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Lord John Browne - Stories of Change

Updated Thursday, 19th November 2015

Lord John Browne, Engineer, Businessman and former Chief Executive of BP is interviewed by Roger Harrabin for 'Stories of Change'. 

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Lord John Browne Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Harry Borden John Browne (Lord Browne of Madingley) is currently the Executive Chairman of L1 Energy. He was previously CEO of BP from 1995–2007, transforming it into one of the world’s largest companies. He was knighted in 1998, and made a life peer in 2001.  John Browne is Chairman of Huawei UK, the Tate Galleries and Donmar Warehouse and has authored the memoir Beyond Business, popular science book Seven Elements that Have Changed the World, The Glass Closet, a commentary on the acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people in business and most recently, Connect about how Companies succeed by engaging radically with society.

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Stories of Change Project

Lord John Browne interview


RH:      =  Roger Harrabin, Interviewer

JB:       =  Lord John Browne, Engineer, Businessman, former Chief Executive of BP, Participant


RH:         I’m now with John Browne in his offices in Mayfair, I’ve known John for a long time - John thanks for making the time to talk to me this morning  When did you first get interested in energy?

JB:         Well, I want you to know this is my 49th year in the energy business, but I really was interested in energy when my dear, late, father was working for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in Iran, and I went on holidays and I was taken round oil rigs by drillers and I met the amazing Myron Kinley - who was putting out a blowout at Ahwaz 6 and it seemed to me to be an extraordinary activity. I put it out of my head, let me say, and I went to Cambridge and I thought I’d do something entirely different, simply to be re-attracted back to the oil industry where I joined it for a year and stayed for a very long time.

RH:         And when did you first clock climate change was an issue?

JB:         In the nineties, probably in ’92, ’93 I began to worry about it and by of course, 1997 I decided to launch BP on a programme of changing its business and saying actually climate change is a problem, is an existential threat and changing the way BP worked. And I gave that speech in Stanford at that time.

RH:         And politicians were taking it up keenly at the time, when you look back just historically, does it look like a short time ago, are we being impatient to expect that society can change its industry so quickly or is it a long time ago?

JB:         I am an optimist, but I give a warning. I think before the global financial crisis part of the problem with the political rhetoric is there was almost too much of it . Objectives were being set without any feasible solution to get there, so people were being wound up without any view of how to actually achieve the objectives. We don’t want to do that again because I think that combined with the double financial crisis created a ton of cynicism in this area and that’s not good. We need opinion formers, we need people who are going to work in this area really to believe that the objectives set can be achieved, so I don’t think we want to do that again, too much rhetoric and too little attachment to reality.

RH:         Talk a bit more about the social licence to operate, what are the limits of it, do you think?

JB:         I think business is always criticised as being negative, but actually it’s one of the great motors of human progress, but it’s always been criticised as being self-serving, being profit oriented and careless as to the world. I do think business needs to reset itself - but and most importantly what it needs to do is to put these issues not as fringe issues where we talk about it as an add-on, the climate as an add-on, but in everything that business does and to explain itself in a very transparent way that here is the improvement I am making in everything that I do. I think some businesses outside the resources business are doing very well in that area. Some would say that’s easier for them to do, but actually it’s quite a challenge - I think the resources businesses need to get better at this.

RH:         What do they need to do?

JB:         They need to explain what they’re doing year-on-year to make their business better, to make it lower carbon, they can’t make it zero carbon, but they can certainly lower the carbon, they can have the debates about what they should be doing, they can adjust their portfolio.  They should be seen to be participating, not being dragged to the table.

RH:         You have a huge divergence as well between companies here in Europe and companies in the USA in terms of attitude, how on earth is that bridge going to be crossed?

JB:         Step by step because this debate is not settled, it’s not a settled debate, there are a variety of issues, a variety of views and right now they’re not reconciled, so start with those who can contribute and see what happens next.

RH:         And a company like Exxon, you’ve had dealings with them, what was that like?

JB:         I think Exxon has changed, I would say. They have been on a progress in regards to carbon but I think when I gave a speech on behalf of BP in ’97, the API, the American Petroleum Institute, at that time said that we’d left the church, so just totally rejected; we were, as it were, ex-communicated by the church of the API and I don’t think they would do that today.

RH:         No, but you’re still a million miles, when I say you, the European industry is a million miles from where America’s industry is, the sort of things, the sort of messages –

JB:         They were probably 10 million miles away 10 years ago, it’s probably getting closer, let’s see what happens now. 

 RH :       what do you think about the Pope?

JB:         Well, it’s an interesting approach to talk to the people of the world and I think the letter is going to the people of the world about the use of the natural environment and there is a problem, there’s always been a problem about the balance of conservation, preservation, sustainability and development.  And I don’t know what’s in the letter because it hasn’t been published properly yet, but it must be to address this whole question about how to have a sustainable future and yet have humanity get benefit from the planet.

RH:         Is it the Pope’s job to talk about climate change, climate science, climate economics, is it his job?

JB:         Is it anybody’s job? I think there is nobody appointed to speak to the entire world so I think, as far as I’m concerned, the more people who do this the better, because actually it’s a debate, there is no one, single solution here. We’ve had Gaia theory which has been very important, we’ve had lots of discussions about the benefits and the rights and wrongs of development, Adam Smith and beyond and Charles Darwin, and so a lot of people, have been in this debate. The more people the merrier, we don’t have proper solutions, I think we have choices about the future, options for the future, and none of them are perfect, but I think as an engineer I’d say going for a single point optimum is really a feasible chase.

RH:         OK I’m interested in your comment and I hadn’t planned to get to this point at mid interview but as you’ve raised it, let’s go with it. You said we don’t have solutions, I agree with you, we don’t have solutions at the moment to get to where we need to go. There are a lot of organisations like the International Energy Agency, for instance I was at yesterday, they say, ‘We can do this solution, we follow this, we get to this pathway,’ and frankly I just don’t trust them. It sounds like you don’t really trust those scenarios either?

JB:         No, I don’t trust single point scenarios. What I do trust though is the fact we do have more choices nowadays about energy, about CO2 emissions, about methane emissions than we have had for, let’s say, a quarter century. Now, we have to blend all these in such a way that we can still provide incentive, motivation and aspiration for the world as a whole, which means growth because I do believe that’s something that keeps people going. I think if we say to the world, ‘Your choices are all to do with shutting down the future,’ I don’t think people will take it, it’s not in the human condition to do that.

RH:         Well how can we strike a balance between being optimistic and realistic? For instance, I was looking yesterday at the International Energy Agency 450 parts per million scenario, that’s the scenario that theoretically keeps us within the 2 Celsius danger threshold and it’s very heavily dependent on carbon capture and storage, a technology which has been rejected by the German people because they won’t have CO2 pumped under their homes; it’s extremely expensive, the Norwegians who’ve been trying to bring it on are losing patience with it, they can’t understand why they can’t get the cost down; and it’s also predicated on heavy use of nuclear power, which is unacceptable in many countries of the world and is also proving ridiculously expensive. So it’s hard for me to believe that scenario.

JB:         I’ve been involved with some of my long-term colleagues in the so-called Apollo Report about how could we change the energy mix if we added enough money –

RH:         John, we’ll get onto that in a second, just pick up my point if you would about nuclear and carbon capture, what’s your view on both of those?

JB:         So I think nuclear has been pretty safe, it has been pretty safe although its reputation is one of being a very dangerous way of generating energy, but actually I think it is the case, and to probably over-trivialise it that it’s more dangerous to human beings rolling out of bed and hurting themselves than being affected by a nuclear reactor.

RH:         But we can’t persuade people that?

JB:         Well, I think with time you may be able to persuade some people to do a bit more of it. It is, however, very expensive and the reason it’s expensive is that it’s safe, the safer it is, the more equipment has to go in to make it safer and safer, but it’s possible. I think carbon capture and storage does have a problem, not only, I think, is it expensive - but where you can store carbon feasibly is probably in the wrong place compared with where you’re generating the carbon emissions and indeed, there is a finite limit to the amount you can store and so it is but a temporary addition, it is not a solution to the energy mix.

RH:         So, for instance, you can store carbon under the North Sea, but really we want to be storing carbon in the middle of China?

JB:         Correct and you can probably store it in the middle of the Midwest with some closed aquifers in the United States, but it’s not I think a permanent solution. It may help a bit on the margin, like many of these things will help on the margin.

RH:         OK So here’s what concerns me, the IEA scenario is predicated on heavy use of nuclear and carbon capture and storage and therefore, in my view, it’s almost certainly unrealistic. It sounds like you agree?

JB:         I think just to rely on those two things I think in my view at the moment it’s unrealistic. I think a better mix of energy for the future might be a more feasible solution, so lighter carbon from hydrocarbons, so I do think the carbon sources that produce less CO2 per unit of work are better than those that produce more. So gas is by definition better than coal, provided you don’t let the methane leak and you can do that, I think there’s engineering feasibility to stop the methane leaking. I think and I will talk about a little study I did with some colleagues with mine about the use of renewable energy, notably solar with storage, I think if we added enough money into the research budget, the R&D budget, to really push breakthroughs in this area, I think we could get some big mileage, some much more important development for the future and there’s a lot that could be done in that area, but it requires much more investment in R&D and probably less amount of roll out investment that is taking place at the moment.

RH:         RD&D?

JB:         RD&D, yeah.

RH:         Let’s go back to new technologies in a minute, but you mentioned gas, I mean there’s a very clear divide emerging globally between the big gas and oil players who are saying, ‘Thank you very much we’ll have our hydrocarbons and burn them,’ and the coal companies who are saying, ‘Don’t forget us, coal is the fuel that helps the poor, coal is the fuel that brings people into a development path.’ And there’s a very, very clear rift now, isn’t there?

JB:         Of course, but again you can’t switch off things totally and say, ‘Right, we’re going to go from A to Z in one leap.’ You can’t do that. So there are different ways of burning coal, there are different ways of mitigating emissions and indeed, for some time it’s going to have to form part of the energy mix in some parts of the world, much as gas fire can do that for getting electricity as can renewables, and clearly renewables has much more space to go, they will not be a full solution to all the energy requirements of the world.

RH:         How do you see the politics playing out with oil and gas companies lobbying governments to put in place a carbon price, to squeeze coal out of the market and coal fighting back now very hard? If you look at the USA, nearly a billion dollars going into campaign funding by the Koch brothers, for instance, to push this message as well as others, how do you see it playing politically?

JB:         I think you’ve got to stand back again and say, ‘What’s the purpose of this?’ If the purpose is to reduce man made carbon emissions, man made methane emissions into the atmosphere, i.e. greenhouse gases, then you need to provide incentives as well as regulations to stop it happening or to reduce it. One way of doing that is either a carbon tax or a carbon trade, a carbon trade is much more complex, but for some people more desirable, because you don’t have to rely on governments redistributing money, but these are very important incentives to get people to do the right thing. And so if you want to reduce - as I believe we must reduce - man made emissions,  you need these systems in place. It will rank order sources of electricity according to the amount of carbon they release per unit of energy they produce and that means that some coal plants will be severely hit, much as bad gas plants which are emitting a lot of methane, badly constructed, would also be hit.

RH:         Who is going to enforce that? If you’re a country and you have a large supply of coal and not much else, why shouldn’t you burn it? If you were a country who had diamonds, the rest of the world can’t say, ‘Don’t dig your diamonds.’ Yet we do want to say to people, ‘You can’t burn your coal’ or ‘We’ll put a price on your coal.  We had to compensate slave owners, as I’m sure you know, in order to get slavery ended politically; are we going to have to compensate people for leaving their coal in the ground?

JB:         This is the problem with the commons, the tragedy of the commons, everybody owns the atmosphere, but everybody uses it differently and one person can exploit another person’s good work. So we need to figure out how to get some form of redistribution in some ways to make this possible, otherwise we will have this debate forever until there is some real catastrophe.

RH:         But how are you going to get this redistribution, that’s the sort of phrase that in the USA amongst Republicans evokes notions of Communism?

JB:         Well no, it’s not that, I mean there’s a lot of –

RH:         Well, that’s how it’s described –

JB:         But it’s all about the way trade takes place, it’s all about where rents go, it’s all about these different sorts of things that can be thought through in this area it seems to me, otherwise –

RH:         We’ve had 30 years to think them through, so where are we getting on this thinking, what’s your thinking?

JB:         I think we’re three-fifths the way through the amount of time it took to get the WTO working which took about 50 years, so we’re three-fifths of the way through that.

RH:         But that ended up in disastrous failure at the Marrakesh talks?

JB:         Well, It’s not bad, I mean, Its certainly - I mean - we do have world trade, we don’t have a huge amount of protectionism and so forth and we have more than bi-lateral trade agreements.

RH:         But you have different timescales here, don’t you, because we’re trying to intellectually work out how we can make a system work globally, but meanwhile carbon emissions are piling up in the atmosphere and we’re supposed to freeze emissions by 2020?

JB:         Yes, but –

RH:         It’s a bit of a mismatch?

JB:         But the reality is that is where we are, so we have to step back and always remind ourselves again, the purpose - if we want to achieve our purpose, which I believe we do - we have to put in mechanisms in order to get there, which means that people need incentives to do the right thing - they just do.  Otherwise they have… an existential threat, of course, is an incentive, but if it’s not there, then it will have to have some sort of incentive system.

RH:         I just want to offer you to sketch something out, you’ve headed a major oil company, you’ve advised government, you’re a man with a large brain, you know the system inside-out, you know it politically, you know it industrially, just sketch out what you think might be a sort of scenario that would allow us to get out of this problem?

RH:         So I’ve always been a believer, number one, we have to reduce the costs of alternative energy, which means that we need to pile much more money into R&D to make that possible, because there’s nothing better than having cheaper energy substituting more expensive energy, that solves a lot of problems. It’s only going to get us partly there. Secondly I think we should never lose sight of the purpose, which is reducing carbon; thirdly we do have to start in industrialised nations, we do have to start on our own, where we can, I think, put in place incentives of some sort to prefer people who produce less carbon and to dis-incentivise people who produce more carbon. If we start in the developed world that covers quite a lot of the problem and let’s see how we can go from there. That seems to be rather practical. I don’t think I have a solution, if I had a universal solution I’d be out there talking about it, I don’t have one.

RH:         Let me talk about more specific things, you’ve just left Cuadrilla you mentioned gas earlier on, you mentioned methane leakage, it strikes me that this issue is methane leakage is still very much unresolved, we simply don’t know how much methane is leaking, the debate is out, and if methane leaks a lot from fracking, then it makes it look rather less good, compared with coal?

JB:         So we have to make sure we do what’s called green completions, I mean completions that actually keep the methane contained, hydrocarbon containment is one of the great objectives of oil and gas production. So that can be done and it needs to be done carefully, we need to monitor methane around relevant areas and we need to make sure the maintenance keeps the methane in the pipes and in the wells, which can be done.

RH:         Let me just get a gloss on this, you say it can be done, academic studies seem to offer different opinions as to the amount of methane leaking from wells at the moment, do you agree that that’s unresolved?

JB:         It is, I think the studies actually show a variety of outcomes, but fugitive emissions have been something that have been controlled for a very long time in the gas business. This is not new and not a new idea, but it’s something which has to be worked on and it is high quality operations that keeps the methane contained, you just don’t want to lose it. And I remember being involved in this over the last 30 years, trying to get more and more containment of methane. You have to understand what you’re doing, you have to measure what you’re doing, there are plenty of academic studies, but what I think they probably don’t consider in all cases is what is the impact of high quality operations on the outcome?

RH:         What do you mean by that last bit?

JB:         Making sure that you contain the methane, that all the valves don’t leak, that   when it comes out of the ground, if you’re testing, you either contain it or burn it, you make sure that the pipes are cemented to the rock, that the valves are secure and that you keep checking again and again.

RH:         What do you think the future is for shale gas in the UK?

JB:         I’ve always believed there is a future and we have to start. Cuadrilla has now got approval for one drilling pad to drill horizontal wells, frack them and test them. We need more testing before we know for sure what the potential is for shale gas here. On prima facie as you look at the geology and the shale, it looks like there’s a lot of gas available, but the question is can it be developed in a way which is responsible, sustainable and economic, and that’s what’s being tested at the moment.

RH:         And doesn’t get batted away by local people worried about their house prices, which is probably the biggest factor, I guess?

JB:         There’s great concern, there’s always concern with people with something new and something different interrupting their neighbourhood, so it has to be done in a way which minimises any form of long-term disruption.

RH:         There was, when shale gas started to first get mention in the UK, a great flurry in the media predicting a shale gas boom, I think David Cameron used a similar phrase and so did the Chancellor, are we going to see a shale gas boom, do you think, or was that a bit of hype?

JB:         We don’t know, if it’s successful we will see a shale gas boom by definition, but step by step here. I mean I think by analogy, if it works, if it can be done, then in line with the US, yes, there will be a shale gas boom. And there’s good chances that will be the case, but to get there we need to do some initial testing here.

RH:         Would you bet on it?

JB:         Well I have of course

RH:         <Laughs> In terms of you still hold shares in Cuadrilla?

JB:         I do actually, yes, I still do.

RH:         OK. Let me ask you about other technologies, when you were in charge of BP you moved onto the famous, beyond petroleum, the flower logo, but then you jettisoned the renewable energy side, why is that?

JB:         I didn’t.

RH:         You didn’t?

JB:         No, I didn’t, actually I did quite the reverse, when I left BP I then went to a private equity firm and my principal activity was to co-head the Renewable and Alternative Energy Fund, which turned out to be the largest in the world and round about $3.5 billion of equity and twice as much debt, so about $10 billion of capital was invested in renewable energy around the world and turned out to be pretty successful.

RH:         So it was after your time that BP sold off the renewables?

JB:         Yes. I was still investing in renewables, whether BP should have done that or not is something you should ask BP, but –

RH:         But you must have an opinion on it?

JB:         Well, it’s a –

RH:         Can you see the logic in why they did sell it?

JB:         My opinion was to go and start up this fund which has worked out pretty well.

RH:         Yes. And do you think BP look back at that decision and think, ‘That was a bad decision,’ or do you think they think, ‘Well, actually we’re still going to make money out of oil and gas now for a long time, so let’s not worry about it?’

JB:         BP will certainly make money out of oil and gas for some considerable time. I think like every industry when you’re in it you need to be in the good bits and if you conclude you’re not in the good bits then you need to leave. And so BP’s position probably was not as strong, I can say that, because I see all the positions over the last eight years in renewable alternative energy,   those positions were not in the leading positions of the world, I’d say.

RH:         But it’s still a vast amount of money going into looking for more fossil fuels, far, far more than there is going to try to develop renewables?

JB:         That’s why I come back to saying I think we need to spend more money in R&D and renewables. We’ve suggested in this little report I wrote with David King and other people, led by David and Richard Layard, was that we needed to spend about $150 billion over the next 10 years in R&D, which is about $15 billion a year, which is about half the capital budget of a major oil company, but that’s in R&D. So I think more could be spent there, we wouldn’t and it doesn’t affect –

RH:         When you talk about numbers like that, it might make people think, ‘Actually, we’re not really serious about tackling climate change at all when the numbers stack up like that.’

JB:         We need to spend that money, we need to spend that money.

RH:         I understand that, but you can think of a person listening to us chatting now, might think, ‘Good grief! All these politicians say they want to tackle climate change, these industries say they want to tackle climate change, they clearly don’t.’

JB:         Well that’s why we’ve recommended there must be a mechanism to spend this money.   I mean there are no international organisations which have been set up to do global R&D on energy substitution, but the IEA will probably do, and they could probably catalyse this sort of investment. On the grand scale of things, it’s not a lot of money for the members of the IEA.

RH:         Do you think that we can continue to expand exploration for fossil fuels without inevitably breaking the carbon budget and clocking over the numbers that would put us into a dangerous climate; should oil companies, for instance, be trying to drill in the Arctic, for instance?

JB:         I think there are two different questions, first I think you can always substitute lighter hydrocarbons for heavier hydrocarbons and the so-called carbon budget is dominated by vast amounts of coal in the calculation, including bituminous coal and things like that, which really, really, really I think for most people’s sake should not be burnt, very polluting.

RH:         So if you were Chairman of Shell would you be pushing into the Arctic?

JB:         <Pause> I don’t know, because I’m not Chairman of Shell, it depends on what their strategy is and what they really think about their capability to develop things responsibly and appropriately. I think it’s very expensive and I think maybe that if I were doing a strategy like that, and I’m not running Shell, I would always go for the lower cost - the lighter, lower cost hydrocarbons,  ones which have less cost and effort involved.

RH:         They’re clearly hoping or expecting that in 30 years’ time they will be able to sell whatever they get out of the Arctic and they will be able to be safe enough in those extraordinary extreme conditions in the Arctic, despite having had a number of setbacks already. Your old firm, BP, has had serious problems with safety; do you think they will retain what you might call a public licence, a social licence to dill in the Arctic? Not just Shell, but all oil firms, should we be going there?

JB:         There answer is I don’t know. Everybody will have a different view about what option they need to keep open for the long-term, some people will say that by 2050 we don’t need all this fossil fuel, by 2100 we won’t need any of it. Other people will say we may need some of it, it might even be in the words of the Shah of Iran in the seventies that oil and gas were far too valuable to be burnt, they should only be used to produce materials, petrochemicals, and maybe that’s –

RH:         We may get round to that point of view again?

JB:         We may well get round to that point of view. So I think everyone will have a different view, everyone will therefore say, ‘Where’s my trade off?’ Some companies will genuinely believe and they may be right, that they can produce oil safely and environmentally securely in extraordinary conditions. I’ve never been a great supporter of right on the margin development, partly because of the cost, so I never really took BP into, for example, oil sands, because I think the cost and the overall balance of activity wasn’t right at that time for BP. So I think you’ve got to be careful what you do and cost includes your long-term reputation, can you actually do it in a way which is persuasive and can be delivered on that persuasion to the public as a whole? And sometimes that’s an open question and I come back to this question of shale in the UK, it still remains an open question of whether or not the nation as a whole will actually believe that it’s worth doing. I hope they do, but maybe they won’t and it’s their call.

RH:         Let me just ask you about the culture of an oil company, it is very much a buccaneering, in some ways, operation, you’re operating at the frontiers, you have geologists, specialists, who want to conquer these massive challenges of engineering and there’s an excitement about finding a new field, there’s an excitement about going into a new area. How much does that drive the decision-making process, because the oil companies tend to be run by people at the top who’ve been in the oil companies from the start and have that, I guess, a sense in their DNA, of, ‘Let’s go out there and find that stuff, wherever it is, we can get it.

JB:         Well, I think there is, of course, in the professional cadres of oil and gas companies, this great spirit of we can do things, we love chasing things, we love the excitement of drilling wells and finding something, or maybe nothing is the risk. It’s like all these areas of creativity, its like I mean very rarely would you find a movie producer who believes, ab initio, that he’s going to produce any duds. I mean they actually believe in the future. So it’s very similar to lots of other pursuits, a great belief and a chase for success. But you know oil companies are run by boards of people who come from a variety of backgrounds who have to approve strategies and however exciting the strategies are, they have to make sense when it comes to finance, they have to make sense when it comes to keeping your licence to operate, they have to make sense when it comes to communicating to shareholders and can you actually explain to people openly what you’re doing and make sense of it to people who have common sense? So I think that’s the control over people who would love to go and sail the high seas.

RH:         But is it enough control over those people who perhaps, would like a stable climate before anything or an unpolluted Arctic, before anything?

JB:         The answer is, right now, probably not, but as the thinking of the world changes then I think boards reflect the thinking of the world, they really do in the end, they look around, they should be composed and many boards now are, of diverse people, I’m not talking about sexuality, gender and race, but about thinking as well. And so they should be in contact with the world and they should be influencing the executive and saying, ‘No, this is not what we should be doing, we’re taking too much of a risk by going against the grain of what the world wants.’  And right now I’d say the world hasn’t made up its mind. There’s a cacophony of thinking which says everything from: ‘I still don’t believe the science…’s all a conspiracy to shut down the electric power industry’ through to ‘It’s too late, we’ve already cast the die, the world will…’  Well, the human beings will affected, but I think the world itself - the Earth - will always repair itself, but it may not repair the human beings, so the range is huge.  And so when the range narrows I think boards then begin to think that this may be something which is practical. Right now a lot of it - it depends which part of the world you’re in.

RH:         Well, there’s something afoot at the moment which is new, which is this huge international divestment campaign which the Church of England has joined, the Norway State Pension Fund has joined, pulling $10 billion worth of investments out of coal-based industries. How much is that influencing people in the industry, how much is it influencing people in the industry that the Bank of England has said there may be a carbon bubble, we may have all this un-burnable carbon which may lead to a carbon bubble, is this catching on?

JB:         I think several points. First of all, as you build a portfolio of business, you have to look at keeping options for the future and some of those options won’t work, it’s like exploration. So I think the Bank of England was simply saying in examining the asset base of any company you have to examine the possibilities of making profits or not making profits, so I think that’s a statement of what good companies should be doing anyway.  The divestment programme is not… I know the numbers sound big, but in the plans –

RH:         But they’re tiny compared in the scheme of things –

JB:         They’re very, very tiny.

RH:         But has it started to prick the elephant?

JB:         I think it’s started a debate, a real debate about - what about the future and how do we think about the future and more importantly, how we have a dialogue about the future, about what companies are doing. Would I say that in my experience and I’m not a member of a big company at the moment, do I see this affecting things dramatically, no, I don’t. Do I think that it started a debate, yes, I do, definitely,  and that debate will carry on. I don’t think it’s affecting the companies one bit at the moment.

RH:         If you had to ask for governments to focus on three or four or five issues with the Paris talks coming up, what are the absolute key things that you would mention; you’ve mentioned more research development and deployment in renewables, what else?

JB:         Purpose. First of all, keep restating the purpose, because otherwise people lose the plot, they get involved with the debate, it’s too late –

RH:         And the purpose is?

JB:         The purpose is to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses in order to reduce the probabilities now of change in the climate, overheating the world, so just keep reinforcing the purpose and getting people to understand that purpose.

RH:         Do you think there’s a danger that people don’t get that?

JB:         Absolutely, they keep losing the plot, because there’s so much detail here, there’s so much debate about carbon tax, no carbon tax; renewables, no renewables; Arctic, no Arctic; heavy oil, light oil; methane emissions and gas; it’s very confusing. It’s confusing enough, I think, if you’re in the industry and this is about people, this is about human beings, the plot needs to be understood and repeated again and again. That is a high duty of all governments to do. Secondly I do think you know do not accept today as a snapshot of tomorrow, which means you need to invest in R&D; these two things. You couldn’t run a business if I suggest, just by saying, ‘Fine, I have the technology today and I’m going to carry on,’ because you’ll drive yourself into the ground. The same is true here, we need a lot more innovation, a lot more work to figure out what is the new mix of energies for the future and that includes how we generate electricity, how we store it, how we transmit it and all of those sorts of things.

RH:         Should governments collectively in Paris be stating what G7 stated just recently, which is that we should decarbonise electricity globally by 2050 and decarbonise the global economy entirely by the end of the century, should they be stating that?

JB:         If that’s the objective they want, they should state it.

RH:         Do you think they should follow that objective?

JB:         We need to double test, I would say this as I want to make sure that whatever anybody says actually is feasible with a push. It can’t be feasible today, but with a push –

RH:         But we don’t know, you just outlined we don’t know whether it’s feasible or not, because we don’t know how far renewables can take us?

JB:         I remind people that we didn’t actually know we could get to the moon, but we had a feasibility test which is, it’s possible provided we get a few things done. They were very big things and I think the same is true here. Now I think that debate needs to be had, because it’s easy to sign up to an infeasible objective and then halfway through say, ‘Oh well, we didn’t really mean it.’ We have to mean it, we really have to mean it, otherwise people will always be playing on the margins, saying, ‘I’ll live to fight another day.’

RH:         But it’s pretty unfeasible to take the world into a place of dangerous climate change as well, isn’t it?

JB:         Of course it is, but that’s your point of view and that’s my point of view –

RH:         It was a question –

JB:         But it’s not everybody’s point of view. Until it’s everyone’s point of view, it’s a debate clearly it’s not everyone’s point of view, because not everybody is aligned to changing the energy mix for the future.

RH:         Let me ask you, are you personally optimistic?

JB:         I’m always optimistic, I do believe that in the end innovation, the minds of great people create a good future, I always believe that and that’s because I’m a businessman and I’m an engineer and I’m a scientist and I think that’s exactly what engineering does. It’s in service of humanity and that’s what’s going to create solutions for the future.

RH:         I should say now, because this is audio, you’re smiling, you’re waving your fist at me, you’re being all enthusiastic, it looks like the sort of thing that would win over a board, but can we really do it? I mean I know you have to hope that we can do it, do you think we can really do it?

JB:         Yes, I do. Look we have to spend money on innovation in this area, we have to spend more money on innovation in this area.  Certainly it’s all unclear, but the more work you do, the clearer it becomes, and we need to do more work.

RH:         John Browne, thank you very much!

JB:         Pleasure.


<End of Interview>




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