Listening to Dr. RK Pachauri deliver the first Robert Goodland Memorial Lecture at the World Bank last month, I could not help thinking of Dumbledore – the very wise headmaster of Hogwarts, the school where the drama in Harry Potter’s life unfolds. If only Pachy, as his friends call him, had Dumbledore’s magical powers, climate change would not be a problem. Alas, he is only human. But a very wise and accomplished one who heads the IPCC that just issued its fifth assessment report on climate change, and that is what he focused his lecture on.
Two things stuck in my mind as I listened to him.
In just one day, the sun delivers about as much energy as has been consumed by all human beings over the past 35 years. So why haven’t we exploited more than a tiny fraction of this potential? There are many reasons: cost, storage, transmission, distribution, entrenched subsidies and technological challenges are but a few of them.
But the reasons not to take advantage of renewable energy are falling away. A report published this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that close to 80% of the world’s energy demand could be met by tapping renewable sources by 2050, if backed by the right enabling public policies. I served as a Coordinating Lead Author for the Policy and Deployment chapter of the report, as well as member of the Summary for Policy Maker’s team, and I can attest to how much rigorous analysis and effort comparing data and sources went into this process and document.
The same Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation found that the technical potential of renewable energy technologies “exceeds the current global energy demand by a considerable amount—globally and in respect of most regions of the world.”
These encouraging findings were released Monday, May 9, after being studied carefully, examined, and then approved by member countries of the IPCC in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
|Photo © Himalayan Trails/flickr|
But, as we now know, the negotiations only produced an aspirational target—to limit the global mean surface temperature to no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels—and an accord that does not bind any country to reduce their emissions.
Since then, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report has been criticized for errors or imprecise wording.
- For example, the statements that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 or earlier (IPCC admitted that this was an error and not evidence-based);
- that agricultural production in some North African countries would decrease by up to 50% by 2020 (the synthesis report did not contain the nuances and more detailed discussion in the underlying chapter);
- and that over half of the Netherlands was below sea level rather than a quarter (this was largely a definitional issue – the Netherlands Dutch Ministry of transport uses the figure 60% - below high water level during storms).
These inaccuracies, coupled with the controversy surrounding illegally hacked e-mails and temperature data from the University of East Anglia (UEA), have provided climate skeptics and some media with ammunition to undermine public confidence in the conclusions of the IPCC and climate science in general.
Yesterday’s New York Times op-ed piece by Al Gore is well worth a read. It’s one of those pieces where I found myself nodding along to the computer screen. Gore helpfully cuts through to the heart of the supposed controversies about the climate science and within the climate science community.
|Photo © iStockphoto.com|
His arguments echo what I heard at a recent seminar here at the Bank on the role and functioning of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the overblown reaction to mistakes that are real but which in no way alter the overwhelming majority of existing scientific findings about climate change.
During that seminar Kristie Ebi, Executive Director of the IPCC Technical Support Unit for Working Group ll (which authors the volume addressing physical and social impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation) for the next round of assessments coming out in 2013, carefully explained the extensive review process applied by the IPCC.