Green shoots: Lord Oxburgh, Chairman, D1 Oils

Can crop-powered cars make a difference in the fight to stop climate change? The ex-chairman of Shell thinks so

Even though the plastic nametag on his rucksack identifies him as "Ron", Lord Ox- burgh is very much a scientist of the donnish variety. Pen neatly secured in the top pocket of his dark-green shirt, wearing grey slacks and a tie bearing a coat of arms, he has the air of a professor rather than a company director.

But tomorrow the former chairman of Shell will continue his transformation from Big Oil man to green champion when he becomes the new chairman of biofuels company D1 Oils.

His eyes twinkle as the former science professor reminisces about being president of Queens' College Cambridge: "I used to be wakened by the Women's Eight rowers going down to the river at 6am. Flap, flap, flap on the flagstones."

Like most scientists, Lord Oxburgh, 72, loves to know how things work, even asking about the digital dictaphone on the table. But he has more pressing matters to discuss: the former chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee is convinced that climate change is the greatest challenge facing the world.

Unlike many parvenus to the environmental cause, he seems actually to practise what he preaches: he mostly gets around in London by bike (with no car following behind, David Cameron take note) and complains that he is already on to his fourth fold-up bicycle because the others have been stolen. He admits to owning a car, but it's a small Toyota model that does 60 miles to the gallon. "I use my car as little as possible," he adds solemnly.

Biofuels blend crops such as sugar and corn with conventional petrol or diesel. They reduce carbon emissions because, unlike fossil fuels, the crops can be regrown, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process.

He insists there was no Damascene conversion from working for Big Oil (he was UK non-executive chairman of Shell from 2004 to 2005) to tackling climate change. "It's not a contradiction at all. Shell is one of the largest renewable-energy vendors in the world. It [D1 Oils] seemed to me a novel and sustainable approach and well worth supporting. I am on the same side."

But Lord Oxburgh is convinced that neither governmental nor individual good intentions will be enough on their own to stop the world self-destructing. He says governments must set the regulatory framework - by introducing a tax on carbon production, for example - and then let business get on with it.

"I don't have a great deal of faith in guilt feelings to affect people's behaviour," he explains. "What gets people's attention is regulation or price."

It's a view that many high-profile businessmen now ascribe to. But Lord Oxburgh is disdainful of those who see climate change as nothing more than a commercial opportunity (presumably this does not include shareholders in the AIM-listed D1 Oils). "I find it extraordinary there are still a significant number of people who don't seem convinced about the fact of climate change. There must be a significant amount of entre- preneurs among that group whose actions are largely driven by the idea that they may make some money on what they might think is a passing fad."

In the UK, the Government has introduced legislation requiring that 5 per cent of fuel sold on petrol forecourts is made up of biofuels by 2010. This target will rise, though the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders says the standard biofuel component that existing cars can take without affecting their performance is 5 per cent. The industry is working towards introducing new models such as "flexi cars", which can take up to 95 per cent bioethanol (a biofuel that uses sugar).

Another challenge is the amount of land needed to grow the crops. According to a report by investment bank Goldman Sachs, for the UK to meet a target of 5.8 per cent biofuel would require the use of more than a quarter of the total land available for farming. A target of 20 per cent would take up around nine-tenths of agricultural land, it estimates.

Lord Oxburgh admits that the European Union (which has recommended a 5.75 per cent target by 2010) will not be able to become self-sufficient in biofuels because of the lack of land and a suitable climate. So most crop planting is taking place in some of the poorest countries in the world, particularly in Asia. Critics fear food production will fall as crops are instead used to make biofuels for the estimated 800 million people who own cars globally, making food more expensive for the three billion who live on under $2 a day.

"If you're growing corn and not giving it to people, clearly there's competition," Lord Ox- burgh concedes. He says the main reason he joined D1 Oils is that the biofuel crop it grows is an inedible plant called jatropha, which can be grown on marginal land not used for food.

He also concedes that some forms of biofuel do more harm than good - witness the destruction of thousands of acres of rainforest in Indonesia to produce palm oil. The efficiency of biofuels also varies enormously.

Lord Oxburgh admits that biofuels are not a perfect solution yet, but insists: "It's not a con. It's important that NGOs and others don't push too hard and damage what is movement in the right direction. We have no time to wait at all. The climate change problem is so urgent that we must start with what we have and improve as we go along."

He points to the "second generation" of biofuels that use household waste and sewage; once developed, these promise to be much more efficient.

Analyses of the economics of biofuels diverge wildly. Based on 10-year average crop prices, says Goldman Sachs, biodiesel is economic only when oil prices are $80 a barrel; last week they dipped below $55 for the first time in 18 months. But Lord Oxburgh puts the figure for economic production of biofuels at around $60 a barrel.

He jokes that when he was at Shell, the company was reluctant for him to be photographed on his fold-up bike because it made him too identifiable for disgruntled opponents of Big Oil. Now the free thinker is fighting the good biofuel fight, he is out - and proud.

Lord Oxburgh: BIOGRAPHY

BORN: 2 November 1934.

EDUCATION : Liverpool Institute; Oxford University - BA, natural sciences (geology); Princeton University, US - PhD, geology.

CAREER:

1960s to 1980s: academic posts at Cambridge and Oxford.

1988-93: chief scientific adviser, Ministry of Defence.

1993-2001: rector, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, London.

2004-05: non-executive chairman, Shell Transport and Trading.

2005 to now: adviser, Climate Change Capital.

PARLIAMENTARY CAREER:

1999: made Baron Oxburgh of Liverpool (crossbench peer).

2001-05: chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is just the latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed