STOP PRESS – See 17 June update: ‘Questions the IPCC must urgently answer‘…
The headlines were unequivocal when the IPCC renewables report came out a few weeks ago. Here’s the first line of the BBC News piece:
Renewable technologies could supply 80% of the world’s energy needs by mid-century, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The Guardian led with the same conclusion:
Renewable energy could account for almost 80% of the world’s energy supply within four decades – but only if governments pursue the policies needed to promote green power, according to a landmark report published on Monday.
And so on. But what you weren’t told was that the actual report had not yet been released – the headlines were based on a ‘Summary for Policymakers (PDF)’ which referenced statistics and scenarios which journalists would not be able to check until the entire full report was released a month or so later.
That release of the full report happened yesterday. And a close reading of it shows that the IPCC has made an error much more serious than the so-called Himalayagate and associated non-scandals last year – it has allowed its headline conclusion to be dictated by a campaigning NGO. Moreover, the error was spotted initially by none other than Steve McIntyre, who has been a thorn in the side of the IPCC and climate science generally for a long time. Yet this time McIntyre has got it right.
Here’s what happened. The 80% by 2050 figure was based on a scenario, so Chapter 10 of the full report reveals, called ER-2010, which does indeed project renewables supplying 77% of the globe’s primary energy by 2050. The lead author of the ER-2010 scenario, however, is a Sven Teske, who should have been identified (but is not) as a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace International. Even worse, Teske is a lead author of the IPCC report also – in effect meaning that this campaigner for Greenpeace was not only embedded in the IPCC itself, but was in effect allowed to review and promote his own campaigning work under the cover of the authoritative and trustworthy IPCC. A more scandalous conflict of interest can scarcely be imagined.
The ER-2010 study would count for me as ‘grey literature’, despite being published in a minor journal called Energy Efficiency (link to PDF here). This is because it was initially written as a propaganda report by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council – the latter are are of course enthusiasts for renewable energy’s prospects because they make money from selling wind turbines and solar panels, so hardly count as an unbiased source. It is sadly ironic that the original ‘Himalayagate’ IPCC error was the result of an uncritical reliance on exactly this kind of campaigning ‘grey literature’. Then, however, the mistake was deeply buried in the report. This time, it was used to headline the entire thing – and the source was not obvious to media at the time because the full report was not even released. So the ‘80% by 2050′ headlines were repeated far and wide with no-one realising their original true source.
So what to conclude? My view is that the IPCC renewables report has told us nothing – except that Greenpeace thinks we can solve the climate change problem entirely with renewable energy, which of course we already knew. But whilst I still hold the hard-science Working Group 1 of the IPCC in very high regard, I have lost a lot of confidence in Working Group 3. That it allowed its headline conclusion to be dictated by a campaigning NGO is an extraordinary failure, and one which cannot simply be forgotten.
The IPCC must urgently review its policies for hiring lead authors – and I would have thought that not only should biased ‘grey literature’ be rejected, but campaigners from NGOs should not be allowed to join the lead author group and thereby review their own work. There is even a commercial conflict of interest here given that the renewables industry stands to be the main beneficiary of any change in government policies based on the IPCC report’s conclusions. Had it been an oil industry intervention which led the IPCC to a particular conclusion, Greenpeace et al would have course have been screaming blue murder.
Additionally, the Greenpeace/renewables industry report is so flawed that it should not have been considered by the IPCC at all. Whilst the journal-published version looks like proper science, the propaganda version on the Greenpeace website has all the hallmarks of a piece of work which started with some conclusions and then set about justifying them. There is a whole section dedicated to ‘dirty, dangerous nuclear power’, and the scenario includes a complete phase-out of new nuclear globally, with no stations built after 2008.
How is this achieved whilst also reducing carbon emissions at the same time, which is after all the supposed point of the whole exercise? By assuming a totally unrealistic global consumption of energy, with total primary energy use in 2050 actually *less* than the baseline of 2007. The magic trick of getting rid of nuclear whilst generating 80% of the world’s energy from renewables is performed by making an absurd assumption that primary energy use will fall (from 469 exajoules today to 407 in 2050) even as population rises from 7 to 9 billion and GDP per capita more than doubles. I doubt this is even thermodynamically possible, let alone the basis for good policy.
One last thing: McIntyre points out that the Greenpace propaganda report which has regrettably destroyed the credibility of the IPCC’s effort on renewables contains a preface – written by none other than R. K. Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC itself. I have great respect for Dr Pachauri, as for the IPCC as an institution. I only wish he – and it – would be more careful.
The IPCC of course has a conflict of interest policy, and is in the process – so far as I can tell – of updating it. This document (PDF), adopted at the recent session in Abu Dhabi, states:
The individual and the IPCC should not be placed in a situation that could lead a reasonable person to question, and perhaps discount or dismiss, the work of the IPCC simply because of the existence of a conflict of interest.
I don’t know if I count as a ‘reasonable person’ or not, but that is precisely what I have done in the above post. Having looked into this issue in a bit more depth, it appears that Working Group 3 in particular – but not exclusively – is riddled with NGO people (hat tip Donna Laframboise here and here). This really has got to stop. No campaigners or industry people (those with either an ideological or financial interest) should surely ever be allowed to be IPCC lead authors. Why has this situation been allowed to develop at all?
Later update – and clarification
The story has now been picked up by the Independent, and seems to be snowballing in the blogosphere. I should say for the record, since I seem to be the sceptics’ new best friend (courtesy Watts Up With That), that this in no way undermines my commitment to phasing out fossil fuels in order to urgently tackle global warming. Indeed, my upcoming book argues for a ‘planetary boundary’ of 350ppm – which is going further than most green groups would. It is precisely because I am concerned to protect the integrity of the IPCC and climate science in particular that I worry about any involvement of vested interests from any side – whether from campaigning NGOs or industry – in what should be an unimpeachably neutral body.
Yet another update, 11.20 GMT, 16 June
Following an email discussion started by Andy Revkin over at Dot Earth, I have sent the following four questions to the IPCC renewables report lead author Dr Ottmar Edenhofer:
- what was the process for writing the press release, and who decided whether it faithfully represented the main conclusions of the SPM/main report?
- why was the SPM released more than a month before the full report?
- was Sven Teske in any way involved in the decision to highlight Teske et al, 2010 as one of the four ‘illustrative scenarios’ explored in greater depth as per Section 10.3.1?
- what is the IPCC conflict of interest policy with regard to lead authors reviewing their own work, and having affiliations to non-academic institutions, whether campaign groups or companies?
I am indebted to Garry in the comments below for spotting the fact that Greenpeace did make some play of the fact that ‘their’ scenario had been highlighted by the IPCC – despite the claim by many that the fact Teske et al, 2010 was published in a peer-reviewed journal meant it was no longer anything to do with Greenpeace. Here’s the press release from 9 May:
Abu Dhabi, 9th May 2011: Just 2.5% of viable renewable energy sources could provide up to 80% of world energy demand by 2050 with currently available technologies, according to a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Sven Teske, Renewable Energy Director from Greenpeace International, and one of the lead authors of the report said: “This is an invitation to governments to initiate a radical overhaul of their policies and place renewable energy centre stage. On the run up to the next major climate conference, COP17 in South Africa in December, the onus is clearly on governments to step up to the mark.”
The Energy [R]evolution scenario – a joint project of Greenpeace International, the European Renewable Energy Councile (EREC) and the German Space Agency (DLR) was chosen as one of the lead scenarios of the report. Since the first edition was launched in 2005, Greenpeace has published the Energy [R]evolution in over 40 countries and developed national scenarios, as well as three editions of its global version. [link in the original]