Q&A with Jon Gibbins

New Statesman

According to the International Energy Agency, the world may have 250 years of gas at current levels. What lies behind this increased estimate?

Principally, unconventional gas such as shale gas and some of the methane hydrates. We were working with gas that had escaped from source rocks and was trapped. Now, we are actually going after some of the original places where the gas is coming from, using new drilling technologies. It could be a lot more than 250 years.

How can increased use of that natural gas help reduce CO2 emissions?

Well, ultimately you’ve got to use it with carbon capture and storage. You’ve really got to watch what you mean by carbon dioxide emissions, because what will matter is not the rate at which CO2 is emitted, or the amount of CO2 per unit of electricity – it’s just the total amount of CO2 that goes in the atmosphere.

Is the investment in renewable or nuclear energy sources sufficient for us to be able to meet our carbon reduction targets by 2050?

You can’t say “investment” is or isn’t helping us to meet the targets. The problem is cumulative emissions of carbon from fossil fuels. We’re now with 250 years’ supply of natural gas, and all the coal, and still quite a lot of oil. What we really don’t have is space in the atmosphere, and that’s the thing that will come and get us. We won’t be able to enjoy 250 years of natural gas if we don’t do something about the CO2.

What is carbon capture and storage (CCS), and what role can it play as part of our power generation system?

It needs to play a role in everything, not just power generation. But carbon capture and storage involves making sure that the carbon that comes out of the ground goes back into the ground or somewhere else where it can stay. We’re still developing, but even the methods we’ve got now are perfectly adequate.

To what extent do you think that new technologies in gas provision will affect investment in renewable resources?

I think you have to say there, “What is the attitude in the people deciding on the subsidies for renewable resources?” Renewables – and indeed carbon capture and storage – are a subsidy driven industry. Very, very few renewables, with the exception of traditional hydro, have been funded by normal market conditions.

It is estimated that, by 2020, 80 per cent of the UK’s gas will be imported. How can we ensure the security and continuity of that supply?

By having multiple sources. I think we can rely on the Norwegians not to be too hard on us, not least because they don’t have anywhere else for their pipeline to go. We also need a mod - erate amount of storage to be able to face out short-term breaks in supply.

What impact will the growth in natural gas have on the transport sector?

Interesting. We might find that actually people start using natural gas directly. It’s made big impacts on air quality where it has been used – India particularly – but will cut CO2 by only maybe 20 per cent, a relatively small amount, and that could easily be taken up by increased use.

How do the costs for gas compare to oil, coal and renewables?

It depends what your contracts are, because in some markets we’ve seen natural gas linked to oil prices. I think we’re heading towards a world with an oversupply. We’re looking at getting gas at the price of producing, maybe liquefying, and then transporting it to the user, probably without very large margins. But that price will vary quite a lot depending on where you are.

Your strategy for helping deliver carbon capture and storage technology rapidly requires a combination of technological, economic and political advances.

It doesn’t, actually. It just requires policy. The technology is as ready to go as it needs to be and the only policy we need is actually being given a fair chance.

How challenging is that to start?

People need to realise the problem is not that we’re short of energy: we’re facing a climate problem, so we need to get people to realise that we either stop using fossil fuel or don’t just throw CO2 in the atmosphere. You’ve got to do CCS. There’s plenty of places to put the CO2.

Should we be worried about not having enough, or not having the right kind of energy in the future?

We shouldn’t worry at all about the energy we’ll have in the future. What you really need to worry about is putting CO2 in the atmosphere. The solution to climate change is to move from throwing carbon dioxide from fossil fuels into the atmosphere.

Where does the main responsibility for cutting carbon lie: with consumers, business or governments?

It lies with people. This is not a problem that’s going to hit governments but not consumers, or businesses. It’s a problem for all of us that we’ve got to cope with.

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

That we have a shortage of fossil fuels.

Finally, are we all doomed?

Well, yes, we are – in the sense that we’re all mortal. But we’ve seen human societies adapt and change. I don’t think that many of the changes are of a kind you can’t get used to.