04 October 2009

Magical Solutions from the IPCC

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Rajendra Pachauri, head of the "policy neutral" IPCC was asked the following question:
Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC has argued that greenhouse gas emissions must peak no later than 2015 to have any chance of avoiding the worst effects of global warming. That's no more than about five years away. Do you really believe that that's achievable?
Pachauri responded as follows:
RAJENDRA PACHAURI, CHAIRMAN, IPCC: I think it's achievable, but what we really need is a major commitment on the part of world leaders, and certainly the public in most countries, to be able to bring about change. Because we've also said in the IPCC fourth assessment report that all the technologies that are required for moving on a path of stringent mitigation are available to us, or on the verge of being commercialised. So I think it can be done.

You know, you take the case of Japan: the new government has just announced, and the Prime Minister's leading that effort, that by 2020 they're going to cut down emissions by 25 per cent over 1990 levels. Now, given what they've achieved so far, that seems like a stupendous task, but they have decided to go ahead and do it. So my belief is that if you have examples like that, if you have commitment of the nature that's been shown by the new government in Japan, it can be done.
This response is in error in at least three important ways.

1. The IPCC explicitly does not make recommendations by design. In its 2007 report it certainly did not argue "that greenhouse gas emissions must peak no later than 2015." Pachauri lets the interviewer's error go uncorrected, giving the impression that the IPCC is in the business of making specific policy recommendations. It is not. Who then is he speaking for and where do the recommendations actually come from?

2. Pachauri asserts that: "all the technologies that are required for moving on a path of stringent mitigation are available." This statement is simply wrong as has been shown in a number of studies, among them one I collaborated on with Chris Green and Tom Wigley that showed that the IPCC scenarios had serious methodological problems (here in PDF). Pachauri repeats the misleading statement that all technologies are available. They are not.

3. Pachauri asserts that Japan provides a model for emissions reductions. Japan's new government has indeed set forth an ambitious (and conditional) target. But the only peer reviewed paper (that I am aware of) that actually analyzes that target's implications for decarbonization concludes that the target of the previous government for an 8% reduction from 1990 levels was likely unachievable, implying that a much more aggressive target is certainly impossible to meet (here in PDF). Pachauri holds up certain policy failure as policy success.

A lot of people put a lot of work into the IPCC. It is a shame to see it turned into an advocacy organization that ignores research and champions magical solutions. Don't we have enough of those already?