The IPCC renewables controversy – where have we got to?

I used to think Greenpeace were good at PR. After all, it’s their main reason for existing as a campaigning group, and should surely be what they do best. Now I’m not so sure. Here’s Greenpeace International’s Sven Teske digging himself in even deeper following criticisms from Steve McIntyre – later added to by myself – that too much weight was given in the recent IPCC’s renewables report to a single paper originally published by Greenpeace:

“This week, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made public the full text of its renewables report, which details a revolutionary vision for reducing Greenhouse [sic] emissions by using renewables to replace fossil fuels, and phasing out nuclear power along the way.”

Oh dear. So just when Steve and I had asked the IPCC Renewables report’s lead author Ottmar Edenhofer to confirm what role, if any, Greenpeace’s Sven Teske had in selecting his own study as one of the four ‘illustrative’ scenarios in Chapter 10, Teske himself makes things worse by boasting about his study’s headline influence. That Teske – and by implication Greenpeace – see their own “revolutionary vision” as having been given the stamp of scientific authority by the IPCC is quite clear. Teske continues:

Before any ink even had a chance to dry, however, the report was already under attack from some desperate commentators who appear to have a strange, fundamental disbelief in the possibility of a clean energy future.

Again this betrays a shocking lack of understanding of the issue at hand. None of this is about belief. I don’t know about Steve McIntyre, but speaking for myself I would have been delighted had the IPCC’s Working Group 3 been able to offer a credible assessment of the potential for scaling up renewable energy – as opposed to, or in combination with, other mitigation options like nuclear, fossil fuels with CCS and so on. That Greenpeace’s “revolutionary vision” ended up headlining the whole thing is a tragedy,  because – in a PR disaster any half-brained PR flack should have spotted a mile off – they have undermined the very cause they sought to promote.

But there’s more. Teske goes on:

I am happy to say that not only was I one of the contributors who worked together to create the 1000 page IPCC report, but the document also contains an in-depth study of Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution, which was chosen as one of the lead scenarios.

But how was it chosen, and why? Did the decision have anything to do with the fact that Teske, as author of the Greenpeace “revolutionary vision”, was one of the lead authors who got to select which scenarios to highlight? What exactly was the process? Did Teske step out of the room, as it were, when his fellow lead authors were deciding which should be the four scenarios to get headline treatment? We still don’t know. Teske avoids this question, and Edenhofer himself has refused to respond to either mine or Steve McIntyre’s enquiries.

The only useful bit of information Edenhofer has offered, and only in passing via an email to someone else, is that Teske was not involved in drafting the IPCC press release which ended up generating the headlines about how 80% of the world’s energy “could” come from renewables by 2050. It seems that Nick Nuttal, a former Times environment correspondent, who over recent years has moved into doing press work for UNEP and the IPCC, had this job. Perhaps as a former hack with a nose for a story, he came up with the wheeze of headlining the entire renewables report with the 80% figure originating from Greenpeace.

Some green-tinged commentators, in trying to protect the IPCC from any criticism – legitimate or illegitimate – are now seeking to deflect attention by putting blame elsewhere. Carbon Brief, a sort of PR rapid-response service which takes on climate sceptics (and which has former Greenpeace campaigner Christian Hunt as its main press contact), admitted that there were “legitimate issues with the organisation’s communications” – but tried to pin the blame on the media.

“It is clear that many of the problems identified in the press release are easily solvable (or at least readily identifiable) with the bare minimum of good journalistic practice – whether that includes parsing the report’s summary, making further inquiries to the IPCC, or simply reading the press release in full. Journalists were also under no obligation to adopt the framing of the IPCC’s press release. The media’s practices – including constraints on journalists’ time – must therefore be held partially responsible for presenting the misleading impressions identified above.”

I don’t think this washes. Most importantly, it was impossible to spot the problem when the press release was first put out on 9 May, because the whole report – which revealed the source of the headline figure – was not released simultaneously. All that time-stressed hacks had to go on when covering the IPCC meeting in Abu Dhabi on 9 May was the Summary for Policymakers (PDF) and the associated press release. Let’s look at the only instance, way down on page 19 (of 24) where the SPM mentions the 80% figure, rounded up from 77% in the following paragraph:

More than half of the scenarios show a contribution from RE [renewable energy] in excess of a 17% share of primary energy supply in 2030 rising to more than 27% in 2050. The scenarios with the highest RE shares reach approximately 43% in 2030 and 77% in 2050. [10.2, 10.3]

Hacks wanting to check the reference for the 77%/80% figure would have to follow the trail of the square brackets, which refer to chapters in the full report… which was not released until more than a month subsequently, on June 14.

And moreover, when seen in this context, as Steve McIntyre repeatedly insists, the first line of the IPCC’s press release is potentially very misleading. It stated:

Close to 80 percent of the world‘s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies a new report shows.

Personally I think that 80% of the world’s energy probably could be met by renewables by mid-century – but the IPCC’s renewables report singularly fails to demonstrate that. (So I’m not a clean energy ‘unbeliever’ – denier? – even by Teske’s standard above.) Instead, the figure comes from one of 164 different energy scenarios, none of which are assessed in terms of their likelihood or feasibility. They are just ‘scenarios’, not plans, strategies or even projections. That Greenpeace sees the IPCC report as having endorsed its own “revolutionary vision” compounds the damage by showing that even a lead author of the relevant chapter – who still refuses to acknowledge the conflict of interest suggested by his chapter’s in-lights citation of his own work – misunderstands the whole point of the IPCC.

© Mark Lynas
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