[Reader-list] The future of the atmosphere

Rana Dasgupta eye at ranadasgupta.com
Thu Jun 16 12:57:53 IST 2005

The Chairman of Shell, Lord Oxburgh, is a pretty interesting person, and 
this interview with him is so too.  Bizarre that multinational oil 
corporations are lobbying governments to regulate oil consumption in 
anticipation of ecological catastrophe...


'The boat is sinking'

As our appetite for oil hastens climate change, who will speak out for 
the alternatives? One possible champion is Lord Ron Oxburgh, the 
distinguished geologist who also happens to be chairman of Shell. He 
tells Aida Edemariam why the time for complacency is over

Wednesday June 15, 2005
The Guardian

When Lord Ron Oxburgh visited the Hay festival a couple of weeks ago he 
arrived during a spell of weather best described as unsettled. A 
record-breakingly warm Friday was followed on Saturday by a wild, 
gusting wind and, in the festival marquees, a great howling and a 
flapping of canvas.

The lighting rigs creaked with the strain, and pictures of Hay, 
projected on to screens behind the performers, bucked and swayed; it was 
a glimpse of how it must feel to sail a boat into a storm, and an almost 
too appropriate backdrop to chief government scientist David King's calm 
laying out of the basic facts of climate change: that since the 
industrial period carbon dioxide levels have risen from 270 parts per 
million (classical for all previous warm periods) to 379ppm today, and 
are rising at 2ppm per year. In 10 years' time they will be at 400ppm; 
at 500ppm, Greenland's ice will melt entirely - it's already receding by 
10 metres a year - and the sea level will rise, drowning coastal cities 
and entirely changing the contours of the earth. Most scientists now 
agree that unless we stabilise the earth's atmosphere by 2050, there 
will be no way to halt the disaster.

Oxburgh, the non-executive chairman of Shell in the UK, on the dias with 
Greenpeace executive director Stephen Tindale, listened to King with 
increasing impatience, his abundant black eyebrows knitting restlessly 
under windblown white hair. As soon as he decently could, he grabbed the 
microphone, strode to the front of the stage and launched into his 
speech, contemptuous of the lectern, glancing only occasionally at his 
notes, leaning in towards the audience as if, like an evangelist, he 
wanted to pick everyone up and shake sense into them, just as the wind 
was shaking the tent. "We have roughly 45 years. And if we start NOW, 
not in 10 or 15 years' time, we have a chance of hitting those targets. 
But we've got to start now. We have no time to lose."

We meet later but, returning to the speech, I suggest to Oxburgh that 
there is a certain inconsistency to his position. He heads one of the 
biggest petrochemical multinationals in the world; a multinational, 
moreover, whose recent track record includes an attempt to scupper the 
decommissioned Brent Spar oil platform; a series of North Sea gas leaks; 
struggles in the Niger Delta with the Ogoni tribe, who believe Shell's 
riches are being acquired at their expense; failure to halt the 
execution by the Nigerian government of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who campaigned 
for the Ogoni; oil spills and ground-level flaring in the Delta. The 
Climate Justice Programme has called this practice "environmental 
racism", as it seems only to happen in developing countries; Oxburgh, 
somewhat unconvincingly, insists the locals appreciate the flares as a 
heat source for drying fish.

And then there was the unfortunate moment last year when Shell announced 
it was downgrading the size of its oil reserves by 20%, greatly 
upsetting its investors. Shell was subsequently investigated by the US 
Securities and Exchange Commission, and Oxburgh's predecessor lost his 
job - though in 2004 Shell somehow also posted the biggest profit of any 
British company ever: £9.3bn. So if the logical solution to the trouble 
we're in is to stop using oil, surely Oxburgh's comrades at Shell aren't 
too happy with him? "I think most of the people I work with talk in the 
same way. Though they might not talk about it so publicly." Also, many 
of them are, principally, businessmen; "the difference is, I have worked 
for a lot of my life as a research scientist. And if I don't say it, 
who's going to?"

Oxburgh always wanted to be a scientist, but despite the support of his 
parents, who had themselves left school at 14, his teachers 
steamrollered him into classics at Oxford. After five terms he'd had 
enough, so he looked around and saw that the head of the geology 
department was also the man who had climbed furthest up Everest (this 
was before Edmund Hillary), "and I guess because I was a climber" he 
joined the geology department. "Geology was an incredibly boring subject 
in some ways, but for the fact that it got you out into the mountains." 
At Oxford he and his friends climbed every building they could, the 
prize being the crumbling cupola of its historic library, the Radcliffe 
Camera. There were no indoor climbing walls, so they practised on the 
mantelpieces in their rooms. He's 70 now, and doesn't climb any longer, 
but he loves orienteering, gleeful that it allows you to rely on your 
wits rather than physical fitness, and thus to beat people far younger 
than yourself.

Shell made him his first job offer after he had finished a PhD at 
Princeton, where he made major contributions to the discovery of plate 
tectonics. But they wanted to wait until he had done military service; 
when the military rejected him, Oxford offered him a short teaching 
contract. He stayed for 18 years. Since then he has taught at Cambridge, 
been Rector of Imperial College London and was chief scientist at the 
MoD during the six years in which Russia imploded, the Berlin Wall came 
down, and the first Iraq war began. Now a KBE and crossbench life peer 
who sits on the House of Lords select committee on science and 
technology, he joined Shell as a non-executive director in 1996. He is 
tough, but approachable; he gives the impression of idealism, and 
smilingly refuses to be drawn into any criticisms of his company.

But Oxburgh also has a reputation for independence and, in these last 
two months before he retires from the chairmanship, a fierce need to 
talk about the future. "Look, Shell is an energy company, not an oil 
company, and the fact is that neither Shell nor any other energy company 
is going to be doing business in the same way in 25 years' time." 
Already Shell "can't actually make enough solar panels at the moment to 
satisfy demand". So far it has spent $1.5bn, more than any other 
company, he says, on renewables. (To put this in context, the cost of 
getting one oilfield up and running can reach $10bn, though funding can 
come from a variety of sources.)

But these are early days for biofuels and renewable energy, and early 
days too for a method many including Oxburgh tout as a possible eureka: 
carbon sequestration, which involves trapping the CO2 produced by 
burning fossil fuels and storing it, usually underground, in the 
cavities where the oil, natural gas, or coal came from in the first 
place. It's a possible option in the North Sea and in the US, but more 
difficult in India and China, where abundant cheap brown coal produces 
relatively high levels of CO2 but where there are few obvious places to 
store it.

Which brings up another, potentially far greater, problem. As Oxburgh 
points out, China, India, Brazil and Mexico are rapidly emerging 
markets, and "as countries grow and become more prosperous, they use 
more energy. It is a sad fact that if these countries experience the 
perfectly legitimate growth in GDP [gross domestic product] that they 
have a right to expect, and they do so in the same energy-inefficient 
way that we have seen our prosperity grow, then I think we are wasting 
our time. Because, frankly, the numbers of people are so large, and the 
rate of change is so great, that there will be simply no hope of meeting 
our targets by 2050." China, for example, "is opening a new, 
old-fashioned, dirty, full-sized power station at the rate of one a 
fortnight." (The developing world, not surprisingly, will be most 
affected by climate change: Africa is forecast to get warmer at double 
the rate of anywhere else and, says David King, will soon be feeling the 
effects of climate change at a level rivalling the effects of the HIV 

This is the sort of issue that must be dealt with at government level, 
and governments are notoriously blind beyond the next election, not to 
mention worried about upsetting powerful corporations. Yet just a couple 
of weeks ago Shell and 12 other signatories, including BP, sent an open 
letter to Tony Blair, in which they pointed out that "governments tend 
to feel limited in their ability to introduce new policies for reducing 
emissions because they fear business resistance, while companies are 
unable to take their investments in low-carbon solutions to scale 
because of lack of long-term policies," and urged immediate action. 
Oxburgh advocates that government uses the controls at its disposal: 
"Regulate biofuels. Or subsidise. Or tax" - any incentive really, but 
"what we don't want to see is in two years' time the government simply 
becoming bored with climate change after we've invested a lot of our 
shareholders' money. Remember, those shareholders are pension funds and 
other similar organisations." The prospect of big business forcing 
government to regulate it would be funny, if it weren't so serious.

Meanwhile, the price of oil is high at $55 a barrel, and the oil 
companies don't see it falling substantially in the near future. At the 
current rate of progress, says Oxburgh, "we are going to be really quite 
dependent on fossil fuels for another 50 years. And nothing is going to 
slow the world economy more, and inhibit our control of the greenhouse 
gas problem, than a world recession. So, fundamentally, what we are 
trying to do worldwide is to make sure that we have enough of a supply 
of oil and gas." Paradoxically, the high price of oil is also good for 
renewable energy, as it forces the speedier development of alternatives, 
and Oxburgh just views this as a further business opportunity: corn 
ethanol, to take the example of a biofuel currently in use, currently 
costs nearly as much as oil.

Shell, therefore, is in no trouble. But the planet is, and Oxburgh sees 
no point in mincing words. "The boat is sinking, and we have to use 
everything that we possibly can."

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