Bjorn Lomborg has made a lucrative career from being a climate contrarian. His Copenhagen Consensus Centre was even offered $4 million by the Abbott government to set up a research facility in an Australian university. Australian academia should be thankful it didn’t work out.
Lomborg’s model is to produce “data” that supports his outlandish claims. For the past decade or so, it has been the climate change is not as bad as it seems, and there is no rush to do much about it or curtail the use of coal power. More recently, it’s been an attack on wind and solar.
His latest claim – enthusiastically supported by The Australian, which gave it front page treatment this week, along with a number of climate-denial websites – is that all the pledges for the Paris climate talks will amount to virtually no change in global temperatures, even if implemented.
It’s a variation of the climate denier meme, popularised by the likes of radio talk-back host and renewables poo-pooer Alan Jones, about the zero point zero zero zero zero something impact of Australian’s climate change policies.
But Lomborg needs to go back to his data source on wind and solar, the International Energy Agency, which he claims estimates that just 0.4 per cent of global energy now comes from solar and wind power, and will produce just 2.2 per cent in 2040, even after “massive public subsidies” and if the world acts on green promises.
That’s just not true.
The IEA is a curious organisation. It warns of the devastating impacts on climate change. Its new executive director, Fatih Birol, has repeatedly stated that climate targets can be reached “at no net additional economic cost”. He says fossil fuel companies are making a “strategic mistake” if they think they can ignore the impacts of climate policy.
But each year, the IEA produces a massive document, the World Energy Outlook, that does exactly that. The 2015 edition, released overnight, is more than 700 pages long, and acts as the kind of bible of the world energy industry. But its central scenario is that the world ignores climate change and any action to address it.
This is particularly salving to the fossil fuel industry, and the likes of Lomborg and the Abbott government, which designed both its energy white paper and its emission reduction plans on the basis of this scenario.
But tucked away in a few corners of the IEA report is some data on what will happen if the world acts on its pledges for the Paris climate talks, and then takes further action to ensure global warming does not exceed 2°C.
Lomborg’s figures on wind and solar are conflated with the overall “energy demand”, which means transport and heat as well as electricity. In this calculation, oil contributes 31 per cent, while coal contributes 28 per cent. The IEA does not give much credence to a move to electric vehicles, big or small.
What the IEA is suggesting, despite its incredibly conservative forecasts about the cost of solar and wind – explained in more detail here and here – is that wind and solar will overtake coal as the biggest source of electricity by around 2030, and by 2040 will provide more than 8,200 terrawatt hours of electricity a year – twice as much as coal.
And you can see the break down of the renewable component below. Note that by 2040, wind is producing 20 per cent more electricity than coal, and solar is catching up rapidly – despite the IEA’s conservative forecasts on solar (its predictions for solar costs in 2030 have already been beaten).
Together, wind and solar will provide 27 per cent of global electricity demand by 2040 in this scenario. That compares to 12 per cent from coal.
Even on the “new Policies” scenario, where no action is taken on climate, and where the IEA plays down the targets of both China and India, wind and solar provide half as much as coal power by 2040.
Although the IEA focuses on the scenario that ignores climate change, it says that the transition to renewable energy that Lomborg chooses to deny is already happening. Even in the “New Policies” scenario, more than 60 per cent of investment goes to renewable energy. That’s about $6 trillion.
Little wonder that Lomborg advocates sticking wind and solar back into the R&D labs and working to make coal more affordable. As part of that narrative, Lomborg has sought to downplay both the impact of climate change, and now the efforts to address it.
In his front page splash in The Australian, Lomborg said that the pledges made by the more than 150 countries to date ahead of the climate change conference in Paris would amount to a reduction of just 0.05°C. That compares to what the UN, IEA, and other analysis suggests would be more than 1.0°C.
Lomborg’s claims are important to the fossil fuel industry, and conservative ideologues, because it supports their narrative that there is no point in acting to restrict the use of fossil fuels, or their emissions.
Joe Romm, over at Climate Progress, explains what a nonsense Lomborg’s claims are. He quotes John Sterman, Professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Director of MIT’s System Dynamics Group, who said:
Dr Lomborg sets out to show that the INDCs are useless. To do so he grossly misrepresents the pledges. He constructs an incomplete accounting of the pledges that omits the pledges of many nations, ignores China’s pledge to cap its emissions by 2030, and assumes that the [European Union countries] abandon their commitment to emissions reductions as soon as their pledges are fulfilled.”
That, though, is how Lomborg operates.