The Economist 6/17/11
THE release of the full text of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Renewable Energy this week has led to a new set of questions about the panel’s attitudes, probity and reliabilty: is it simply a sounding board for green activists? The answer is no—but that doesn’t mean it’s without serious problems. For what’s worst about the affair, and for comments by IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri, scroll down to the lower bits of the post.
When the summary of the report was released last month (IPCC summaries, agreed line by line by governments at often quite fractious plenary meetings, come out before the report they are summarising, in part because the report may need a little tweaking to reflect the plenary’s summary judgements) it came with a press release proclaiming that the world could get 80% of its energy from renewables by 2050 if it just had the right policies and paid the right amount. This figure was subsequently trumpeted by those parts of the world’s press paying attention, which tended to be the parts that have readers keen on more environmental action.
The full report shows where the number came from, and that’s why its publication sparked a fuss. One of the report’s 11 chapters is an analysis of 164 previously published scenarios looking at the energy mix over the next four decades under various assumptions. The scenario which had the highest penetration of renewables put the total at 77% by 2050. The research involved was done by the German space-research institute, which has long worked on energy analysis, too; its experts were commissioned to do the work by Greenpeace, and a Greenpeace staff member with an engineering background, Sven Teske, was the scenario’s lead author when it was published in a couple of different forms in peer-reviewed journals. It has also been published, in bigger, glossier format, by Greenpeace itself under the grating and uncharacteristically fence-sitting title Energy [R]evolution.
Mr Teske was also one of the authors of the chapter of the IPCC report that looked at those 164 scenarios, and that chose Energy [R]evolution as one of four scenarios to explore in more detail. That, say critics, looks like a fix. And one with big consequences. That one scenario’s claim that the world could get call-it-80% of its energy from renewables managed, thanks to the press release, to shape perceptions of the report when it was originally released, making it look like a piece of renewables boosterism. Worse: who wrote the foreword to Greenpeace’s glossy publication of its scenario? Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the IPCC. (Disclosure: at the request of IPCC authors, this avatar of Babbage chaired a debate on the summary of the special report when it was launched in May, and his brother is a “co-ordinating lead author” on the panel’s forthcoming “fifth assessment report”, though not in an area associated with renewable energy.)
Steve McIntyre, who runs a blog on which he tries to hold climate science to higher standards than he sees it holding itself, picked up all these IPCC/Greenpeace connections and posted on them angrily, calling for all involved to be sacked. “As a citizen,” he says, “I would like to know how much weight we can put on renewables as a big-footprint solution. Prior to the IPCC report, I was aware that Greenpeace—and WWF—had promoted high renewable scenarios. However, before placing any weight on them, the realism of these scenarios needs to be closely examined. IPCC has a mandate to provide hard information but did no critical evaluation of the Greenpeace scenario."
His desire for solid, honest answers is plainly one to be shared. But the authors of the IPCC chapter involved declined to evaluate the scenarios they looked at in terms of whether they thought they were plausible, let alone likely. Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist who was one of those in overall charge of the report, gives the impression that he would have welcomed a more critical approach from his colleagues; but there is no mechanism by which the people in charge can force an author team to do more, or other, than it wants to. (The same goes for authors on the team, Mr Teske says; he was one of twelve authors on the relevant chapter, and over 120 authors overall, and had no peculiar Greenpeace lantern with which to bend them all to his will.)
read remainder at economist.com