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Newsletter 2nd February 2007

- Climate change: is the science really settled? - Renewable energy - The high price of tortillas - Bove for president?

Climate change: is the science really settled?
Today, the IPCC releases its latest report on the science of climate change. At least, that’s what the headlines will say. In fact, this is the first stage of a staggered publication of the organisation’s Fourth Assessment Report (FAR), which supersedes the third report, published in 2001. But this first tranche is not, as might be expected, the full weighty document, in which all available evidence is evaluated and carefully summarised. Instead this is the so-called Summary for Policymakers (SPM), a short (only 14 pages in draft) summary of the key points. This is the text which nearly everyone will be quoting from over the coming months and years.
 
Not only is it an unusual step to publish the summary of a document which has not yet been finalised and released into the public domain, but the summary itself is not necessarily quite what it seems. Rather than simply being an attempt to summarise the main points from the much longer report, the SPM is a political document, agreed line by line by the governments of the countries which are members of the IPCC. Only the release of the complete chapter will enable those with sufficient staying power and understanding of the science to compare this with today’s document, but the experience from the Third Assessment report was that there were clear messages coming from the SPM which did not necessarily represent a balanced view of the science. In other words, there was spin.
 
Interestingly, after a ramping up of concerns as the previous three assessment reports were published, the TAR tones down some of the more extreme projections which have been headlined in the past. The report seems set to say that, if carbon dioxide levels reach (and are constrained to) 550ppm (effectively a doubling of the reported pre-industrial average of 280ppm) the ultimate average temperature rise is likely to be 2-4.5°C, which is a narrower range with a reduced upper limit. By the last decade of the century, projected temperature rise is in the range 1.7-4°C compared with the 1980s, for a range of emissions scenarios. Sea level rise is projected as 28 to 43 centimetres over the century, with two-thirds of that being due to thermal expansion. These figures are lower than previously suggested.
 
However, the headline news will not be these projections or the fact that they have been moderated, but the fact that the IPCC now says that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are “very likely” to be the primary driver of recent climate change. “Very likely” is defined as between 90 and 95% certain. But this “certainty”, which will be used constantly to discredit any dissenters, is based on the unproven assumption that the climate scientists and modellers have such a good understanding of natural climate processes that additional greenhouse gas emissions are the only possible cause of rising temperatures in recent years.
 
At present, we regard the link as a plausible but unproven hypothesis. While modellers claim to be able to reproduce the very variable trends of the twentieth century (by including allowances for aerosols, for example), this smacks of tinkering to get the right answer rather than a way of improving the realism and reliability of the models. Only time will tell whether the projections are anywhere near right but, in the meantime, we should remember that there has been no upward temperature trend in the last eight years.
 
We are quite prepared to have our scepticism proved wrong if new and convincing evidence emerges. We could be wrong. It will be progress indeed when the IPCC and scientific establishment says the same.
 
We are pleased to say that the Frazer Institute, a Canadian think tank, will be launching its own Independent Summary for Policymakers in London on 5th February. We hope that this will help to foster debate.
 
Renewable energy
Energy roadmap backs renewables, says the BBC headline. The report, sponsored by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council, is called Energy Revolution: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook and was written by the German Aerospace Center. It claims that carbon emissions could economically be cut in half by 2050, with coal and nuclear power generation being replaced by solar, wind, geothermal, bio-energy and hydro.
 
The report looks at the most appropriate mix for different regions and comes to some unarguably sensible conclusions, for example that transport will account for the bulk of fossil fuel use in 50 years time (interesting that the hydrogen economy does not get a mention…) and that demand for coal will continue to grow in China over the next ten years (and, most probably, well beyond that, in our view). It also concludes, quite rightly, that there is significant scope for improved energy efficiency.
 
Sven Teske from Greenpeace International is quoted as saying "Of course, for the Middle East we have a lot of solar power, while northern Europe and North America will have a lot more wind energy in the mix.” And this is where we begin to take issue with him. Greenpeace and others seem wedded to the idea that wind and solar power will together provide a panacea. Unfortunately, they are wrong. Wind still requires subsidies and, most importantly, is intermittent. It simply cannot be relied upon to provide power when it is needed. This means that more traditional generating capacity has to be kept on standby. Solar may be somewhat more reliable, but is far too expensive for general use. And, of course, other capacity would be needed at night.
 
Almost certainly we will see a significantly different mix of power generation in 50 years’ time. Possibly, even fusion will finally have become a viable option. In the meantime, we should concentrate on improving existing methods – a breakthrough in photovoltaics would surely be good news – and developing new ones. In the meantime, we need to be realistic about how energy security is to be guaranteed: let’s not forget the role of nuclear.
 
The high price of tortillas
We are now beginning to see the price rises in the food chain predicted to be a consequence of increased bio-ethanol production. The booming market in the USA has pushed up corn prices there, for which Mid-Western farmers are duly grateful. However, further south, poorer Mexicans are complaining that their staple food has doubled in price. As always, change has its winners and losers.
 
Bio-fuels have become a hot issue over the last year. Loved by some, who see them as a partial replacement for petrol and diesel, they are derided by others who see them as merely prolonging the “unsustainable” growth in private transport. Increased food prices are another side effect. If, as we do, you see them as essentially a good development, the answer must lie in the development of an economic process to convert biomass – waste agricultural produce – into bio-fuel. This should increase farmers’ income without raising food prices.
 
Bove for president?
And, finally, a bit of light relief. Jose Bove, the seemingly omni-present French environmental activist, has declared that he will run for president if he can get enough support. Well, probably anything would be better than Chirac, but somehow we don’t see this as a good move.