UN climate panel making ‘dangerous assumptions’, say scientists

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An excessive focus on targets and timetables and the assumption that low-carbon technologies will spontaneously appear are hampering efforts to address climate change, according to a group of North American scientists. 

“The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC] plays a risky game in assuming that spontaneous advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions, rather than focusing on those conditions that are necessary and sufficient for those innovations to occur,” says Tom Wigley, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Wigley and two other scientists – Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado and Christopher Green of McGill University – argue that the IPCC has “seriously underestimated” the challenge of developing the technologies necessary to reduce global CO2 emissions in order to prevent potentially disastrous climate change fallout.

Furthermore, the IPCC’s assumption “that the bulk of the challenge of reducing future emissions will occur in the absence of climate policies” is “optimistic at best and unachievable at worst, potentially seriously underestimating the scale of the technological challenge associated with stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations,” they said.

The scientists’ criticism appeared in a recent commentary in the journal Nature.

The EU is facing its own set of challenges in promoting and financing low-carbon technologies, and has delayed a communication on financing its Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan) until the end of 2008.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are central to the discussion, as a consensus is emerging in energy policy circles that fossil fuels, and notably coal, will play a central role in Europe’s energy mix.

But the technologies are highly expensive, and public authorities are reluctant to cover the upfront costs necessary to stimulate CCS development. The private sector, meanwhile, argues that while it can expand the market base of new technologies, large companies should not be expected to cover initial costs, and are calling for far greater incentives from public coffers.

Wigley agrees: “Industry is very good at developing the technology, but if you look at the major innovations that have occurred over the twentieth century, the initiation, the innovation in almost all cases comes from government research spending. Once the concepts are out there, then industry comes in and makes a buck out of it. But they’re not good at starting the ball rolling.”

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