New allegation of IPCC renewables report bias

Following the suggestion last week that a lead author from Greenpeace may have had undue influence over the outcome of the IPCC’s latest report on renewable energy, a new allegation has now been made regarding possible conflicts of interest amongst the lead authors of the report’s chapter on hydropower.

“The value of the IPCC report is weakened by the strongly biased treatment of hydropower,” says Peter Bosshard, policy director for International Rivers, which campaigns to raise attention of the damaging effects large dams can have on riverine ecosystems. “At least half of the lead authors of the hydropower chapter are not independent scientists, but have a vested interest in the promotion of hydropower. This creates a conflict of interest, which is reflected throughout the report.”

All Working Groups of the IPCC have strict procedures for multiple reviews of draft chapters, including with the final product being approved line-by-line by the world’s governments. That these procedures might have failed to detect – or correct – a pro-hydro bias in the draft report is worrying, given the importance for the planet’s future of getting the right mitigation options for tackling climate change. The chapter on hydropower (PDF) suggests a ‘technical potential’ of four times the current 926 GW of installed capacity – of up to 3,721 GW. This would mean significantly encroaching on the natural flows of river basins in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The IPCC report states:

“Of the total technical potential for hydropower, undeveloped capacity ranges from about 47% in Europe and North America to 92% in Africa, which indicates large opportunities for continued hydropower development worldwide, with the largest growth potential in Africa, Asia and Latin America.”

There is expected to be significant pressure for new hydropower development because water stored behind dams can balance out the intermittency challenge inherent in large-scale use of strongly-fluctuating solar and wind power in modern electricity grids. However, water released from behind dams tends to be at a lower and more stable temperature than the water in undammed rivers, altering ecological signals and damaging wildlife. Flow regimes also vary widely, according to the needs of electrical consumers rather than the seasonal signals of snowmelt, drought and flood. It is partly because dams can have devastating effects on riverine ecology that freshwater biodiversity is amongst the most endangered on Earth.

As with the issue of Greenpeace’s involvement with Chapter 10 of the report, the allegations of bias in Chapter 5 do not suggest that the report is totally one-sided or should be entirely rejected. There is a section dealing with ecological issues which points out the possible negative implications of hydropower, for example. Instead, the problem lies with the tone of the report and its headline conclusion. Says Bosshard from International Rivers:

“The hydropower chapter of the new report at time reads like a marketing brochure of the hydropower industry. It ignores or misrepresents the findings of the independent World Commission on Dams, and glosses over the findings of many scientific reports which came to conclusions that are not convenient for the hydropower industry.”

This is a serious allegation, which potentially adds to the loss of prestige the IPCC has faced over the Greenpeace/renewables issue. Yet Bosshard is not attacking the IPCC per se, as he makes clear:

We have high respect for the scientific rigor and independence of the IPCC. We were surprised and dismayed to see that the preparation of the new report’s chapter on hydropower was left to a group of authors of whom a majority has a vested interest in the promotion of hydropower. The nine lead authors include representatives of two of the world’s largest hydropower developers, a hydropower consultancy, and three agencies promoting hydropower at the national level.

We recognize the need to have hydropower expertise on the panel and do not question the personal integrity of the authors. Yet it is not appropriate for IPCC to commission individuals with a business or institutional interest in the subject matter to prepare a report that is supposed to be unbiased and independent. The resulting conflict of interest weakens the quality of the report’s hydropower section.

Of the two overall co-ordinating lead authors of the hydropower chapter, one – Tormod Schei – works for a large dam-building company, Norway’s Statkraft, which runs 277 hydropower plants in more than 20 countries, and is currently building the Kargi dam project in Turkey. In the wider lead author team, Jean-Michel Devernay is a senior director within the energy company EDF, and is also vice-president of the board of the International Hydropower Association, whose brief is to “advance sustainable hydropower’s role in meeting the world’s water and energy needs”, according to its mission statement.

According to the ‘planetary boundaries’ work published by Rockstrom et al in Nature, 2009 – which forms the backbone for my upcoming book – freshwater use is one of the planet’s key ecological limits which humans need to respect to protect the integrity of the Earth system. The quantified boundary proposed leaves little room for accelerated big dam development, suggesting that carbon emissions need to be reduced in ways which do not negatively affect the other proposed boundaries. Once again, this emphasises that we need to see the Earth in a more integral way, and focus on ways in which we can solve one global ecological problem without negatively affecting others.

As International Rivers’ Peter Bosshard aptly puts it:

Combating climate change must be part of a holistic effort to protect the world’s ecosystems. We cannot afford to sacrifice the planet’s arteries to save her lungs.

© Mark Lynas
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