It's not safe to leave fossil fuels in the ground

Better to extract the fossil fuels, capture the carbon, and store that instead, says Professor Jon Gibbins.

I had the chance to speak to the University of Edinburgh's Professor of Power Plant Engineering and Carbon Capture, Jon Gibbins, last week, for a piece in next week's magazine. During the course of our interview, he focused heavily on an argument for using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology which I hadn't heard before.

He said:

We've never really been short of fossil fuels. We thought we were, but really it's obvious, and maybe this gas business makes it painfully obvious that we're not short of fossil fuels. We are short of space in the atmosphere. And nobody knows what the climate response would be. There's a wide range of predictions, but there's enough fossil fuel to take you anywhere within that range of predictions that you want to go. And you really don't want to be sitting there having that experiment.

So as I say, we've got two choices, I think. We've got the choice of saying that renewables are so wonderful and cheap – or nuclear or anything else, or fusion – will be so cheap that we don't use the fossil fuels. They're just too easy to use. So we either sit there and keep on putting fossil carbon in the atmosphere, and see what happens, and then probably what happens is you realise it's not a good idea and you have to do things in a panic.

Now, maybe a few people would be doomed – or maybe more than a few – in that situation. Or, we say look, how much money are we spending on renewables? Even in our straitened times, quite a lot. How much would it cost to spend an equivalent amount of money on CCS? Well it wouldn't cost us a thing, actually. Because you're just shifting money from one low-carbon source to another. That's all. It's not energy costing money, it's just not spending all of it in one direction.

In other words, we ought to focus on CCS at least as much as – if not more than – renewables, not because they are better per se, but because they are better at constraining future action. Only if we burn fossil fuels with CCS can we be sure that the carbon they contain won't enter the atmosphere some other way.

If we build enough renewable energy capacity to supply our entire system, there are still fossil fuels ready to burn. The people who built the renewable capacity may not want to burn them – but what about the next government? Or the next generation?

The history of humanity is a history of ever increasing energy demand. As a result, we ought to assume that any un-used energy source won't stay that way for long. If we do assume that, then maybe the best thing to do isn't try to completely end our usage of fossil fuels, but to ensure that if we use fossil fuels, we only ever use them in a safe way (that is, with CCS technology).

There are two potential advantages to this: firstly, it gives us more time to prepare an energy system totally unreliant on fossil fuels, and secondly, it means that when we do switch to a renewable economy, there's no chance of freaking out and switching back.

The full interview with Professor Gibbins will be in the 4 November edition of the New Statesman.

The Sleipner gas platform, some 250 kms off Norway's coast in the North Sea. Photograph: Getty Images

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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle