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Q&A with Jeremy Bentham

The New Statesman talks to Shell’s Vice President Global Business Environment


Which technologies do you think will show most progress in the next ten years?

I think there’ll be quite a few, and it depends on what you mean by progress. The big energy game changer has been the development of unconventional tight gas and coal-bed methane. There’s already a big infrastructure for gas in the world, so you will see these having a major impact. There are technologies which are currently small but which can grow rapidly – solar PV [photovoltaic], solar thermal and wind technologies – but it will be a long time before they are substantial at the global scale.

When new advances are made in fossil-fuel technology – reducing carbon emissions, for example – a common criticism is that this reduces investment in renewable sources. Is that true?

I don’t think it’s true. The world is developing in such a way that prosperity is growing. Hundreds of millions of people have been taken out of dire material poverty by economic development. Energy consumption by 2050 will be something like double that at the beginning of the century. You’re going to need more of just about everything if you are going to meet that demand.

What would you say were the challenges in commercialising new energy technologies?

What is very material is the investment climate. Do you have a climate in which investment is being encouraged, or do you have a climate where policies are unclear, creating uncertainty, which moderates  investment? Although their use will grow swiftly over the coming decades, renewables will probably not replace fossil fuel in that time. How can we manage that expectation? We have to be honest, we have to be clear. People are in general used to the kinds of technologies that turn over very quickly. When looking at major infrastructure, in energy or transport or waste management, it is a big investment and has a lifetime of decades. We have to help people understand what it means for something to become large-scale in global terms and how long that takes.

How could our consumption habits shape the future of energy change?

Consumption is important. If you look at personal transport, the average US citizen uses three times as much energy as the average European citizen. Cities developed in the US where there was a lot of land available and where the energy outlook at the beginning of the 20th century was of abundant, inexpensive energy, so you had sprawling cities with poor public transport. This has a big impact on the amount of energy being used.

With that in mind, can we realistically expect to provide enough energy for another two billion people by 2050?

There are challenges there, but they are challenges that can be met. We have to meet them through the choices we make now; the design of cities, personal behaviours and consumption behaviours. All of these will play a role together. So yes, we can fuel development to 2050 and beyond, but we can’t be complacent. It won’t happen by itself.

Who is driving innovation in the energy systems of the future?

Innovation is an intrinsic part of human behaviour: creativity. There are different kinds of innovation – basic science, often in university settings and medium-sized industries, but also, on the technologies side, from companies like ourselves. Shell invests over $1bn a year in research and technology development. Each type of institution plays an important role. It’s really about taking technology and deploying it, and that requires innovations in the way collaborations develop to cross public-private and industry sector boundaries. You need innovative collaborations if you’re going to address them.

Can you comment on the water, food and energy nexus?

Water, energy, food or land use – they’re all closely intertwined. When there are stresses in one area, they feed stresses in another. These things can’t be looked at in isolation, which makes it difficult, because historically they tended to be looked at in isolation. You need a lot of energy, for example, to transport and treat water. You need a lot of energy to produce and transport food. But equally, you need a lot of water to develop energy. These systems need to be looked at collectively and that means industry and government, NGOs and civil society collaborating to address the stresses that are emerging.

Where does the main responsibility for cutting carbon lie: with consumers, businesses or the government?

All sectors of society need to dance together. Each has individual responsibilities within that, but it’s getting them to dance together that is going to make the big impact.

What myths surrounding energy provision do you find yourself addressing most frequently?

The biggest myth that comes up in general conversation is the myth that energy systems can change suddenly. You can change a lot in a short period of time without its having an impact globally. It’s a question of having the persistence and dedication to keep working on this in order to have a constructive influence over a long period of time. Getting that across is probably the biggest challenge, and the biggest myth is that it can just be done overnight.

Are we all doomed?

No, we’re not. But we mustn’t be complacent