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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.