The main headlines from the newly reformed and repentant Telegraph and Mail on the latest IPCC report (AR5 working group 3, on mitigation) were –
So what exactly did the new report (IPCC AR5 WG3 SPM) say about fracking? You’ll never guess.
Oh, you guessed.
Yes, that’s right, absolutely nothing. Doesn’t include the word. Nor does it mention ‘hydraulic fracturing’, nor the word ‘shale’, for that matter.
Which is why the Spectator aren’t taking the same angle. Viscount Ridley, their climate expert, has developed a statistical technique which I call ‘iterative quantification’, and which allows you to determine the emphasis of any chosen document.
Here he is applying the technique to the IPCC’s last release, their report on adaptation (IPCC AR5 WG2 SPM) -
“In the main text of the press release that accompanied the report, the word ‘adaptation’ occurred ten times, the word ‘mitigation’ not at all.”
And from these numbers, using some sort of secret algorithm, I should imagine, he derived the conclusion that the adaptation report was primarily focussed on adaptation, and not on mitigation.
But what of the latest report? By applying iterative quantification techniques, I have deduced that it deals with mitigation, and not with fracking.
So what can we say about the IPCC’s attitude to fracking?
Well, the IPCC thinks that we need to cut emissions, which means that replacing high-carbon plants like coal with medium-carbon plants like gas is good, but replacing low-carbon plants like wind with medium-carbon plants like gas is bad.
Shale gas is, of course, gas, and so the same considerations apply. Good for the climate if you’re genuinely replacing coal, as shale gas may do in China, bad if you’re replacing planned renewable capacity, as parts of the UK government would like to do. Unless the shale gas has high fugitive emissions (also known as ‘leaks’), in which case it’s a high-carbon fuel and of no use to anyone.
This nuanced, subtle, and, frankly, needlessly convoluted position was never going to be properly understood by those sections of the press who have only recently decided that the IPCC isn’t just a rebranded KGB, particularly those publications yet to master iterative quantification.
What they need to know, without all this beating around the bush, is whether shale gas is a GOOD THING or a BAD THING.
So I’ve constructed a long and tortured metaphor to try to explain the issue.
A hundred years ago, one popular and effective cure for tertiary syphilis was malaria. The disease raises the body’s temperature to such a dangerously high level that it can kill the syphilis bacteria. Then you could treat the malaria with quinine. Not exactly anyone’s idea of a good time, but if you had syphilis, malaria might be a good option. Because anything’s better than syphilis.
In the same way, if you have a lot of coal-fired power stations, replacing them with gas-fired power stations may be a step forwards. We’ll then have to get rid of the gas-fired power stations’ emissions with renewables or perhaps CCS, but in the short term gas might be a good option, because anything’s better than coal.
But gas, and malaria, remain BAD THINGS.