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Natural Gas

“The hope of the early environmentalists, that the world would run out of hydrocarbons before we did irreparable damage, is no longer realistic.”

The problem isn’t the carbon in the air, it’s the carbon in the ground.

All approaches to climate change must address this new reality: with the methods we now have for extracting fossil fuels, we have enough rope to hang ourselves. The hope of the early environmentalists, that the world would run out of hydrocarbons before we did irreparable damage, is no longer realistic. Now, we must confront the facts – preventing climate change requires either leaving fossil fuels in the ground, or burning them without releasing their carbon into the atmosphere.

Renewables and nuclear power present the possibility of doing the former. If we supply our energy requirements without using fossil fuels, we can also leave our unburned hydrocarbons in their wells. This has the added benefit of saving the land around them, which can be damaged by some methods of extraction, although many renewables are not without their own damage and the downsides of nuclear are well known.

The problem is, our energy requirements are not fixed. Over history, as our supply expands, our demand grows with it. Electricity has gone from powering lights to heating whole homes, and may well end up powering our transport network as well. The worry is that even if we manage to build enough clean sources of energy to replace our usage of fossil fuels, they will end up merely augmenting that usage.

This is where the other method of tackling climate change comes in. With innovative technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), we need not worry about future generations, or about our own extraction of fossil fuels to feed the rising demand for energy. Instead, we can spend the time and money required to make our fossil fuels clean, and then allow our energy policy to focus on the mix of sources which most efficiently satisfies demand.

Eventually, we will have to decarbonise our economy. Though there may be more fossil fuels under the ground than we once thought, they still aren’t unlimited. Yet that concern is secondary to stopping climate change.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.