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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As Donald Trump once asked, how do you impeach a President?

Starting the process is much easier than you might think. 

Yes, on Friday, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. And no, you can’t skip the next four years.

But look on the bright side. Those four years might never happen. On the one hand, he could tweet the nuclear codes before the day is out. On the other, his party might reach for their own nuclear button – impeachment. 

So, how exactly can you impeach a President? Here is our rough guide.

OK, what does impeachment actually mean?

Impeachment is the power to remove an elected official for misconduct. Here’s the relevant clause of the US Constitution:

“The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Impeachment is actually a legacy of British constitutional history, and dates back as far as 1376, but according to our own parliamentary website, in the UK “this procedure is considered obsolete”. 

It’s up to the US Congress to decide whether to impeach and convict a President. Both houses are controlled by the Republicans, so impeaching Trump would mean turning against one who is – technically at least – one of their own. Since he’s already insulted the neighbouring country, supported discrimination against Muslim immigrants and mocked a disabled reporter, their impeachment threshold seems pretty high. But let’s imagine he surpasses himself. What next?

The impeachment process

Members of the House of Representatives – the lower chamber of the Congress – can start the impeachment process. They in turn may be encouraged to do so by voters. For example, there is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to people who tried to impeach Barack Obama. One Impeach Obama supporter simply gave his reason as stopping the President from “pushing his agenda”. Another wanted to do so on the grounds of gross incompetence...

But for an impeachment attempt to actually work, the impeacher needs to get the support of the house. If a majority agree with the idea of impeaching the elected official, they nominate members to act as prosecutors during the subsequent trial. This takes place in the Senate, the upper house of Congress. In most impeachments, the Senate acts as judge and jury, but when a President is impeached, the chief justice of the United States presides.     

Two-thirds of the Senate must vote for impeachment in order to convict. 

What are the chances of impeaching Donald Trump?

So if Trump does something that even he can’t tweet away, and enough angry voters email their representatives, Congress can begin the process of impeachment. But will that be enough to get him out?

It’s often assumed that Richard Nixon was kicked out because he was impeached for the cover up known as the Watergate Scandal. In fact, we’ll never know, because he resigned before the House could vote on the process.

Two decades later, the House got further with Bill Clinton. When it emerged Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, an intern, he initially denied it. But after nearly 14 hours of debate, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives decided to impeach him on grounds including perjury and obstruction of justice.

In the Senate trial, Clinton’s defenders argued that his actions did not threaten the liberty of the people. The majority of Senators voted to acquit him. 

The only other Presidential impeachment took place in 1868, when President Andrew Johnson, removed a rabble-rouser from his Cabinet. The guilty vote fell short of the two-thirds majority, and he was acquitted.

So, what’s the chances of impeaching Trump? I’ll leave you with some numbers…

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.