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The Guardian/The Observer: It’s too late for the planet: or can we pull it from the fire? Brought to you in association with Shell

Respected scientist James Lovelock thinks it is too late to reverse climate change, writes Robin McKie, but the chairman of Shell UK, James Smith, is upbeat that major petroleum companies can play a big role in making amends, finds Nick Mathiason

Robin McKie:

James Lovelock has a simple message for the nation’s eco-warriors. Forget your hybrid car, mini-turbine on your roof, your carefully recycled rubbish and endless efforts to cut carbon emission. The whole business is not worth the effort.

‘Why should we sacrifice ourselves for the rest of the world when everyone else is going to keep on doing what they have always been doing?’ he says. ‘In a wonderful world, we would all co-operate. But life is not like that.’ Attempts to induce co-operation over climate are thus doomed to failure, says Lovelock, creator of the Gaia theory (which likens the Earth to a breathing, living entity). He compares the ‘worthless, morally bankrupt’ Kyoto agreement with the Munich treaty of 1938.

‘Kyoto does not even attempt to address the issue of land use, for example,’ he points out. Humans have appropriated 40 per cent of the Earth’s land surface to sustain a global population now heading towards seven billion. It is a process causing as much damage to the planet as the mayhem being triggered by rising carbon emissions, adds Lovelock. Yet Kyoto does not attempt to address that part of our planetary crisis in any way.

This is not the only similarity he sees between our present climate crisis and the threat once posed by Nazi Germany.

‘The coming years will be just like the war years,’ argues Lovelock, now 86, but in startlingly good cheer for a doom-monger. ‘It was awful, but everyone had a sense of purpose. We will need that again in the next few decades.’

The key point, he says, is to realise that humanity is now at war with the planet. We have assailed his beloved Gaia for too long and it is about to wreak revenge. Ice caps are melting and meadows being transformed into deserts. Millions were killed between 1939 and 1945. Billions will die in the forthcoming climatic change. Thus we need to start preparing our defences urgently against the onslaught, Lovelock says: houses, towns and cities need to be moved to higher ground; flood protection – including a new Thames barrage – need to be built; levees must be constructed to protect the country’s most productive farmland, the low-lying field systems of the east coast of England.

But Lovelock says there is some good news: there is no need to worry about emissions from coal-fired power stations, building new wind turbines or developing underground carbon storage silos or new wave power plants. ‘Our coal plants have little effect on global carbon emissions, wind turbines are just a blot on the landscape that produce very little power, and wave and carbon storage schemes – though possessing great potential – will take too long to develop.

‘We have run out of time. It is as simple as that. The climate is changing far faster than we thought it would and we are going to feel the effects very soon.’ Lovelock simply falls off the spectrum when it comes to predicting misery and destruction. The fact his grim diatribes are delivered by such a cheery figure, and by a scientist of such repute, with such a clear command of his facts and figures, only makes our impending problems seem all the more alarming.

He is an unexpected ecological Jeremiah. He was raised by working-class parents in inner-city Brixton, south London, and did not leave the area until 1932. ‘I was fairly glad to get out. There’s nothing wrong with Brixton, but my parents’ new home in Orpington was at the edge of countryside in those days, which meant I could go for walks and take my bike into Kent. There was no agri-business and no wind farms. Just miles of unspoiled fields, woods and paths.’

The countryside is the face of Gaia, Lovelock adds, being his concept of the Earth as a living organism, or at least a set of biological systems in constant check with each other and which maintain the conditions that make life possible on our planet. The roots of this idea can be traced to Lovelock’s love of nature and his rambles in Kent. However, it was not until he moved to the village of Bowerchalke, in Wiltshire, and when he began working as a scientist, that he developed the Gaia theory, in conjunction with biologist Lynn Margulis.

Gaia is not his name. That came from Lovelock’s old drinking buddy, the novelist William Golding, another of Bowerchalke’s residents. He decided the theory could do with a decent name and gave it that of the Greek goddess of the Earth.

Neither did the Gaia hypothesis, first published in 1979, go down well with the scientific community. ‘It got a hard time, but all theories do,’ admits Lovelock. Today, it has become part of mainstream science. When I interviewed Lovelock in London he had come to accept the Geological Society’s Wollaston Medal and, given that previous recipients include Charles Darwin, we can see how mainstream his thinking, and how influential his views, have become.

For years, he was the darling of the green movement. Then, a couple of years ago, he announced our planet was in such grave danger from carbon emissions that only nuclear power plant construction could save it. The call went down badly in some circles and was condemned by ardent greenies.

Lovelock is unrepentant: ‘What’s so bad about nuclear power? It has drawbacks, but they are nothing like those that will be unleashed once global warming takes a grip of the planet. We are going to have to become much more self-reliant as a nation and nuclear power is the one way of ensuring we can provide our own energy needs.’ The fact that the creator of the Gaia theory could make such a heretical pronouncement has not been without an impact. ‘Popular opinion has gone from being totally against new nuclear power plants for Britain to being divided, 50-50, over its deployment here,’ he claims.

He is probably right. One convert appears to be Tony Blair, who has endorsed construction of a new generation of atomic plants for Britain. The man who changed our thinking about the world and its living beings may also have profoundly altered the way it will fight the battle against environmental mayhem.

Nick Mathiason:

‘Society, government and companies are moving together as we come to grips with the solutions we need and are confronted with the cost,’ says Graeme Sweeney, chief executive of Shell Renewables.

The 54-year-old Scottish born Shell-lifer is confident that the stark challenges posed by our energy-hungry world are being met by partnership and technology. Sceptics are dismissed at a stroke. Suggest that the oil industry has been painfully slow to harness its vast wealth to solve environmental catastrophe by investing in new renewable technologies and Sweeney races through the rebuttal.

‘Shell has the broadest portfolio of relevant solutions of any oil company and an established track record of committing and doing it,’ he says from his office in Amsterdam. ‘We’ve been in the solar energy business since 1997 and in the wind business since the late Nineties. We’ve established clear and leading positions there. ‘We are the leading marketer and blender of biofuels, with an established position in second-generation low-carbon technology.’

Shell’s UK country chairman, James Smith, believes the oil major will play a pivotal role in solving some of the world’s biggest challenges.

‘The richest billion people on the planet consume 50 per cent of the energy and the poorest billion consume 4 per cent, so unwinding that is our biggest challenge from an economic and social justice standpoint and I see Shell involved in the resolution of these disparities,’ he says.

Smith presents the challenges as if on army manoeuvres: how to cut damaging amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere when the economy and population is growing hugely. ‘If we let it run we may have the energy, but we destroy the climate.’

Smith believes there are ‘two big levers’ to combat this: energy efficiency within the economy – using half the energy for the same economic effect – and less carbon intensity of the energy itself.

He maintains that the technology is available and the likelihood is that fossil fuel will be the main energy supplier until the mid-century.

Sweeney agrees. ‘There’s a growing demand for energy in almost all forward-looking scenarios,’ he says. ‘And within that, there’s most likely to be a larger call on fossil fuels than today. So total demand grows; the share of large carbon grows, including renewables and potentially nuclear, but at the end of all that the absolute amount of fossil fuels to meet this energy demand also rises.’

The biggest weapon to deal with this, says Shell, is burying the CO2 problem under the carpet – literally.

Sweeney has high hopes for its Norwegian North Sea project that it says will capture and store underground up to 2.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually – the same as would be produced by one million cars. It will cost £870m. The project is a joint venture with Norwegian oil firm, Statoil and will depend on ‘substantial’ government funding.

Shell’s renewables chief sees carbon capture and storage as a vital tool for cutting CO2 emissions and helping to reduce global warming, but the technique is still in its infancy. ‘Carbon storage is essential. I can’t see routes to meet our obligations that don’t require significant carbon capture and storage.’

However, it is by no means a cure-all. There are not enough oil recovery opportunities to store the amount of carbon needed to meet our Kyoto targets. So Sweeney believes carbon storage should be tradable under the EU emission trading scheme.

With Britain seemingly heading for a nuclear future, and with energy firms’ emphasis on carbon sequestration accounting for huge sums of money, is there a danger that both agendas will seize all the investment money, leaving renewable energy in the cold?

‘I can imagine a future in which that’s what happens but I can also imagine one in which the UK gets its act together on offshore wind and it will be a significant contributor,’ says Sweeney.

‘You need to make choices about what you’re going to do to balance concerns over affordability, environment and security. And you could say it’s about striking the right balance. This leads me to a view that we need more fossil fuels but we need them in the long run with integrated CO2 solutions. We do need to build low-carbon renewable energy sources. We need to improve our energy efficiency and that’s true for society at the global level, in the UK, and for Shell as well.’

Sweeney believes the giant offshore wind project known as the London Array could provide a major breakthrough in the UK low-carbon energy mix. The array in the Thames Estuary could, by 2010, produce one gigawatt of power – enough to supply 750,000 homes in the capital. Shell, part of the consortium that wants to build the array, is awaiting a planning decision scheduled for later this year. ‘A positive decision would be a clear signal that a substantial contribution could be made by renewable energy if we could all drive this through to a successful conclusion.’

Hopes that onshore wind farms will provide a significant renewable energy source are unrealistic, argues Sweeney. ‘Clearly a substantial amount of people don’t want it,’ he says. For Britain, the solution is offshore, he believes, though the costs are greater, which will ‘require a different level of support than that currently offered under the renewables obligation’.

Shell prefers not to indicate how much money it costs energy firms to meet the government’s renewable obligation, the percentage of renewable generation they must provide as part of their energy mix. But industry sources say that if money saved by energy firms through carbon trading and increased efficiencies was recycled directly into new renewable projects the overall spend would be less onerous. There are indications that within months the government will encourage energy firms to do just that.

Shell is working under encouragement from government to build a biofuel refinery at Stanlow. The biofuel will mainly come from imported sources, says Sweeney, though many would prefer to see the government give more encouragement to domestic biofuel producers.

Sweeney plays down the importance of solar in Britain. ‘Solar in the UK context is not going to make a big impact but if you think about energy efficiency and the opportunity to integrate and design new build with solar, then I’m actually in favour of that.’

Shell is beginning to develop a series of oil platforms that are renewably powered. Several of these platforms are now in the North Sea recovering small pockets of oil. It is a leading light in turning clean coal into gas and with Canadian biotech firm Logen is pioneering biofuel to power cars made from grass.

Smith is keen to play up the importance of recruiting from as wide an ethnic pool as possible to attract the best talent to overcome the energy challenges of tomorrow. The oil major is trying to shake off its image of an inward-looking industry entity. It will need to if it is serious about playing a role in reducing the harmful effects of fossil fuels and being at the vanguard of innovation.

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One Comment

  1. neil mcferran says:

    Shell’s oil refinery near Rotterdam supplies a rose grower with pure carbon dioxide to bolster his crop, diverting it to about 500 greenhouses, & aiming to cut the refinery’s emissions by 8 percent …
    … It seems to me that the same could be done for fossil-fuel power stations on a very large scale. The technology might be challenging but nothing like the challenges & problems associated with nuclear power, especially waste disposal. Of course SO2 etc would need to be removed too (this also can i believe be recycled as sulphuric acid). If this could work it seems to me vitally important as a source of large amounts of energy. I think greens are otherwise in a tight spot as other alternatives would be hard put to provide enough energy, and I think that reduction of our energy use even in the face of catastrophe is unlikely until it’s too late. I want to get this idea out quickly especially to the people who would know whether it can work. Suggestions & comments are welcome neil mcferran ”
    PS. What’s so bad about nuclear power, James Lovelock? THE RADIOACTIVE WASTE