the train is a good replacement.

What will transport in Britain look like in 2050?
Julia King [who led a 2007 review of low-carbon cars] suggests that by 2030 half of the cars in Britain will run off electricity. By 2050, we will have a large amount of nuclear energy and renewables on the electricity grid, so the grid will be relatively carbon-free. We'll have mass transit in a way that we can barely imagine now.

Are we moving in the right direction?
In Britain, yes, but globally we've got a long way to go. Since about 2002, the British government has been in the lead on this issue internationally. At the same time the American government has put a brake on the process. But the cost of oil itself is going to change behaviour.

Are there any countries we can learn from?
Europe has gone very strong over, for example, high-speed rail and pedestrianisation of urban environments. Outside Europe, it is well worth looking at Hong Kong, a high-density city where nobody thinks about having a car as a means of getting around.

How can developed nations encourage a behavioural shift on manufacturing?
We apply high status to people who are big energy consumers. It is a fashion statement: "I can burn all this fuel because I can afford it." We can't expect politicians to make the right decisions if we're not demanding that they make the right decisions. We need to invert the status issue.

Which infrastructure changes are needed?
The big changes are to the urban environment. We've got some progress in pedestrianising. We must create better transit routes for people using personal transport to the outskirts of cities from villages.

Should we be more worried about not having enough, or not having the right kind of energy in the future?
It's a heroic struggle to keep oil production capacity at the level it's at now. We believe that coal production capacity will probably hit a wall around 2025, and even with gas fracking I'm not sure that we're going to have enough gas beyond this century. This wonderful civilisation we've created by burning fossil fuel is going to have to move completely away from all forms of fossil fuel.

Where does the main responsibility for cutting carbon lie - with consumers, business, or governments?
You cannot separate responsibility out. Voltaire has a fitting quote: "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." We're all responsible, whether we are consumers, producers, or in government.

During your career have you had your scientific assumptions proved wrong or revised your opinion?
I would be foolish to sit here and say I have never made a mistake. Science moves on by challenge. Most of my advice to government has turned out to be OK - I had to be extremely careful about every piece of advice I gave, so I called on a range of opinions.

Are we all doomed?
No. There are likely to be enough people showing concern that we will manage the problem. But here's the big question: we know how
intelligent human beings individually can be. Can we be collectively intelligent, all seven billion of us?

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.