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The 2011 IPCC Report on Renewable Energy

Critical Comments by Ted Trainer

This is being referred to as an International panel on Climate Change report from hundreds of experts showing that the world can be running mostly on renewable energy sources by 2050. The press release says,“Close to 80 percent of the world„s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid- century… a new report shows.”

However I think it is a remarkably unsatisfactory document, and have made some critical discussion available. Here are some of the main points:

It is not a report of an examination by the IPCC of the potential of renewables. It is a summary statement of the conclusions evident in 164 studies, which the IPCC says were not selected at random. The IPCC does not evaluate these studies; we do not know how valid their conclusions are.

What the IPCC actually concludes is that more than half the studies reviewed project that renewables could provide more than 27% of energy in 2050. Again, the IPCC does not inquire as to whether such projections are sound. I have looked carefully at a number of similarly impressive glossy reports saying renewable energy can meet all demands, and have always found them to be seriously flawed. (The main criticisms are:

  • The IPCC gives us no reason to assume that the studies it summarises are satisfactory.
  • There is no reference to the studies I know of that doubt the potential of renewable energy.
  • The Report either does not deal satisfactorily, or at all, with a number of crucial problems limiting the potential contribution renewable can make, including the integration limits imposed by the variability of wind and solar energy, how to deal with periods in which there is no sun or wind, the storage of energy and especially of electricity, the redundant plant needed (e.g., the extra wind turbines needed when there is a cloudy day but which will sit idle when the wind is strong), and whether the total capital cost is likely to be affordable.
  • The biomass energy conclusion is challengeable for a number of reasons, especially to do with the increasing pressure on land for food etc., the need to return much land to nature to remedy accelerating species extinction, and the inevitability that biomass energy will take lands on which the poorest one billion people depend.
  • Even if the 27% conclusion could be regarded as well-established it would fall far short of solving the greenhouse problem. According to the IPCC‟s own figures it would leave us with a higher CO2e emission level than we have now. Yet the Report‟s air is one of optimism.
  • The most disturbing aspect of the Report is the fact that in the key Chapter 10 most attention is given to one study which concludes that by 2050 70% of world energy could come from renewables. This is the source of the claim the IPCC repeats, that by 2050 80% of energy could come from renewable. However the Greenpeace Report is little more than the presentation of an imagined “scenario”, a description of a desired pattern of supply, which is not derived or established. It is not shown that the required quantities could be provided. It also fails to discuss a number of crucial problems confronting renewable energy.
  • The brief reference to investment costs is not derived or supported, and is highly challengeable. I sketch three approaches indicating that the cost would be far higher than claimed, and not affordable.

The document is puzzling. It does not do what it should have done, and is being taken to have done, i.e., critically examine as much of the evidence as possible on the potential and limits of renewable energy in order to derive demonstrably convincing conclusions which deal thoroughly with all the relevant difficulties. It does present a great deal of valuable information, but it does not advance the central issue of potential and limits; it just summarises what some others have said, without assessing the validity of what they have said. Most difficult to understand is why it gives so much attention to one clearly problematic study, and allows its highly optimistic conclusions to be taken as those the IPCC has come to. It is likely that as the Report is examined it will damage the credibility of the IPCC.

The Report reinforces the dominant faith that renewable energy can save us and there is no need to question the commitment to affluent living standards and the pursuit of limitless economic growth. In my opinion that belief is seriously mistaken and this report will make it less likely that attention will be given to a sound analysis of our situation and what to do about it.

My view is that consumer-capitalist society is so grossly unsustainable and unjust that it cannot be fixed. Its major structures must be scrapped and replaced, most obviously the growth economy, domination by market forces, and a culture of competitive individualistic acquisitiveness. A vision of a workable and enjoyable alternative is detailed in Trainer 2010 and 2011. This IPCC report will be seen as confirming that it is not necessary to think about such an alternative.

I should make it clear that my comments do not cast doubt on the IPCC‟s statements re climate science. It is also my view that we should transition to full dependence on renewables as soon as possible…but this will not be possible in a consumer-capitalist society. I would appreciate critical feedback on my discussion accessible at

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group 111, Mitigation of Climate Change, Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Mitigation. June, 2011 (

Trainer, T., (2010), The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, Syd. Trainer, T., (2011), The Simpler Way website: [Dr Ted Trainer is a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of NSW]

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