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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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.