In the first of three interviews on the future of energy in the UK, the government's chief scientist tells Thomas Lane why we need new homes and new nuclear power stations.

The man who said global warming was a greater threat to the world than international terrorism doesn't look like a harbinger of doom. In fact Sir David King comes across as rather mild-mannered, an impression reinforced by his light-framed glasses and his gentle, considered way of speaking. The whole impression is of quiet authority - which actually makes his words on the future of the planet all the more chilling.

The reason King's epithet has become embedded in the national psyche is that he is the government's chief scientific adviser. He knows what he is talking about, and the government listens to what he says. His support for nuclear power as a way of reducing carbon emissions was seized on by Tony Blair, and is a factor in the government's review of Britain's energy needs. So the fact that King also has plenty to say about what climate change means for the future of construction should make the industry sit up and take notice.

Half an hour with King is more than enough to convince anyone that, compared with global warming, al-Qaeda is little more than a flyspeck on the windscreen of humanity's concerns. He says he can easily envisage a scenario in which carbon dioxide in the atmosphere raises average temperatures "six, seven, eight degrees centigrade higher than at present, resulting in the loss of all ice on the planet so even Antarctica would melt, there'd be a 110 m rise in sea level and so on".

King offers little comfort to those who say this may happen, but not for hundreds of years. He says the issue is already one of damage limitation. "It's a question of anticipating the impacts of climate change, which are going to be with us anyway, and then minimising the extent of climate change."

Part of anticipating the impact of climate change lies in building better flood defences. King says we need to start planning these now, with the obvious place to start being the Thames Gateway. "This is the time, as the Thames Gateway gets developed, to look at that whole process," he says. "We have to have sufficient vision as we set up those building areas to plan for future flood defences."

When it comes to minimising the extent of climate change, the construction industry is also in the front line as buildings are responsible for almost half our CO2 emissions. "This is the most important point in terms of dealing with the problem because it's a massive, potential win on both sides," says King. "You reduce emissions and you cut down energy costs, so you cut down the running costs of buildings." He adds that the industry and its clients have to start to think of buildings in terms of running rather than capital costs.

Sir David King

Potrait by Julian Anderson

King also wants tougher Building Regulations to reduce energy consumption - with the long-term target of constructing carbon neutral dwellings: "The standards have to be tightened up. The long-term gain for the country at large is enormous." He argues that standards should be "continually ratcheted up" in the same way that California regulates emissions from cars. "They have transformed the car industry by continually moving the targets," he says. "It's a very progressive process. They announce that in five years' time no new cars will be allowed on the roads without meeting this new standard, so the industry always knows what its target is."

Just adding more insulation and improving the draughtproofing doesn't cut it with King. He thinks architects and housebuilders need to redesign the standard home from the ground up. "We still have houses going up that look very much like those constructed during the Victorian period, yet the Victorians put up houses that were a significant advance on the previous period, with proper sanitation and running water."

He adds that we need to redesign our homes by looking 30 years into the future and working out what the key environmental and economic drivers will be, coupled with likely fuel availability. "It would be rather like the next step beyond the Victorian period for the built environment," he says, cuttingly.

Temperature could rise six, seven, eight degrees, resulting in the loss of all ice on the planet so even Antarctica would melt and there’d be a 110 m rise in sea level…

All of which begs the question: what would King's home of the future look like? "We could go towards a wireless built environment; in other words each individual house no longer needs connections," he says. "This could even extend to sanitation. Could we possibly think of processing waste in individual houses so that you are producing fertiliser?"

King says there should be a full public discussion on how we would progress from current standards to a home appropriate to conditions in 2036. "That would be a fully rational regulatory system," he says. "Why shouldn't Britain lead the way on this?"

But industry and offices would still need centralised power, and this is where the nuclear dimension comes in: "I think it's inevitable that we will see another generation of nuclear power stations around the world. Whether or not this country is part of that process depends on its public acceptability in this country."

King's vision is that nuclear power would provide 30% of the maximum UK energy demand. Renewable energy would provide another 20%, and the balance would be provided by gas and "clean" coal, that is, coal whose carbon is removed during generation. However, these latter two would be needed only in periods of peak demand. "That would be quite an optimum system, but where is public acceptance?" he asks.

Sir David King

Potrait by Julian Anderson

Although an answer isn't readily apparent, it is worth musing on when a new generation of nuclear power stations could become operational. King starts speculating: "I think that if we were to go nuclear we would first of all have to go through a pre-licensing process, which would probably take a year and a half. We might be through that by January 2008, let's say. Then you turn it over to the utilities for a decision: do they want to put nuclear into their energy mix? Let's suppose a utility makes a decision by July 2008. I think you would have new nuclear up by 2012-14."

According to King, if the UK goes for new-build nuclear, much of the design expertise will come from abroad. The engineers needed to build these stations will probably come from South-east Asia, China, India, South Korea and France. King cites several reactor designs that are currently available, including ones from the USA, Canada and France. One of these, the USA's Westinghouse AP1000, has a modular design with a claimed construction time of just three years.

New technology is also being developed. King says the most promising is the pebble bed reactor, a modular design that could be available by 2012. The reactor is said to be more efficient than current designs, and inherently safer. If there is a coolant leak the reactor won't overheat and blow up as the reactor at Chernobyl did so tragically 20 years ago. "I think everyone feels this is potentially the biggest advance that is likely to come through to the marketplace," he says.

The future, according to Sir David King

  • Thames Barrier-type defences across the Thames Gateway.
  • The home of the future (say 30 years’ time) would be carbon neutral and wouldn’t need connecting up to any mains services apart from water. Power would be produced using microgeneration and biological waste could be turned into fertiliser.
  • Power for industry and offices would be produced from centralised power sources, as now. An ideal mix would be 30% of total energy needs generated from nuclear power and 20% from renewables. The rest would be supplied by “clean” coal and gas, but only at times of peak demand.
  • New nuclear power stations should be built, subject to public consent. These could be on stream by 2012.