The IPCC – or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in full – conducts research on climate change and what we can do about it. The latest report from the United Nations working group is due out this year. Called the AR6 report, or Sixth Assessment Report. The last report dates back to 2014. “Remember that? Which outlined a scenario where we use seven times more coal in 2100 than we do today. You could raise a few questions about 2014 too,” Auke notes.
Where does he think things are going wrong? “Scientifically, nothing is going wrong. In terms of content, this is a very solid report. It might be the best report out there. Scientists with all kinds of backgrounds from all over the world come together to gather knowledge from a wide variety of fields. All the information in the report is compiled from the best literature available out there. All are peer reviewed. This is then also double checked to make sure everything is correct.”
Auke pauses: “I think it’s really amazing. We are doing this together, after all. How cooler do you want it to get? Scientists and policymakers who base policy on science and knowledge. I can almost get emotional about this.”
That’s the positive side of the story. Because as enthusiastic as Auke is, the figures on renewable energy are, among other things, hopelessly outdated. Not only in the previous report from 2014, but also in the yet-to-be-published study, which Auke will be commenting on a number of chapters. As far as the content is concerned, he is not allowed to say anything yet. But he does want to mention that what makes the report so good is also its pitfall. “Partly due to the fact that all the papers are thoroughly checked, the figures very quickly tend to lag five to ten years behind. The previous report stems from 2014, which was the consensus at the time. But that was also six years ago now.”
“That everything is peer reviewed is what causes data to become outdated. You find yourself reading data from 2011 here. But the source data is easily a few years older, spanning somewhere between 2005 and 2011. When you’re talking about the prices of renewables, this is prehistoric data that you cannot base policy on.”
Solar panels not only produce more energy than they did ten years ago. They have also become cheaper and more sustainable, Auke points out. “You don’t find those kinds of figures in here. They calculate energy from sun, wind and hydrogen in a very old-fashioned way. It’s too conservative.”
So, what’s the solution?
“You know what would be cool?” Auke begins to explain his solution. “An over-the-air update for the latest scientific developments on climate change solutions. A bit like how Tesla provides its cars with updates. Actually, it’s crazy that this isn’t being done yet. It would also be rather strange if Wikipedia were only updated once every six years, wouldn’t it?”
Auke puts on a patronizing voice: “But that’s not the way we work young man!” – Just to illustrate how difficult it is to change the current way of working. “But so what? Then you just learn a new way of working, I guess. It would be possible to keep this extensive report up to date with the latest published findings. Make a kind of moderated forum in which selected scientists – or scientists who are nominated – can make a selection of relevant papers.”
Auke understands that this is basically how the system works and that authors must use peer-reviewed research. “At the IPCC, they also recognize that certain information is lagging behind and that you can draw wrong conclusions because of this. When it comes to climate models, it doesn’t matter as much if data is ten years behind. It’s usually about natural processes that proceed slowly.”
“But if you look at intervention models, where scientists take human influences into account and make predictions that mitigate the effects of climate change. Then this does matter. If you calculate using figures from 2000, then I totally understand why you might think we’ll use five times more coal by the end of this century.”
Be sure to use market research from trusted parties as well
“In these models, it’s often about technology. Should we keep a gas power plant open? Or should we opt for green energy? That’s where a wrong assumption can make a huge difference. Which is why I strongly advocate the use of market reports for things like battery prices, EV sales, solar panel sales, and other market information. You can find plenty of independent parties who could provide enough reliable information on the latest situation. It may not be peer-reviewed, but you will have up-to-date input for your models.”
Auke would also like to see this kind of research appear not just in print. “There are an awful lot of tools available that you can use to bring boring graphs to life. Pack such a mountain of information into a nice dashboard where policymakers can play with different scenarios. They will soon find out for themselves that in the Netherlands, for example, you need more storage for solar energy than for wind energy. But you only understand that once you’ve seen it for yourself. Also, it’s much more fun to play with this and figure out what works best, rather than putting all kinds of different figures side by side.”
Technological development is faster than the processes surrounding climate change
Finally, Auke would like to see scientists factor the learning curve of technological progress into their research. “Scientists assume, as is the case with climate change, that this is a gradual process. It almost seems as if they don’t dare accept that technological advancements happen much faster. Researchers tend to be fairly conservative in this respect. Suppose you had claimed 15 years ago that solar energy would grow by 25 percent per year, you would have been ridiculed back then. Whereas in actual fact, solar energy went up by 40 percent every year during the following decade.”
Auke sighs, “I do understand why policymakers are being conservative with these kinds of figures. We should definitely not be under the impression that we are going to achieve the 1.5 degrees of global warming as set out in the Paris climate agreement. That this rapid growth means we no longer need to do anything else. Thinking like that is a mistake. It actually shows that we are capable of turning the tide. This potential is not reflected in the conservative figures, and it’s for that reason that I’m so concerned about it.”
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