A Dateline story bursting with hot air but not facts
How does a journalist do a story on a subject they know nothing about?
This is a question which has long intrigued me. Most journalists have to cover all kinds of issues. Many don’t have the luxury of specialising in things they know about. I eventually worked out the basic technique for TV journalists.
First, make sure the names and titles are spelled correctly and assigned to the right people on the bottom of the screen, then stuff the story full of quotes. Try not to actually write anything yourself except vacuous little linking sentences.
Don’t quote any statistics or attempt any analysis. I could say not to ask tough questions, but when you’re really on unfamiliar territory, you probably won’t know a tough question from a Dorothy Dixer anyway.
David O’Shea’s Power Play story on Dateline about the renewable industry in Germany almost obeyed all the rules. There was precious little that could be confused with content or pass for analysis. But everybody makes mistakes and unfortunately for David, a checkable number crept into the story. Damn.
Happily it was in a quote from somebody else. Ironically for a green miracle eco-story, this is the bread and butter technique for climate change sceptic journalism. It hardly matters what you write if you can quote somebody else saying it. Quote Ian Plimer, quote Tony Abbott. With a quote, you can bend and twist the journalistic goal of truth into a mobius strip.
Unfortunately for O’Shea, German Green politician Jurgen Trittin’s claim that renewables save 126 million tonnes of CO2 each year is fairly easily checked.
Germany’s greenhouse gas emission inventories are lodged with the UNFCCC and are publicly available. In 2000, Germany’s public electricity and heat production produced 315 million tonnes of CO2 and its residential sector (mainly heating oil) produced another 117 million tonnes. That’s 432 million tonnes in total for the two sectors of the inventory where you’d expect to find the savings.
In 2010, the latest available, the public electricity and heat production was 315 million tonnes of CO2 with residential emissions of 101 million tonnes for a total of 416 million tonnes. This is a savings of 16 million tonnes in the residential area.
Germany’s population has declined by about a million people in that decade, so you’d expect some kind of emissions fall. But there hasn’t been anything like 126 million tonnes worth of fall. Maybe the good politician didn’t mean by savings an actual reduction in emissions, but perhaps just a virtual savings in the emissions that would have been generated if not for his heroic efforts.
A problem that is seldom appreciated by people who think our greenhouse problem is all about panels on rooves is that well over half of most countries emissions don’t come from electricity and housing at all.
They come from fuel use, agriculture and industrial processes and a raft of small categories that accumulate. We don’t just need to generate current levels of emission free electricity, but far, far more to electrify other sectors. Transport is the obvious example.
So Germany’s total greenhouse emissions are far more than the sectors we have been talking about. In 2000 they totalled 1,012 million tonnes of CO2-eq (which includes methane and other gases) and fell during the decade to 953 million tonnes, a fall of 59 million tonnes with 15 of those coming from better waste management, 12 from savings in agriculture and industry.
Piggery methane got a mention in the O’Shea story, but typically, no attempt was made to quantify just how much energy the collection of methane from the brutalisation of pigs in factory farms contributed to Germany’s clean energy miracle.
The methane emissions have been reduced by about 2,000 tonnes thanks to improved waste management in factory farms, isn’t it wonderful how useful pig shit can be! If O’Shea had been paying attention, he’d have realised that Germany had 20 million cattle in 2000 and only 12 million now.
This has reduced the methane in their inventory by 305,000 tonnes. While there has been a large fall in beef consumption, some of the emissions have just been outsourced and Germany now imports 333,000 tonnes of beef. That’s the thing with many so-called Greens, they crow about the tiny things and ignore the big ones.
In summary, there isn’t anywhere in the data for 126 million tonnes of CO2 savings to hide. They may be virtual savings under some tricky definition, but virtual savings won’t stop the melting of the Greenland ice sheet because the Greenland ice sheet doesn’t care about tricky definitions.
Let me end with a quote from the heroine of O’Shea’s story: Ursular Sladek, who has both written a book and met Barack Obama.
“You have to save 85 per cent greenhouse gases until the year 2050 in Germany. 85 per cent. This is enormous.”
Yes, Ursula, it is enormous and the savings have to be actual and not virtual and putting panels on rooves and catching pig shit gas just doesn’t cut it. If you persist with your nuclear reactor closures, your paltry savings from panels and pig shit will quickly vanish.
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