All posts by Robert Wilson


Latest column: burning wood

What is the world’s biggest provider of renewable energy? Most people will probably think it is hydro-electricity, or perhaps wind energy. The more informed might think of all that bio-energy in Africa and parts of Asia.

But most will be surprised that bio-energy is in fact the biggest source of renewable energy in both the EU and the US. Not only this but the historical trend has been reversed. For most of the twentieth century bio-energy declined decade to decade. Now it is having some kind of come back.

I look into this stuff in my latest column. Read it here.

R users may be interested in the packages I used for the plots. The graphs were produced using ggplot2 with the ggthemes packages to give the Economist style look to the graphs. The map produced using ggmaps, which lets you plot on to google maps using R.

A tripling of renewable energy?

The Observer and the BBC are both reporting that the IPCC today will call for a “tripling” of renewable energy to “avert climate disaster.” 

Both reports are classic examples of how badly numbers are reported. What do they mean by renewable energy? Does this include hydro-electricity and biomass? A rather necessary distinction.

When should this tripling occur by? 2030, 2050? This is not stated.

But let’s say we tripled renewable energy, including hydro, by 2030. By itself this is highly unlikely to stop carbon dioxide emissions being higher in 2030 than they are today. Renewables, including hydro, are below 10% of global primary energy consumption currently. Tripling this is fine, but remember that total primary energy consumption increased by 30% in the last decade.

In fact in the last decade coal consumption alone increased by 1319 Mtoe. This is greater than the total consumption, not the increase, from all renewables. See how tripling renewables will not achieve as much as many think? As Hans Rosling has demonstrated most people think renewables deliver far more of our energy than it does.

The IPCC report is coming online shortly, evidently. And then I can find out what they really mean by a “tripling” of renewable energy. My guess is that they mean a tripling of the percentage of total energy consumption from renewables. Or at least I hope that’s what they mean.

What We Lack Is Cliché

“We can only avoid catastrophic climate change if we reduce our dependency on fossil fuels – we’re already on track for four degrees warming, which will be impossible for human society to adapt to. We have the technology to prevent dangerous climate change. What we lack is the political will of our leaders to strongly champion renewable power and energy efficiency.”

- Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins in response to the latest IPCC report.

No, Guardian: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Have Not Doubled In The Last Decade

Do we really need leaked IPCC documents to tell us what we already know? Apparently the Guardian thinks so.

Today they have a story about how a leaked IPCC report shows that “Greenhouse gas emissions grew nearly twice as fast over the past decade as in the previous 30 years.” Is this news? If I wanted to find out how much greenhouse gas emissions have risen over this period it is incredibly easy. No IPCC leak is necessary. I could simply have a look at the UNFCC data, or perhaps the Edgar data set, or CDIAC. All of these data sets will tell you what this IPCC leak tells you. In fact there is no need for an IPCC leak to tell us this, you could simply look up research that the Guardian itself has reported on multiple occasions.

Is this journalism? Poking through a leaked IPCC report to find a statement of the obvious and publishing it as news?

Perhaps as a follow up we will have a story about how a leaked IPCC story shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are in fact increasing, or that rain is a particular feature of the climate of Scotland.

And the headline is particularly delightful: “UN: greenhouse gas emissions nearly doubled in first decade of 21st century.” No they did not. The growth in emissions doubled. Naturally the Guardian’s environment website editor has not picked up the error and is tweeting it, as is the author of the original story. Is such innumeracy part of the training for the modern journalist?

We are inveighed to keep emissions below a certain level, but we cannot make the effort to get the growth in emissions accurate to within even a factor of two. What hope is there?

However when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions the Guardian is particularly sloppy. Their environment editor recently reported atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reaching a record high as carbon dioxide emissions reaching a record high. These of course are fundamentally different things. Even if carbon dioxide emissions fell next year atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would keep going up.

When it comes to climate change the numbers really do matter. Gigatonnes, terawatts, trillion cubic metres. Such orders of magnitude demand care, not sloppiness. But unless that sloppiness is being made in the Daily Mail, and not the Guardian, no one does any complaining.