UK newspaper ‘The Daily Telegraph’ duped by Bjorn Lomborg’s climate propaganda

Bjørn Lomborg talking at LSE

‘The Daily Telegraph’ newspaper in the UK has become the latest victim of Bjorn Lomborg’s global dissemination campaign of inaccurate and misleading information about climate change.

Over the past 18 years since the publication of his widely-derided book ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World’, Dr Lomborg has duped many newspaper opinion desks and broadcast media into providing a platform for his false claims.

Dr Lomborg, who has a PhD in political science and no qualifications or training in climate science or economics, is perhaps the world’s most active ‘lukewarmer’, a term that describes individuals who accept the indisputable evidence that human activities are partly or wholly causing climate change, but who reject the robust scientific evidence that there are potentially catastrophic risks associated with it.

He has mounted an energetic campaign to attack the Paris Agreement other international and domestic policies that are designed to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

Britain’s last remaining daily broadsheet newspaper, apart from the ‘Financial Times’, published an article on its website by Dr Lomborg on the evening of Monday 10 June under the headline ‘Theresa May is about to spend £1 trillion on a pointless policy. This climate madness has to end’.

Dr Lomborg’s polemic was characteristically filled with false claims, yet was obviously not fact-checked by the newspaper. Even more embarrassingly for ‘The Daily Telegraph’, some of the fake facts were also included in its leading article on Thursday 13 June.

Dr Lomborg’s article asserted that “forcing a transition from fossil fuels to alternatives remains incredibly expensive and is the reason why renewable energy has only increased by 1.1 percentage points in that time — from meeting 13.1 per cent of the worlds energy needs in 1992 to 14.2 per cent today”.

Dr Lomborg did not mention a source to substantiate these misleading claims. The ‘World Energy Outlook 2018’, published by the International Energy Agency last November, concluded that “solar PV and wind power are approaching competitiveness in a number of markets for investment decisions today”. It stated: “In China and India, recent cost reductions put solar PV on nearly equal footing with coal as the most competitive sources of new generation. Onshore wind power is a competitive option for new investment in all regions, though cost levels vary widely across China, India, European Union and United States”.

Furthermore, the latest figures published by the Agency on its website show that renewables contributed 13.3 per cent of total primary energy supply in the world in 1992, compared with 14.0 per cent in 2016. However, these figures mask an actual increase in renewable energy supply of 64 per cent over this period, while electricity generation from renewables grew by 140 per cent. The Agency estimates that 25 per cent of the electricity generated in the world in 2017 came from renewable sources.

While it is clear that the world still relies heavily on fossil fuels for energy, renewables have been growing rapidly in recent years, a fact that Dr Lomborg was obviously keen to obscure.

Dr Lomborg also stated that the UK’s net zero target “will have no meaningful impact on temperatures because the UK is responsible for just one per cent of global emissions”, and that “the benefits of reaching net zero are negligible”. This bogus argument is often put forward by opponents of action against climate change and essentially means that it is not worth any single country acting because it is only responsible for a fraction of global emissions. In fact, the commitment by the UK, with the world’s fifth largest economy, to reach net zero emissions could have a very powerful effect by convincing other countries that they can cut emissions as well without harming their economic growth and development.

Dr Lomborg also wrongly argued that “the cost of delivering this pledge would be massive”, and noted that “the Committee on Climate Change somehow came up with an astonishingly small cost estimate of just £50 billion a year”. It is obvious that Dr Lomborg did not bother to consult the detailed analysis presented in Chapter 7 of the Committee’s report, which concluded: “Rapid cost reductions for key technologies like offshore wind and batteries for electric vehicles mean the expected cost for the current target to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 relative to 1990 has fallen significantly – our 2008 estimates suggested annual costs in 2050 of 1-2% of GDP while our current estimates put costs at less than 1% of GDP. Our central estimate for the resource costs of a more ambitious net-zero GHG target in 2050 are in line with the expected cost accepted by Parliament when the current target was set – an annual cost of between 1-2% of GDP in 2050. If innovation exceeds expectations again this cost could be lower.” As the UK’s GDP last year was about £2.1 trillion, 1-2 per cent would be £21-42 billion. The figure of £50 billion cited by Dr Lomborg appears nowhere within the Committee’s report.

But this was not the only example of Dr Lomborg inventing a number. His article also stated: “The UN’s climate scenario modelling shows that reaching net zero carbon around 2050 (a scenario in which we keep temperature rises to 1.5°C) would cost 5.3 per cent of GDP by 2050. For the UK, that would mean an annual cost of £187 billion by 2050.”

This is outright nonsense. The “UN’s climate scenario modelling” does not exist. The special report on ‘Global Warming of 1.5°C’, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018, nowhere suggests that the cost of the world reaching net zero emissions by 2050 would be 5.3 per cent of GDP by 2050. And the £187 billion is entirely fictional.

But Dr Lomborg was not satisfied with the size of this fake number, asserting “Studies show that in the real world where policies are not implemented efficiently, it is more likely the cost would double – meaning £374 billion annually.” He offered no references or citations to support this claim. Hence he jumped from the careful analysis of the Committee on Climate Change and arbitrarily multiplied it by a factor of 10.

And Dr Lomborg continued to inflate the costs even more. He suggested that the New Zealand Government had commissioned a report which concluded that it would cost 16 per cent of its GDP annually: “Translated to the UK that would mean £560 billion per year if everything were done efficiently.”

This was another falsehood. The ‘Zero Carbon Bill economic analysis: A synthesis of economic impacts’, published by the New Zealand Government in June 2018, presented the results of modelling that showed the annual GDP up to 2050 would be 4.1 cent smaller. But it also noted that this meant that the annual growth of GDP would be 1.9 per cent instead of 2.2 per cent.

After this series of blatantly daft exaggerations, Dr Lomborg suggested that the UK’s costs “could add up to £12 trillion”, an order of magnitude greater than the size of the total investment up to 2050 that was implied by the rigorous calculations by the Committee on Climate Change.

But Dr Lomborg’s article contained many more inaccurate and misleading claims. He stated: “According to the UN Climate Panel, the impact of global warming by the 2070s will be the equivalent to a 0.2-2 percent loss in average income.” Although Dr Lomborg again provided no reference for this claim, it seems likely he was attempting to draw upon the contribution of IPCC Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report in 2014, which concluded:

“Global economic impacts from climate change are difficult to estimate. Economic impact estimates completed over the past 20 years vary in their coverage of subsets of economic sectors and depend on a large number of assumptions, many of which are disputable, and many estimates do not account for catastrophic changes, tipping points, and many other factors. With these recognized limitations, the incomplete estimates of global annual economic losses for additional temperature increases of ~2°C are between 0.2 and 2.0% of income (±1 standard deviation around the mean) (medium evidence, medium agreement). Losses are more likely than not to be greater, rather than smaller, than this range (limited evidence, high agreement). Additionally, there are large differences between and within countries. Losses accelerate with greater warming (limited evidence, high agreement), but few quantitative estimates have been completed for additional warming around 3°C or above.”

Hence, Dr Lomborg assumed that global warming would reach about 3°C above pre-industrial levels by the 2070s, and failed to disclose the warning that estimates of economic impacts are known to omit “catastrophic changes, tipping points, and many other factors”.

Dr Lomborg ended his article with his usual call for a “low and rising” tax on emissions, together with “innovation that brings the price of zero-CO₂ energy down below that of fossil fuels”. He added: “That doesn’t mean erecting inefficient solar panels across the roofs of middle class houses today, but investing in R&D to ensure carbon-free energy sources can be developed and brought to market, to outcompete fossil fuels in the medium term. If they’re cheaper and cleaner then everyone, including China and India, will switch to the greener options.”

This simplistic suggestion exposed the fact that Dr Lomborg does not understand either the science of climate change or the process of technological innovation.

Climate change is being driven by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Once emitted, carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for centuries. That is why scientists warn that it is the total volume of emissions that controls the amount of global warming, not the amount in any single year. The world cannot afford to abandon current low-carbon technologies, such as solar panels, and give up its efforts to cut emissions today, in the hope that one day an even better technology will be invented.

In any case, recent experience shows that the process of learning by doing has rapidly improved the efficiency of low-carbon technologies and dramatically lowered their unit costs. The UK understands this very well because it has been at the forefront of the development of offshore wind, as do China, the world’s largest user of solar panels, and India, which is deploying solar on a massive scale to provide electricity to poor rural communities.

It is perhaps very surprising that ‘The Daily Telegraph’ published an article by Dr Lomborg that was so riddled with errors. But it is nothing short of astonishing that it repeated some of the falsehoods in its leading article on 13 June.

It claimed; “Globally, renewable energy has increased only marginally since world leaders attending the Earth Summit in 1992 committed to tackling climate change”. This was obviously based on Dr Lomborg’s erroneous article and ignored the fact that the primary energy supply from renewables has increased by more than 60 per cent since 1992.

The leading article ended by uncritically regurgitating many of Dr Lomborg’s other daft arguments: “UN modelling suggests that meeting the net zero carbon target by 2050 would cost 5.3 per cent of GDP – an annual cost of £187 billion for the UK, assuming the policy’s efficient implementation. Other studies say it could be far higher without making a significant impact on global emissions. A better approach than setting impossible targets is to encourage investment in green energy research, development and new technologies.”

Dr Lomborg must be delighted that the editor of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ has outsourced its editorial line on climate change to him!

However, the newspaper also showed that it can invent its own fake facts about climate change without having to copy Dr Lomborg. The leading article stated: “The UK is unlikely to meet the current target of 80 per cent cuts to emissions by 2030”. In fact, the Climate Change Act 2008 includes a target to reduce the UK’s annual emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050 compared with 1990.

By adopting such a cavalier approach to the facts, and feebly repeating Dr Lomborg’s lukewarmer propaganda about climate change, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ is demonstrating a shocking contempt for its readers.

 

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.