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The Guardian: ‘The boat is sinking’

The Guardian: ‘The boat is sinking’

15 June 2005

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

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 epidemic.)

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.”,,1506553,00.html and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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