I am delighted to be at this Gala Dinner tonight. The Earth Centre today stands as a tribute to vision of John Letts and the dedication of many who tirelessly strived to make that vision a reality. I would also like to mention the names of Sir Crispen Tickell, Derek Osborn and Jonathan Smales - all of whom have played key roles in the development of the centre.
The Earth Centre?s mission is "to inspire understanding of sustainable development and to help people become involved in the process of achieving it in their own lives and for the world". And having experienced the Planet Earth Gallery, I am sure it will be a great inspiration. I also hope it inspires many of you to return to work on Monday and think strategically about the sustainability challenges facing your companies.
It is vital that you do so. The number of business leaders citing sustainability as the major new challenge of the next century grows daily. As Sir Iain Vallance the Chairman of BT has said "The pursuit of sustainable development is not an option - it is nothing more or less than a necessity for our economic survival". That is why the Earth Centre?s mission to improve understanding and act as a catalyst for change is so crucial.
In 1819, Sir Walter Scott wrote: "There are few more beautiful or striking scenes in England than are presented by the vicinity of this ancient Saxon fortress". He was referring to the view from Conisborough Castle, overlooking the Earth Centre site.
Some 160 years later, the same location featured in Ken Loach?s film Kes. By then the same view had been transformed by industrial activity. The landscape which had inspired Ivanhoe was now disfigured by the waste from coal mines.
Thirty years later and the scene has been transformed once again. As elsewhere in the country, the environmental degradation of the past has been cleared up. Here in the Don Valley, the slag heaps have gone. And with them more than 2000 local jobs. But it is not only the local environment that has seen a green renaissance. The Earth Centre is regenerating the local economy by providing new work. One hundred and fifty jobs have already been created. Eventually, 500 are expected to be directly employed. And the Centre is committed to working with the local community to maximise the benefits, to bring business to existing or new enterprises by identifying supply chain networks for the Centre?s own needs, and to help local businesses cater for the expected influx of visitors to the area.
There are some people who seeing transformations such as these believe that there exists a fundamental conflict between science and business on the one hand and the environment on the other. But I think that the reverse is true. Science and business have a key role to play in delivering sustainable development.
The application of science has transformed our lives in the last 150 years. As a result of vaccinations and penicillin we have been able to reduce the threat of infectious diseases, and using pasteurisation, sterilisation, water purification and other techniques we have been able to combat food and water-borne disease.
The result has been an incredible increase in the quality and length of our lives within the last 50 years. If we take the world as a whole, life expectancy at birth rose from 46.4 years in 1950-55 to 64.4 years in 1990-95, an increase of 18 years. And equally significant, the gap in life expectancy between the more developed regions and the less developed regions fell from 26 years in 1950-55 to 12 years in 1990-95. And though it remains shockingly high in developing regions, the absolute numbers and fractions of people who were chronically undernourished fell from 941 million around 1970 to 786 million around 1990.
When people today see on their television set scenes of famine and disease in developing countries they are rightly shocked, but such scenes would have been commonplace in pre-industrial Revolution in Britain. The reason why they no longer exist is due in large measure to the application of advances in science. As the historian J H Plumb, in one of his attacks on the teaching of a picture book past, wrote ?No one in his senses would choose to have been born in a previous age unless he could be certain that he would have been born into a prosperous family, that he would have enjoyed extremely good health, and that he would have accepted stoically the death of the majority of his children.?
The benefits of science have been huge. But the rush towards industrialisation has also in many cases led to an unthinking degradation of the environment.
We must also face the fact that major problems of disease, hunger and poverty exist in the developing world. A quarter of the world?s people have to survive on incomes of less than $1 a day. A fifth have no access to health care. Huge though this challenge may seem, it is becoming greater: the world?s population is forecast to increase by half, another 3 billion people by 2050. It is a moral imperative that consumption levels increase in the developing world.
But the environment cannot cope even with the current levels of consumption. Global warming is just the starkest of a number of wake-up calls. And it is as unrealistic to expect people in the West to accept a significantly lower standard of living, as it is wrong to deny growth and prosperity to those living in the developing world. We must, therefore, find new ways to meet peoples? aspirations and expectation without damaging the environment. That is the challenge of sustainable development.
As Minister for Science, I believe that science has a major contribution to play in identifying and solving environmental problems, unless we want to go back to the world which existed before the Industrial Revolution.
Science contributes in four ways, by:
- detecting change in the environment;
- diagnosing why change is taking place;
- suggesting solutions, through this diagnosis, for solving environmental problems;
- and defining the boundaries of uncertainty in our understanding of the environment and reducing this uncertainty.
Let me illustrate the important contribution of science, by way of four examples.
The Ozone Hole
Ozone makes up only 1 part per million of our atmosphere (all the ozone collected together at ground level would form a layer 3mm deep). But in the stratosphere 25Km above the Earth?s surface, it acts as a vital filter to protect all living things from UV radiation. In the 1970s, three chemists, Rowland and Molina in the USA and Crutzen in Germany (who shared the Nobel Prize 3 years ago), demonstrated that CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) used in, for example, refrigerators and aerosols, can cause the breakdown of ozone when they disperse into the stratosphere. This sounded alarm bells and led to discussions about the need to phase out CFCs.
Then in the 1980s, Joe Farman at the British Antarctic Survey, first produced unequivocal proof that stratospheric ozone is depleted over Antarctic. The quantity of ozone is now 40% of the levels in the 1960s. Similar depletion is also occurring over the northern hemisphere, with springtime levels of ozone down by 20%-30% in recent years.
Farman?s observation, together with the known chemical mechanism, were crucial pieces of evidence that led to the signing of the Montreal Protocol on phasing out CFCs. The replacement of CFCs has also relied on science to produce alternative solutions to refrigeration and other uses.
Another area where science can help is earth observation. Scientific understanding of the environment (and therefore the identification of solutions) depends on detailed data, often collected on a prodigious scale. Satellites are an essential part of the scientist?s armoury, because with appropriate instruments they can record data from the whole of the earth?s surface at very frequent intervals.
Satellite instruments are used, for example, to measure to within 0.3 degrees Celsius, the temperature of the sea surface over the whole world, many times each year. These measurements provide an extremely accurate indicator of global warming.
Other kinds of measurements include the chemistry of the atmosphere; changes in habitats, for example, deforestation; the height of waves and sea level.
Think of the last of these for a moment. If you want to know whether or not sea level is rising, you cannot simply make measurements from on land, because you cannot distinguish between sea-level rise and the ground beneath you sinking. Only by having a satellite in a known position above the earth and measuring the time taken for a signal to travel to the sea and back can you measure the absolute sea level.
Let me turn now to bioremediation.
The Earth Centre has been created on a former industrial site. In Britain, estimates of contaminated and degraded land range from 50,000 up to 200,000 hectares. With the government target of at least 60% of new homes to be built on previously developed land in the period up to 2008, the imperative to find ways of treating contaminated land is immense.
The present solution of "dig and dump" is not a sustainable option. Bioremediation potentially offers a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way forward for the restoration of many industrially contaminated sites.
The Research Councils (BBSRC, NERC and EPSRC) are supporting work which will lead both to better diagnosis of the kinds of contamination and to sustainable ways of remediating land, for example by using microbes that detoxify, or plants that concentrate and absorb the toxins from the soil.
Fourthly, let me also say something about renewable energy. Within the EU renewable energy (mainly hydropower and biomass) currently amounts to around 5% of energy production. Hydropower is the most important renewable energy source in the UK.
Science is helping to identify other energy sources. Research has already shown that the potential for geothermal energy in the UK is very large, though the economics may not yet 'add up'. Heat energy from deep in the Earth is also an option: brine at 76 degrees Celsius from deep geothermal wells is used for space heating by Southampton City Council.
Wave, wind and tidal power have potential, and there has been considerable research to help determine the choice of sites. For wave power, the research priority is now on the engineering side. The potential for wind energy may actually increase if, as predicted, climate change leads to greater storminess.
Solar power should not be dismissed in the UK: because of day length, the total radiation received during a summer day in the UK may exceed that received in the tropics.
None of these renewable energy sources is without its own environmental impact, but these sources will have to be explored if we are to move away from carbon based energies.
The role of Business
Finally I want to highlight the role of business,
The innovation and energy of business will need to be mobilised if we are to meet the challenge of sustainability.
We must break the perception that sustainability is only a barrier or burden to business. Recently the DTI played host to a leading authority on competition, Michael E Porter. His message was uncompromising. Pollution is a sign of inefficiency and a reflection of unsophisticated technology. "Competing" based on low environmental standards perpetuates the type of low income, low technology companies that can do nothing for Britain?s standing in the global economy.
That is why "greening business" is central to the Government?s drive to modernise the economy. And that is why "greening business" sits four square with DTI?s mission to improve competitiveness and promote a knowledge driven economy.
The challenge of sustainability is an opportunity, as well as a threat. In the words of Rob Margetts, ICI?s Vice Chairman "we see sustainability as a tremendous technological challenge, and one that presents us with new markets and opportunities. It gives a new engine for growth. New products. New customers. New technology."
Modernising the economy and creating an environment in which innovation and enterprise can flourish will provide the bedrock for our future prosperity. More importantly perhaps, it holds the key to achieving a more sustainable future for us all.
Industry must find new ways to meet people's aspirations and expectations without damaging the environment. This is a challenge which will provide new opportunities for growth and competitive advantage to those businesses that lead the move towards sustainability. For instance, the sector covering environmental monitoring and instrumentation, water services and energy management already provides employment for over 225,000 people in the UK. The rapidly growing world market for environmental equipment and services is estimated at being around $280 billion in 1997 and is forecast to increase to $335 billion by 2000 and to $640 billion by 2010. These are substantial markets, comparable globally to aerospace or pharmaceuticals.
Science, the environment, and wealth creation can - within the correct regulatory framework - enjoy a highly productive relationship. Slow-growth or no growth is not the answer to pollution or environmental degradation. Nor to the endemic poverty found in parts of the developing world. It is up to government, industry, and environmental experts to work together to make sure that our science and engineering base is harnessed with enterprise to deliver the kind of cleaner, fairer development we all want to see, and it is in this context that I believe that the Earth Centre?s mission to inspire understanding and act as a catalyst for sustainability has a key role to play.