Sky News promotes ‘lukewarmer’ propaganda
Sky News has joined a list of media organisations that have been fooled into promoting inaccurate and misleading claims by Bjorn Lomborg as part of his relentless publicity drive to increase sales of his new book.
Dr Lomborg was a panellist in a televised debate about climate change on Sky News last week (Thursday 10 September). Ahead of his appearance, Dr Lomborg was allowed to publicise his new book on the channel’s website with an article that is filled with misinformation.
Dr Lomborg has been churning out similar polemics for a small group of media organisations, most of them owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which have a track record of promoting climate change denial.
It is a disappointing lapse because the channel’s reporting of climate change is usually accurate and reliable, and it has an excellent and dedicated climate change correspondent, Lisa Holland.
Sky News did at least allow me to provide a very brief rebuttal at the end of Dr Lomborg’s article, but further on in this commentary I will explain in more detail how he distorts the truth about climate change. I have already debunked a few of the biggest falsehoods in his book in a review for The Observer newspaper and in a longer commentary.
Dr Lomborg’s recent publicity blitz on Sky News was characteristically marked with attempts to make his messages seem reasonable, but he frequently misled the audience with inaccurate or misleading statements. He tried to make his arguments sound plausible by citing numbers that most audience members will not have time to check for accuracy. But very few of his numbers stand up to scrutiny.
For instance, Dr Lomborg told viewers during the debate: “The real issue is to recall that most of the rich world is actually a fairly small part of the emissions in the 21st century.” He made a similar claim in his article on the Sky News website, writing: “Even if all rich nations stopped all their CO2 emissions tomorrow, and for the rest of the century, temperature rise would only reduce from 4.1C to 3.7C by 2100.” The article provides a link to the page on Amazon where readers could buy a copy of his book, which does give details of Dr Lomborg’s calculations. But they are highly misleading.
On page 42, there are two graphs in which he purports to compare “business-as-usual global emissions” and temperature up to 2100, including a scenario in which “the entire rich world ended all carbon dioxide emissions in 2020, and kept them at zero for the next eighty years”. Dr Lomborg’s comparison defines the rich world as members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD. He neglects to mention that, collectively, OECD countries were responsible for 34.7 per cent of annual global emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use in 2018, according to the Global Carbon Project.
Dr Lomborg’s calculations assume that all non-OECD countries immediately abandon any efforts to tackle climate change and instead increase their carbon dioxide emissions from about 25 billion tonnes per year in 2020 to nearly 70 billion tonnes in 2100. It is hardly surprising that an almost threefold rise in emissions from non-OECD countries dominates Dr Lomborg’s calculations and makes the contribution of rich countries seem relatively trivial by comparison.
However, it is obvious that Dr Lomborg has assumed Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5) matches a ‘business-as-usual’ pathway for global emissions, even though there is now widespread recognition among researchers that this assumption is wrong. Although RCP8.5 matches recent trends, it also projects an extreme increase in global emissions for the rest of this century, resulting in an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide that is well in excess of 1,000 parts per million by 2100.
Dr Lomborg further confuses his article’s audience by stating: “Due to three quarters of this century’s emissions coming from poorer countries, the actions of rich countries have little matter.” This is a completely daft claim. The efforts of rich countries matter enormously, as is obvious to anyone who has studied this issue properly. Rich countries will only persuade developing countries to accelerate their emissions cuts if they lead by example. If rich countries do not increase their efforts, poor countries will not act as quickly. And in striving to cut their emissions to net zero, rich countries will play a critical role in developing the technologies and policies that poor countries can also adopt to tackle climate change as well.
Dr Lomborg uses a similar trick to try to convince his audience that the actions of individual countries make no difference. During the debate, he said: “If the US went carbon neutral tomorrow, which of course won’t happen, and stayed carbon neutral for the rest of the century, it would, if you put it into the UN climate models, reduce temperature by the end of the century by 0.2 degrees, or a little less than that. It would probably not even be measurable.” He makes the same claim in his book, writing on pages 41 and 42: “Since the United States emits just over 40 percent of rich country carbon dioxide, in this scenario the effect of just the US going to zero fossil fuels from today onward would be a reduction in temperatures of about 0.33˚F [0.18˚C] in 2100.” Again, by assuming an extreme increase in the emissions of all other countries over the rest of this century, Dr Lomborg tries to trivialise the contribution of the United States, which is currently the second largest emitter in the world. Using his logic would lead to the conclusion that it is not worth any single country cutting its emissions, which is clearly nonsense because reductions in global emissions can only result from action by individual countries.
During the debate, Dr Lomborg also said: “So what we really need is to make sure that the rich world, which is thinking of spending lots and lots of resources, don’t spend it on subsidising existing inefficient technologies but investing in new and research-generated solutions. So basically make sure we innovate new technologies that everyone will want to do.” While he did not identify those technologies that he considers to be “inefficient”, his book devotes many pages to criticisms of renewable energy. For instance, on page 110, he writes: “New renewable energy sources like solar and wind cost $141 billion annually in subsidies globally, and matter little in the global energy supply”, referencing the World Energy Outlook published by the International Energy Agency in 2018.
The case for supporting renewable technologies with temporary subsidies is clear as their development and deployment is held back by multiple market failures which favour incumbent energy sources. In most cases, the need for subsidies for renewables has diminished as the market failures are overcome, creating a level playing field for competition with fossil fuels. Some renewable energy sources, particularly solar and wind, are now cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the world and require no subsidy.
In addition, Dr Lomborg largely ignores the ongoing subsidies that coal, oil and gas technologies still attract, even though they are mature and established. The International Energy Agency estimated that fossil fuels received just over US$300 billion in direct subsidies in 2017, a figure that is predictably omitted from Dr Lomborg’s one-sided book.
Nor does he mention that an analysis published by the International Monetary Fund concluded that fossil fuels enjoyed total subsidies in 2017 amounting to US$5.2 trillion, or 6.5 per cent of global GDP, when including implicit subsidies arising from the failure of coal, oil and gas prices to reflect the damage they cause through local air pollution and climate change.
But Dr Lomborg does not only rely on a misleading presentation of data. He also misrepresents the findings of other studies. For instance, his article on the Sky News website states: “The UN’s climate panel has estimated that the negative impact of climate change equates to incomes reducing by 0.2% to 2% by the 2070s. By then, each person worldwide will be 363% richer; however, climate change will mean people will only be 356% richer than today. That’s a problem – but it isn’t the end of the world.” This is simply not true. The timescale has been invented by Dr Lomborg and he has misrepresented the significance of these numbers. In fact, the contribution of working group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to the Fifth Assessment Report in 2014, reviewing studies that had been published earlier, concluded in its Summary for Policymakers:
“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).”
More recent studies have estimated far bigger potential economic losses from climate change. The claim that per capita income across the world will be 356 per cent higher in the 2070s even if we do nothing to tackle climate change is fantasy economics based on the assumption that the impacts make almost no difference to economic growth, and everyone’s income increases in real terms by an average of 2.5 to 3.0 per cent every single year.
Dr Lomborg’s article also states: “Despite the poor track record of previous policies, many rich countries are now competing to go even further and become carbon neutral. Only one, New Zealand, has dared to ask for an independent estimate of the cost of going carbon neutral by 2050 – at least a staggering 16% of GDP, every year.”
This is also untrue. The 16 per cent figure has been invented by Dr Lomborg. The Zero Carbon Bill Economic Analysis: A synthesis of economic impacts, published by New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment in June 2018, concluded that, according to its economic model, reaching net zero emissions by 2050 could mean that “GDP might be in the range of 10 to 21 per cent less by 2050, compared with what it might have been in that year if we had taken no further action on climate change.” But the report also pointed out that this means that the average annual rate of growth in GDP between 2017 and 2050 would be reduced from 2.2 per cent to between 1.5 and 1.9 per cent. However, and most crucially of all, these estimates did not take into account any of the economic benefits of reducing emissions through avoided impacts of climate change or air pollution.
What is most ironic about Sky News allowing Dr Lomborg to promote his propaganda is that I appeared on the same channel the previous weekend (5 September) to argue that Extinction Rebellion is right to draw attention to the flawed coverage of climate change by the British media, but was wrong to block the distribution of newspapers. Now the news channel has unwittingly highlighted the legitimacy of the protestors’ complaints that some newspapers and broadcasters do not always provide the public with the truth about this issue.
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.