Analysis

Factcheck: What’s the significance of a record high in Antarctic sea ice?

  • 07 Jul 2014, 16:20
  • Roz Pidcock

Sea ice around Antarctica is growing, and it's a scientific puzzle. But while the Mail on Sunday suggests this means climate change is less of a problem than scientists say, sea ice is only part of what's going on in Antarctica, and the world as a whole is losing ice rapidly.

A record high

An article in yesterday's Mail on Sunday carries the headline:

'Global warming computer models confounded as Antarctic sea ice hits new record high'

This follows news last week from scientists at the University of Illinois that the area covered by sea ice surrounding Antarctica hit a record high on 29th June, with about two million square kilometres in June more ice compared to the long term average.

Antractic Sea Ice _June 2014

Antarctic sea ice reached a record high in June, with 2.1 million square kilometres more than the long term average. Source: US National Snow and Ice Data Centre ( NSIDC)

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Factcheck: Has the US shale gas revolution saved more carbon than the entire solar and wind industry?

  • 07 Jul 2014, 14:55
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Dennis Dimick

The American shale gas revolution shaved more off global carbon emissions than all the world's windfarms and solar panels put together in 2012 according to Chris Faulkner, boss of US fracking firm Breitling Energy.

We think he's wrong. Even with some pretty heroic assumptions, he's only almost right. Let's see why.

The UK connection

Faulkner made his claim at a fringe meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. He had been invited to speak by UK Conservative MP David Davis, a long-standing critic of climate change policies in general and wind energy in particular.

Faulker said:

"In 2012, the shift to gas has managed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 300 million tonnes. Compare this to the fact that all the wind turbines and solar panels in the world reduce carbon dioxide emissions, at a maximum, by 275 million tonnes. In other words, the US shale gas revolution has by itself reduced global emissions more than all the well-intentioned solar and wind in the world."

US coal emissions

To start with, let's look at US coal emissions. In 2012, US coal plants emitted 1,653 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That's 529 million tonnes below peak coal emissions, which were 2,182 million tonnes in 2005.

Let's generously assume all of that reduction is due to cheap shale gas displacing coal use. It takes about half as much carbon to generate a unit of electricity from gas as it does from coal. So the maximum carbon saving is half the coal emissions avoided. That's 265 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, in the same ballpark as the 300 million tonnes Faulkner claimed.

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Factchecking claims the IPCC says there will be no dangerous global warming this century

  • 23 Jun 2014, 17:30
  • Mat Hope & Roz Pidcock

K-L Poggemann

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned the effect of unchecked global warming could be "severe, pervasive and irreversible".

To get an idea of how global temperatures could evolve in the next 85 years, the IPCC looks at a range of scenarios, or pathways. In all but the IPCC's most stringent mitigation pathway, the world looks on course for dangerous levels of warming.

So how did climate skeptic campaigner, Matt Ridley, come to the opposite conclusion in an  article last week? He argues that even the IPCC's most severe scenario doesn't suggest dangerous levels of warming. We take a look at the IPCC's pathways to understand how it projects future warming - and where Ridley went wrong.

Warming scenarios

The IPCC looks at a wide range of potential futures based on how big or small countries' collective greenhouse gas emissions are. To examine these, it developed a range of emissions pathways - each known as Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP).

Ridley describes the IPCC's  four pathways in his recent article, and claims none of them imply dangerous levels of warming. He begins:

"Three of the models show moderate, slow and mild warming, the hottest of which leaves the planet just two degrees Centigrade warmer than today in 2081-2100. The coolest comes out just 0.8 degrees warmer."

Ridley's talking about the IPCC's three lowest scenarios - leaving out the one where emissions continue unchecked for now. But he seems to have got the numbers wrong.

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Lord Deben and the Committee on Climate Change agree on onshore wind's potential

  • 28 May 2014, 16:00
  • Mat Hope

CC: Oast House archive

Is the government's climate change advisor arguing internally over how many onshore wind turbines the UK needs?

The Times today reported that Lord Deben - who heads the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) - thinks the UK already has enough onshore wind power in the pipeline to hit its targets. The paper claims Lord Deben's statement puts him at odds with the CCC. But the CCC and Lord Deben tell us that's not the case.

2020 targets

The Times's headline today declared that "Britain has enough wind turbines". It based the statement on an interview with Lord Deben.

The EU requires the UK to get  15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by the end of the decade. Referring to that commitment, Lord Deben told The Times "we have already got enough onshore wind to 2020 to meet that part of the portfolio."

That seems right. The government's  renewable energy roadmap suggests the UK will need around 13 gigawatts of onshore wind in 2020 to meet its commitment.

Its latest data suggests there's a total of 16.1 gigawatts of onshore wind in operation and in the pipeline.

The data  shows there's currently seven gigawatts of onshore wind online (the dark blue chunk), and 12.5 gigawatts under or awaiting construction and in the planning process (light blue). That's a total of 19.5 gigawatts. The government assumes around 3.4 gigawatts of that won't get built (the green chunk) as some projects will fail to secure financing or hit other complications.

Still, as Lord Deben suggests, 16 gigawatts would be more than enough to meet the government's 2020 target.

DECC renewables roadmap onshore windBeyond 2020

So where's the conflict?

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Factcheck: Three things the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins gets wrong about coal’s supremacy, and one he gets right

  • 16 May 2014, 14:00
  • Mat Hope

Coal continues to reign supreme despite the obvious benefits of switching to nuclear and gas, and boffins at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are at least partly to blame. Or so Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins argues this morning.

In a passionate  piece, Jenkins says governments should do away with their renewable energy ambitions and  focus on developing nuclear and gas power if they really want to address climate change. His reasoning? Investing in renewables is expensive and futile and has only served to open the door for the most polluting, most dangerous, energy source of all: coal.

We take a look at three places his  article is mistaken, as well as an important point it gets right.

Renewables "hysteria"

Jenkins blames the scientists at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for promoting renewable energy over what he sees as more economical and equally effective nuclear and gas power. He says:

"... the "renewables ascendancy", culminating in the hysteria of the first International Panel on Climate Change [sic] report, was a disaster. It saw any carbon combustion or nuclear reaction as equally evil, and any sun, wind or wave power as equally good - however costly".

But the IPCC doesn't equate nuclear power with coal. Far from it.

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Does the UK already have enough green energy?

  • 08 May 2014, 10:00
  • Simon Evans

Renewable electricity developers are doing themselves out of a job. According to anti-wind group the Renewable Energy Foundation, they should finish what they're working on and pack up, because we don't need any more of their power. 

Its latest  report says there are already  enough windfarms, solar panels and wood-fired power plants built, under construction or given consent to meet our renewable energy targets. That means there are a thousand more planning applications causing  needless anxiety for homeowners when they could be scrapped. 

Conservative energy minister Michael Fallon has been leading his party's  charge against onshore wind turbines and is likely to welcome these conclusions. There are only two problems with the REF report. It makes impossibly optimistic assumptions about renewable build rates. And it assumes the UK can start breaking its own laws after 2020. 

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Failure to tackle emissions from power sector could undermine environmental case for HS2

  • 28 Apr 2014, 12:30
  • Robin Webster

The environmental argument for the HS2 high speed rail link could be weakened if we keep generating electricity from fossil fuels, according to official documents. Government claims about the carbon benefits of the scheme rest on the assumption that emissions from the power sector dramatically reduce over the next fifteen years - and that might not happen. 

MPs are due to vote today on the proposed high-speed rail link to the north of England - the culmination of a political  battle to persuade reluctant MPs to support the scheme. More than 30 Tories are likely to rebel, abstaining or voting against the scheme, the BBC reports

MPs are  doubtful about the economic benefits of the scheme, and wary about the  disruption it may cause. The project's environmental benefits are also worth scrutinising, however. 

The government claims HS2 will help the country reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But coalition  battles over energy policy, and George Osborne's plans to bump up the amount of power sourced from gas, mean emissions from HS2 may be higher than it suggests. 

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‘Misleading the reader’: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change responds to Mail on Sunday claims

  • 07 Apr 2014, 17:30
  • Mat Hope

In an article in this weekend's paper, the Mail on Sunday  accuses the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of 'sexing up' its findings in the short 'summary for policymakers' that accompanies its latest report. But the IPCC  responded this morning, saying the Mail on Sunday "misleads the reader by distorting the carefully balanced language of the document".

In an effort to help policymakers and the public engage with its mammoth scientific reports, the IPCC produces a summary - the  Summary for Policymakers (SPM). It tries to present the report's overall conclusions in a shorter and more accessible format.

The Mail on Sunday has done a comparison between the SPM, and quotes it claims come from the full IPCC report. The article says the SPM puts an "alarmist spin" on the findings, but the IPCC has today  rejected that charge in a statement.

We look at what the report has to say, and the Mail on Sunday's troubling presentation of the evidence.

Wrong chapter, misleading attribution

The Mail on Sunday says the IPCC's SPM over-emphasises the extent to which climate change is expected affect a range of other issues, starting with how it could force migration as extreme weather hits people's local environments.

But the IPCC defends the SPM's finding, saying the Mail on Sunday has cherrypicked quotes that don't reflect the report's overall conclusions.

Here is the Mail on Sunday's accusation:

MoS migration

The IPCC says the Mail on Sunday ignores important evidence on migration in the report that supports the SPM statement.

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IPCC says adapt and mitigate to tackle climate risks

  • 03 Apr 2014, 16:55
  • Roz Pidcock

The  front page article of today's Spectator claims the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has "updated" its position on climate change, to accept that "climate change is now a question of adaptation".

Author Matt Ridley suggests that this is such a departure from the UN climate panel's previous findings that its conclusions are now in line with those of climate skeptic lobbyist Lord Lawson.

Lawson stresses "the need to adapt to climate change, rather than throw public money at futile attempts to prevent it", according to Ridley, a fellow skeptic campaigner.

It's worth taking this with a pinch of salt. If the IPCC has said more about adaptation in the last week, it's because its most recent report is specifically about adaptation. That doesn't mean mitigation has been abandoned as Lord Lawson would like it to be - indeed, in a week's time the IPCC will publish another report dedicated to the mitigation he so scorns.

Heavy on adaptation

The crux of Ridley's argument is that adapting to climate change is given more prominence in the latest IPCC report than in past ones.

He says:

"[T]he document itself … emphasised, again and again, the need to adapt to climate change … Whereas the last report had two pages on adaptation, this one has four chapters."

In fact, there are six chapters which specifically mention adaptation in their titles in the new report, not four. The previous report in 2007 had two chapters, not two pages.

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Calculating damages: How much will climate change cost?

  • 01 Apr 2014, 16:30
  • Roz Pidcock & Mat Hope

Today's Financial Times features professor Richard Tol's take on what a new UN report says about how much climate change could cost the world. But examining the report's summary reveals a list of reasons why the IPCC believes the costs are likely to be a lot higher.

With the launch of the latest IPCC report, a fair amount of attention has focused on what it says about how much climate change could cost in terms of GDP as temperatures rise.

In part, that's because a lead author of the economics chapter became quite vocal in his opinion that the IPCC's Summary for Policymakers (SPM) is too "alarmist".

In interviews for BBC and Sky News yesterday, Richard Tol - an economics professor at Sussex University - argued the SPM takes too much of a "four horseman of the apocalypse" tone.

Today, Tol has an  opinion piece in the Financial Times, headlined "Bogus prophecies of doom will not fix the climate".

Tol's take is that while climate change requires a response, reducing emissions has been over-prioritised. To make his case, he refers to a figure from the IPCC report for the cost of two degrees warming:

"According to Monday's report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a further warming of two degrees could cause losses equivalent to 0.2 to two per cent of world gross domestic product."

In other words, Tol says,

"[H]alf a century of climate change is about as bad as losing one year of economic growth."

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