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IPCC SRREN report reveals legitimate issues with the organisation's communications

  • 17 Jun 2011, 18:00
  • Tim

Recent controversy over the IPCC's relationship with green NGO's has centred around a  press release the IPCC put out in early May, coinciding with the release of the Summary for Policymakers of its Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.

In it, the IPCC gave headline prominence to a single, optimistic scenario for renewable energy provision, based on a single study that was ultimately traced back to a Greenpeace report. That report's own lead author, Sven Teske - himself a member of Greenpeace International - was also one of the Lead Authors working on (a chapter of) the IPCC's report.

Critics have complained that the IPCC had allowed an author to review his own work, in a fundamental conflict of interest, and have suggested that Greenpeace has been allowed to "dictate" the report's headline conclusions. The story has now been picked up by, among others, the Independent, New Scientist, the New Zealand Herald, the Daily Mail and the New York Times.

Some of the criticisms that have been made of the IPCC do not stand up to scrutiny. However, some of the points that have been made are reasonable, and are worth discussing:

The IPCC's press release gave undue weight and prominence to one particularly optimistic scenario

In chapter 10 of its Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, the IPCC's third working group - which focuses on policy options for the mitigation of climate change - considers 164 different scenarios. Of these, four are highlighted in particular in the more condensed Summary for Policymakers, and a single one, suggesting a higher-end potential for renewable energy generation by 2050, was given headline prominence in the IPCC's press release.

This will be seen by many as placing undue weight on that particular scenario, whose optimistic assessment was unrepresentative of the full range of predictions considered by the report.

This may serve to underline the criticisms of the Dutch Government inquiry on the IPCC's second working group - on "impacts, adaptation and vulnerability" - which found that "the investigated summary conclusions tend to single out the most important negative impacts of climate change". Though this risk-based approach was requested by governments, the review recommended "that the full spectrum of regional impacts is summarised" in the next report, "including the uncertainties".

The use of the word "could" in the IPCC's press release was potentially ambiguous, and likely to mislead

It is clear that the IPCC's projections in its report are framed by a range of uncertainties, including those surrounding technological development and future costs of renewable energy. Given this, the use of word "could" in the IPCC's press release ("Close to 80 percent of the world's energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century") is likely to refer to future uncertainties, but may well have been perceived by journalists and the public as a straightforward statement about the technical potential of renewable energy.

The reduction in overall energy consumption assumed in the headline scenario is not noted in the press release - which may give a misleading impression

In its report, the Independent's Oliver Wright complains that the IPCC's headline "claim was based on a real-terms decline in worldwide energy consumption over the next 40 years".

Blogger Mark Lynas has suggested that this is "assuming a totally unrealistic global consumption of energy" and "making an absurd assumption that primary energy use will fall". While levels of "realism" and "absurdity" are clearly subjective judgments, it is clear that, in the absence of caveats, the headline claim may be read as assuming "business-as-usual", conveying a potentially misleading impression.

 

In acknowledging these legitimate issues with the IPCC's PR on the SRREN report, it's equally important to point out that various elements of this story have been exaggerated, are unsubstantiated, or require clarification. Some of the above problems are mitigated somewhat by further details contained in the IPCC's original press release - details which were clearly available to journalists at the time. 

The study on which the headline scenario is based - while originally formulated in a Greenpeace report - was published in a peer-reviewed journal

There has been harsh criticism of the original Greenpeace report of which Teske was a lead author, which blogger Mark Lynas calls "propaganda". Yet it is not this report that is cited by the IPCC, but a later (2010) peer-reviewed paper in the journal Energy Efficiency, derived from the original Greenpeace report. Lynas writes that this

"study would count for me as 'grey literature', despite being published in a minor journal called Energy Efficiency ... because it was initially written as a propaganda report by Greenpeace and the [commercially-funded] European Renewable Energy Council".

Although relatively new, there doesn't appear to be any reason why Energy Efficiency shouldn't be considered a credible peer reviewed journal. Whatever its original provenance, as far as we know the study has hence passed an independent review process, and does not meet the generally accepted definition of "grey literature".

The Greenpeace report's lead author was not "the" lead author of the chapter in question, nor a lead author of the report as a whole

Sven Teske - the lead author of the Greenpeace report - is listed as one of 9 "Lead Authors" of Chapter 10 of the report. As a direct example of how broad a church 'lead authorship' is, alongside him is listed Raymond M. Wright, a representative of the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica. If the mere fact of Teske's involvement was an indication of the undue influence of Greenpeace, it may be reasonable to conclude that The Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica also enjoys undue influence.

There is also no evidence that Teske was the sole reviewer of his own work within the team of authors working on the chapter - which had in any case, as noted above, already been independently reviewed for publication in a scientific journal.

Teske has been fairly forthright in his rejection of this suggestion, calling it

"a preposterous suggestion, that shows a complete lack of understanding of the laborious processes involved in creating a report like the SRREN. No matter what way you look at it, taking into account that I was just one of 120 contributors, each of whom had to respond to long lists of comments on their contributions from dozens of reviewers, the idea that I, or Greenpeace being in a position to simply 'dictate' a conclusion is an clearly absurd one."

Co-ordinating Lead Author of the report Daniel Kammen has also explicitly refuted this, noting that "while the IPCC works from published cases, the scenarios are evaluated and assessed by a team".

If this is accurate, the report has already been subjected to independent review in two separate stages before being referenced by the IPCC. 

There is no evidence that either Teske or Greenpeace had any influence over the Summary for Policymakers of the report, or the press release

The IPCC lists 42 individuals as either "Lead Authors" or "Co-ordinating Lead Authors" on the report's Summary for Policymakers. Teske is not listed among them, and none is identified as affiliated with Greenpeace. The same is true of the report's Technical Summary.

Three contacts are listed on the IPCC's press release: Patrick Eickemeier, of the IPCC Technical Support Unit; Nick Nutall, the IPCC Plenary Spokesperson; and Rockaya Aidara, the IPCC press officer. Teske is not mentioned; nor is Greenpeace.

As of the 16 June, Mark Lynas, who has been pursuing this story, had appended to his blog post several questions requiring clarification - among them:

"what was the process for writing the press release, and who decided whether it faithfully represented the main conclusions of the SPM/main report?"

and:

"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?"

These seem like reasonable and productive questions, particularly to resolve residual questions of conflicts of interest surrounding the composition of the IPCC report; but they also seem to expose Lynas' initial allegations - in particular that the IPCC "allowed its headline conclusion to be dictated by a campaigning NGO" - as factually unsubstantiated.

The press release contains a range of caveats - and when read in full, the meaning and context of its headline conclusions are made mostly unambiguous. The inclusion of energy consumption as a variable factor in scenarios is also noted

As noted above, the prominence of a particularly optimistic scenario in the IPCC's press release should be subjected to legitimate criticism.

Yet it is clear that - when read in full - the press release places this scenario in its appropriate context. Its use of the word "could" is also clarified.

In the second paragraph of the press release, for instance, the headline scenario is clearly identified as "[t]he upper end of the scenarios assessed".

Later on, the press release notes:

"Over 160 existing scientific scenarios on the possible penetration of renewables by 2050 ... have been reviewed with four analyzed in-depth. These four were chosen in order to represent the full range. Scenarios are used to explore possible future worlds, analyzing alternative pathways of socio-economic development and technological change. ...

"... the scenarios arrive at a range of estimates ...

"The most optimistic of the four, in-depth scenarios projects renewable energy accounting for as much as 77 percent of the world's energy demand by 2050, amounting to about 314 of 407 Exajoules per year. As a comparison, 314 Exajoules is over three times the annual energy supply in the United States in 2005 which is also a similar level of supply on the Continent of Europe according to various government and independent sources."

Later it tells us:

"According to the four scenarios analyzed in detail, the decadal global investments in the renewable power sector range from 1,360 to 5,100 billion US dollars to 2020 and 1,490 to 7,180 billion US dollars for the decade 2021 to 2030. For the lower values, the average yearly investments are smaller than the renewable power sector investments reported for 2009."

Regarding the suggestion that low-ball estimates of renewable energy supply are simply ignored, we are also told that:

"[e]ach of the scenarios is underpinned by a range of variables such as changes in energy efficiency, population growth and per capita consumption. These lead to varying levels of total primary energy supply in 2050, with the lowest of the four scenarios seeing renewable energy accounting for a share of 15 percent in 2050, based on a total primary energy supply of 749 Exajoules."

Thus, though it does not note that declining energy consumption is an assumption of the headline study, this paragraph does also make clear that levels of energy consumption are a factor in compiling scenarios.

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.

Nevertheless, if the IPCC's press team were aware that for whatever reason good journalistic practice is often not followed - as seems likely - they too should be held responsible for conveying potentially misleading impressions of the report.

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