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In the context of a series of conferences organized by the department of Industrial Ecology at NTNU, Norway, we had the honor and pleasure to welcome Mr. Leo Meyer on the 2nd of October, for a speech on the work of the working group III of the IPCC in its 4th assessment report. Mr. Meyer is the head of the technical support unit of this working group. In this article, I will comment on the functioning principles of the IPCC and address critically the different solutions proposed by the group, with respect to the IPAT equation.

At first was explained the principle of the IPCC; what his missions were and how governments would act in collaboration with the scientists working in this panel. I will stop at this point and pinpoint the fact that governments have an influence on what is finally published, but only when it comes to the Summary for Policymakers (SPM), a 30-pages long document offering a synthesis of the work otherwise published both in the final report and in the technical summary. This report has to be approved by all the 180 participating countries word by word, graph by graph, etc… A direct consequence is that this report might be a light version of the thicker ones, only presenting facts that do not clash against policies or mentalities of various governments. If you do not have time to read the longer reports, then go for the SPM ones, but be aware that they are diluted versions of the truth available elsewhere. Their content is nonetheless accepted by scientists chairing the working group.

It is often heard that the IPCC does not represent all the scientific community; that it does not give space to alternative theories. To understand this fact, one has to keep in mind what the ultimate goal of the panel is, and how it proceeds to achieve it. How are authors selected?

  1. Governments and institutes of the 180 member countries submit CVs
  2. the IPCC Bureau matches CVs against chosen subjects. Here a first “filter” is applied, so as to choose people from different geographical origins, and from different “schools”. This in order to avoid a unique view of the issues.
    1. The concept of different schools might be for example relevant when it comes to economy.
    2. The chosen ones are not only academics, but also experts from the industry, NGOs, etc
  3. 15 lead authors are chosen per chapter
  4. The co chairs, as well as the lead authors, can also invite authors

The IPCC is so to say summarizing the current scientific knowledge on the evolution of the climate and the science therein. Its goal is not to produce new papers, explain new facts. It is an assembly of experts whose task is to read a lot of peer-reviewed papers (meaning read and corrected by other scientists) and write a report on the state-of-the-art. All the results published by the IPCC are therefore already published in the literature; the sole purpose of the IPCC is to gather the data and make it available, and in a certain extent, more comprehensible to a larger public.

The working group III has the task of describing the strategies to adopt to mitigate climate change, based on the impacts published by the working group II. Although the latter are regional, the strategies to adopt are inherently to be applied worldwide. Some differences of strategy might appear, depending on the current state of economic development of the considered country; but in the end one striking pattern comes out from the report: what we have to fix is technology, and change our consumption patterns. These two points, and particularly the former, are recurrent in the report. To summarize, technologies exist, but have to be implemented. The group does not expect any technological breakthrough to happen in the form of the discovery of a new energy source; what can be done is improvement of the existing technologies.

An “economic fix” is required in order to boost the shift from fossil to renewables, through the establishment of a worldwide price on carbon. And in spite of the apparently opposite mentalities of “bottom-up” (techno-economic analysis) and “top-down” (integrated assessment analysis), it appears that each way to address the problem can lead to substantial reductions in CO2 emissions. The following two graphs represent the possible reductions in CO2 emissions achievable through the implementation of a worldwide carbon trading system, using each of the two above-mentioned approaches. Of course the reductions will depend on the price set on eq-CO2. Due to uncertainties, a low- and high end-of-range are shown in each case.

Effects of a tax on CO2 (Top Down case)

Effects of a tax on CO2 (Top Down case)

What is frightening is to realize that the maximum emission reduction that can be achieved through technological shift, helped economically by a price on carbon, is roughly 30 GtCO2-equivalent per year, in the best case envisioned by the projections. Looking a couple of pages further in the report, one realizes that in order to stabilize our atmosphere at CO2-eq concentrations between 450 and 500 ppm, the limit for containing the temperature rise below 2 degrees, we need to peak our emissions by 2015. Let’s say that is impossible. With China and India growing, as well as the other countries still desperately looking for extensive economic growth based on over-exploitation of resources, nobody will accept such a sudden shift in mentalities. Although the solution for mitigation is within reach, we prefer not to take it and go on the same path as before.

I recently commented on Growth is Madness! that the IPCC was not addressing the population growth problem, although it recognizes it as one of the main drivers of increasing GHG emissions:

the effect on global emissions of the decrease in global energy intensity (-33%) during 1970 to 2004 has been smaller than the combined effect of global per capita income growth (77%) and global population growth (69%); both drivers of increasing energy-related CO2 emissions.

Of course, this conference was the ideal occasion to ask the right person the right question. Unfortunately, someone else asked our lecturer about population before I could, and turned it in such a way that it sounded too extreme (one-birht policy was given as an example). Here follows the question that I would have asked:

The IPCC Working group III addresses only the two last terms in the famous equation I=PAT (Environmental Impact = Population*Consumption*Technology), dismissing the first one, namely population growth, although recognizing it as one of the main drivers of increased GHG emissions. The predictions summarized in limits to Growth thirty years ago are even more valid today than when the book was initially written. Indeed, the neo‐Malthusian movement is pushing towards addressing the first term of the equation. Recently, China stated that by controlling population growth, 300 million births had been avoided by 2005, leading to direct savings of 1,3 billion tones of emitted CO2 in 2005 alone. Why is the IPCC WG III not emphasizing more strongly this fact and does not introduce policies required to curb population growth, policies which could include aid to development, access to family planning, and women empowerment in developing countries? And if it is not considered as relevant by the group, then why?

In my question, I nevertheless made one error, which was also the key to the answer provided by Mr. Meyer: I implied that the IPCC was introducing policies. It is not its role. The IPCC has been created in order to give the political leaders some ideas about how to deal with the problem. The IPCC has to be “Policy relevant, not policy prescriptive”. That means that it cannot suggest new, radically different ways of solving the global warming issue rather than by choosing to solve the problem with the political, economical and technological tools that we use or have today. Indeed, population control, through the use of whichever policy, is not accepted by most of the countries member of the panel.

So the answer of our guest lecturer was the following: when it comes to such issues directly touching the population and the human beings, cultural, religious and political problems rise up and block any further discussion of the subject. If the IPCC report does not address the population issue, that is because it is not politically correct, or because it would be too provocative to certain cultures. This concern is thus left to others to address.

By avoiding such sensitive subjects, and despite the full acceptance of their importance, the experts are not even in the position to suggest policies or strategies that could help us to take care of the P factor. By leaving this aspect as an external variable nobody can do anything about, we are actually refusing to fully open our eyes, and make the inevitable crash even harder to support.

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