The IPCC recently released the Summary of a report about renewable energy. Both Pielke Jr. and Donna Laframboise have mentioned it, and once the final report comes out at the end of the month I’m sure we’ll hear more about it. However, in looking over the report I was stunned to find out what the IPCC considers as renewable energy (RE).
This story at Scientific American covers it very well. I recommend reading it.
Here’s the problem. The IPCC has different categories of renewable energy. They include solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean, and biomass. Biomass is by far the largest category, it constitutes 79% of all renewable energy. Biomass is broken down into two groups: modern and traditional. Modern biomass is the smaller group at 38%. That means that the IPCC considers the largest single source of renewable energy in the world to be traditional biomass. This image from the report says it all (click to view):
Why is this a problem? Look at their definition of traditional biomass:
Traditional biomass is defined by the International Energy Agency (IEA) as biomass consumption in the residential sector in developing countries and refers to the often-unsustainable use of wood, charcoal, agricultural residues, and animal dung for cooking and heating. All other biomass use is defined as modern [Annex I].
Traditional biomass means cooking on wood stoves, it means difficult wood collection (done mostly by women), it means smoke inhalation and deforestation. Basically, traditional biomass is another way of saying abject poverty. It means no access to energy at all. Calling traditional biomass renewable energy is more than a strech.
It is bad enough that they are considering a lack of access to energy to actually be renewable energy, but what is even worse is that they consider it half of world’s total amount of renewable energy!
I mentioned this to a colleague, and he told me it was even worse yet. Burning wood and charcoal creates black carbon. This aerosol is considered to have a warming impact on the atmosphere. Isn’t one of the primary goals of renewable energy to combat climate change? After all, the report itself says (pg. 3):
As well as having a large potential to mitigate climate change, RE can provide wider benefits. RE may, if implemented properly, contribute to social and economic development, energy access, asecure energy supply, and reducing negative impacts on the environment and health [9.2, 9.3].
They claim that renewable energy can mitigate climate change and reduce negative impacts on the environment and health. However, their largest since source of renewable energy, traditional biomass, contributes to climate change by releasing black carbon, and has significantly negative impacts on both the environment, through deforestation, and on health, through smoke inhalation.
Including traditional biomass in a report on renewable energy cannot be defended. How can anyone now support renewable energy when it is defined as burning animal dung to heat your home or cook your food? Removing traditional biomass from the list of renewable energies may cut the UN’s number in half, but leaving it in place renders the report useless. As the UN defines it currently, supporting renewable energy means supporting abject poverty.