Bjorn Lomborg, it’s time to check your numbers on wind and solar

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International Energy Agency says it is critical to act on climate change, yet produces a 700-page annual document that looks at business as usual. But it still includes enough data to make a nonsense of Bjorn Lomborg’s claims on wind and solar.

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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.

IEA power generation

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.

iea renewable share 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.

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15 Comments
  1. Chris Drongers 4 years ago

    Renewables, and solar in particular, seem to be heading inexorably down the price curve to the point where they will soon be the obvious go to choice for new generation.

    Is it about time to devote more webtime to analysis of the resource and energy costs of the transition to a renewables-based, electricity operated future? That is, how much energy and how many physical resources will be needed to make the transition?

    And critically, how will the demands of the energy transition compare to ‘business as usual’ in the near, medium and long-term?

    • Petra Liverani 4 years ago

      Beyond Zero Emissions (http://bze.org.au/) published a costed plan for this process in 2010. The plan was based on essentially, 60% Concentrated Solar Thermal plus molten salt storage (CSP+) with 40% wind. Mark Diesendorf from UNSW also published a reasonably different plan. The AEMO has produced one too. In the 5 years since, everything has changed dramatically (it seems much more in the last couple of years) and continues to do so even more quickly. We had no idea that PV would be implemented at such large scale or that batteries would come down massively in price. CSP+ went into hiatus little, however, I think it there’s a good chance that it may make a big resurgence. I’d say it’s quite hard to cost things at the moment as the predictions always end up being quite conservative compared to reality. My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that by 2020 the energy landscape will be completely different and at that point it will be more a matter of how to roll things out, assuming that the fossil fuel lobby finally gets a big shove and isn’t still dragging us backwards. It’s obviously eminently doable, it’s just having the commitment.

      • Cooma Doug 4 years ago

        Share holders will eliminate coal simply by wanting a return and predictable security. The only way coal can continue is yo be managed by totalitarian governments that are happy about suicide

  2. david_fta 4 years ago

    “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.””

    … and this is the bloke who our Federal Government reckons is worth $4 million ?

    Indeed, we don’t have a tax problem, we have an expenditure problem.

  3. Henry WA 4 years ago

    Unfortunately Australia does not have a functioning free market in the supply and sale of electricity. I think you underestimate the ability of the large retailers, who are also fossil fuel generators, to cost shift so that existing coal remains the cheapest and preferred form of generation. The coal generators may be run at a loss (rather than be permanently closed and face the cost of remediation) and low and even loss making wholesale prices, intended to keep renewables out of the market, will not be reflected in lower retail prices. An orderly and swift transition to renewables will still require
    Government support in some form in order to correct the market failure.

    • Ian 4 years ago

      The networks do have competitors, namely behind the meter power generation and very soon ( hopefully) battery storage will have a downward pressure on retail prices. Large scale wind and solar will be built for a number of reasons relatively cheaply. Wind and solar’ s cost is independent of the amount of electricity these generators produce so these sources of power will be the base generation, coal and gas will have to play second fiddle to fill the gaps. As renewables penetration of the market increases coal and gas will be mothballed. This disruption has already occurred in South Australia and may do so in Victoria and Tasmania. The coal generators will simply be squeezed out of the market. The governments at a national and state level love showcase projects, especially of the vote winning green kind. As said, once built, these things generate electricity at no extra cost. Another way to look at this is to look at coal’s strength. It can produce power constantly cheaply. Take away its market for 30 % of the time and it’s revenue drops by 30 %, but it’s running costs stay the same, churning out electricity when it is not needed. 1GW of wind with a capacity factor of 30%, for example will push up the cost of 1 GW of coal by a third, add in 1 GW of solar which has its peak at a different time to wind, and the cost of coal goes higher. From coal’s perspective, these new generators are just ugly.

      • neroden 4 years ago

        Australia’s retail electricity prices are SO high that going off the grid is an economically advantageous option for large portions of Australia.

    • patb2009 4 years ago

      actually about 50-70% of electricity is beyond any government to influence anymore.
      Realistically there is no way to tell the difference between Behind the meter solar production and demand destruction. You have people swapping Incandescent light bulbs and aging flourescents for LED lights. when that process finishes, we will see a lot of lighting replaced. That’s 15-20% of power consumption. Plus Cold light destroys need for A/C production during the summer. Destroying 1,000 Watts of lighting demand also destroys 3,000 watts of A/C demand. Layer onto that people putting in even small PV, pushes down their demand… We will likely see an amazing increase in PV installs which will allow people to become grid neutral.

      while net metering, PPA, ITCs can move the needle, the incentives are
      way beyond any government now.

      • Colin Nicholson 4 years ago

        Isn’t that 300 watts to pump 1000 watts? In winter of course the 1000w of heating from conventional lighting is welcome, but can be replaced by 300W of heat pump energy if cold lighting is used, What you save in summer with cold lighting on the airconditioning (to stay cool) is spent in winter on airconditioning to stay warm with cold lighting.

        • neroden 4 years ago

          Heat pumps with a high Coefficient of Power are also reducing power consumption.

  4. Jens Stubbe 4 years ago

    Lomborg is educated from an institute my cousin headed so I know first hand there is no chance that you can get a disciplined logical discussion with him. A case against Lomborg for scientific swindle was dropped because the board had to conclude there was no science. He is very charismatic and smooth. In 2007 the right wing government dropped him after 6 years and admitted to the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the greenhouse effect on the climate whereafter they resumed the support for clean technologies after 6 years stalling. Before they stalled the development Denmark was a clear number one in wind power but lost that title to Germany though we have managed to get ahead of Germany again the Chinese are now ahead of Denmark. Now we again have a right wing government and they are again slashing support for green tech by 80% and has put a creationist minister in charge of science and education.

    If you corner Lomborg in a discussion about energy he will just claim that it is more value for money to help a starving child and 30.000 children die from poverty every day so we should not do anything about global warming until we have saved those children. If you then corner him and explain that cheap distributed energy has everything to do with clean water, telecommunication and light needed to lift poor people without grid access out of poverty he will just claim that pesticides and fertilizers has seven doubled the output from agriculture and this is much more important than clean water and cheap electricity from solar panels.

    • john 4 years ago

      No doubt he is also in the corner of saying Rachael Carson has caused more harm than good even thought in fact getting rid of DDT was the best help to undeveloped countries due to the disastrous results of using that terrible pesticide.
      Lomborg is a total discredited person who has zero credence from any one except poor educated people in some position of power.

    • JeffJL 4 years ago

      Commiserations on your new government and science minister. We in Australia feel your pain.

  5. Mason Inman 4 years ago

    The article says: “… the ‘new Policies’ scenario, where no action is taken on climate…”

    Actually, IEA’s “New Policies” scenario *does* include climate pledges by many countries.

    It’s their “Current Policies” scenario that includes very little action on climate—only the policies that have already been put into place.

  6. neroden 4 years ago

    *MISTER* Lomborg should have his doctorate revoked for his dishonest behavior.

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