STEVEN CRANSTON AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2973

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. On 9 September 2020 Stuff published an article headlined Climate Explained: Methane is short-lived in the atmosphere but leaves long-term damage. The story was written by Zebedee Nicholls, who was described as affiliated with The University of Melbourne’s Climate and Energy College, and Tim Baxter, of Australia’s Climate Council. It was a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre, part of a series designed to answer readers’ questions about climate change.

2. The story looked at the effect of methane on climate change and posed the question: if methane is a shorter-lived greenhouse gas, why do scientists average out its effects over 100 years? It said there were several ways to compare gases. The most common way was by assessing the global warming potential (GWP) of the gas over time. This allowed the climate heating effect of different gases to be compared.

3. Carbon dioxide was relatively stable, but “methane is a live-fast, die-young greenhouse gas”, trapping very large quantities of heat in the first decade but then breaking down and producing carbon dioxide which continues to heat the climate for hundreds or thousands of years.

4. Emitting methane will always be worse than emitting the same quantity of carbon dioxide, no matter the time scale,” the story said. How much worse depended on the time period used to average out its effects. The most commonly used period was 100 years, but this was not the only choice. A 2013 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said methane heated the climate by 28 times more than carbon dioxide when averaged over 100 years and 84 times when averaged over 20 years.

5. Other reports suggested methane was between 34 and 40 per cent worse than carbon dioxide.

6. The choice to consider its impact over 20, 100 or 500 years was ultimately political, the story said, but undervaluing the impact of methane was a clear risk for policymakers.

7. The story concluded by discussing the idea of a tipping point beyond which climate change was irreversible. “Shuffling between metrics” couldn’t avoid the fact that the best chance of avoiding climate harm was to massively reduce reliance on coal, oil and gas as well as reducing other greenhouse gas emissions.

The Complaint

8. Steven Cranston, an agricultural and environmental consultant, complained the story breached Principle 1: Accuracy, fairness and balance, and Principle 6: Headlines and captions.

9. He said he had contacted Stuff, who had passed the complaint to the authors, who had not responded or corrected the article.

10. Under Principle 1, Mr Cranston complained that the article was misleading and gave readers a false impression of how the metrics worked. Readers would conclude that methane was 28 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. However this was only true when comparing single pulse emissions, ie one ton of methane and one ton of carbon dioxide. Agriculture emitted a steady flow of methane over time, something GWP100 or GWP200 was not designed to calculate. A flow methane emitter like a farm could continue to emit methane over time with zero effect on climate. This steady state reflected New Zealand agriculture, so it could not be claimed that New Zealand agriculture’s methane emissions added to climate change.

11. Mr Cranston particularly objected to the statement: “Emitting methane will always be worse than emitting the same quantity of carbon dioxide no matter the time scale.” Counting only the methane emitted and not including atmospheric degradation was akin to only counting the carbon dioxide emitted from a carbon neutral trucking company planting trees to offset their emissions, he said.

12. The heading Methane is short-lived in the atmosphere but leaves long-term damage was misleading because there was no long-term damage of stabilised flow methane emissions. The climate remains at the same temperature, exactly the same as for a carbon neutral emitter.

13. Mr Cranston added that the failure to distinguish between flow and pulse accounting was commonplace in the media and was doing harm to the agricultural industry and farmer morale.

14. Mr Cranston attached a briefing from the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, entitledClimate metrics for ruminant livestock, which said the conventional GWP could be misleading when applied to methane and a revised usage of GWP, called GWP*, provided a more accurate indication of the impact of short-lived pollutants on global temperature. The paper also said constant methane emissions caused little additional warming, whereas every tonne of carbon dioxide caused about the same amount of warming wherever it occurred. Gradually declining methane emissions of 10 per cent over 30 years cause no additional warming, faster reductions in methane emissions lead to cooling and increasing methane emissions cause very substantial warming, while those increases are occurring.

The Response

15. Stuff responded to the complaint with a response prepared by Stuff’s climate change editor Eloise Gibson and The Conversation editor Veronika Meduna.

16. The article used a Q&A format to answer readers' questions. Any academic registering as an author with The Conversation had to be actively involved in relevant academic research, provide links to background research and evidence to back up their statements.

17. Mr Cranston first emailed with a question about methane on 9 September, without referencing any particular story, but after several emails he clarified that he was complaining about the 9 September story. Stuff passed the complaint to The Conversation and Veronika Meduna replied informing him she would ask the authors for a response. The information the authors provided was included in their response to the Media Council complaint.

18. The piece was a scientifically accurate explanation of the metrics used to compare methane and carbon dioxide. It was a fair, balanced and accurate explanation of how the common system of comparing gases worked, based on figures and measurements commonly used by scientists, as well as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the NZ Government. The most commonly used metric used for reporting New Zealand’s emissions was GWP100, but the article acknowledged there were others.

19. The article also said that the increase in global temperatures was predominantly because of carbon dioxide emissions. The metric chosen was a political choice, but whatever metric was used did not fundamentally alter the fact that methane had a stronger impact on climate, per tonne, than carbon dioxide.

20. The complainant said that if methane emissions were stable, methane would not contribute to further warning, but the authors’ view was that any new emissions come on top of an already significantly raised overall concentration in the atmosphere and would therefore sustain the warming that has already occurred.

21. Stuff and The Conversation had also reported widely and fairly on issues around methane and farming’s contribution to warming. Taken together with previous coverage, the Q&A added to readers’ knowledge of the subject in a fair, balanced and accurate way.

Further correspondence

22. Mr Cranston thanked Stuff and The Conversation for their detailed response but said they had not specifically addressed his major concern, that the GWP100 metric was not suitable for describing agriculture’s effect and the only metric designed to measure the effect of a steady flow of methane was GWP*. To write about agriculture and metrics and not include the only metric designed to measure actual year on year warming from agriculture was a major omission and undermined any claim of being fair and balanced. GWP* was also the only metric that described farming emissions in a more favourable light.

23. On a topic so critical to farming, the media had a responsibility to provide fair and balanced coverage. He suggested that any article discussing methane and linking this to ongoing climate change should also state that New Zealand agriculture had stabilised methane emissions and the current science suggested this would not increase global temperatures (assuming a .3 per cent per year reduction is maintained). Mr Cranston also offered to write an article explaining why New Zealand farming had almost no (if any) effect on climate.

24. “I genuinely hope the editors can see what a significant issue this is for the rural community and will be open to providing more context in future.”

25. Stuff replied that Mr Cranston had broadened the complaint and said a Media Council ruling on the topic may prove useful for future, inevitable complaints.

26. Stuff also stated that although Mr Cranston might prefer GWP*, it was not the most common standard, GWP100 was. The arguments for and against GWP* had been covered in another story and the suggestion that all stories should include some kind of disclaimer about GWP* was inappropriate.

27. Even using the complainant’s preferred metric did not automatically lead to the conclusion that methane from farming was not heating the climate. Ongoing methane emissions would keep the climate hotter than it would be without methane. It was a matter of policy and judgement and it was a complex matter that scientists disagreed about, so the subject couldn’t be canvassed every time methane and agriculture was discussed.

The Decision

28. In the light of the information provided by the complainant and Stuff, and in articles linked to by both parties, it is evident that this is a hotly debated and still developing matter in the world of climate science, with respected scientists on both sides of the fence. The Council is in no position to pass judgement on which side of the debate is correct.

29. While the answer provided in the article was the view of the scientists who wrote it and could not be said to be incorrect, it seemed a little oversimplified, given that it was specifically about a matter that’s contentious and very important to New Zealand’s farming industry. However the Council acknowledged the difficulty the media face in presenting complex scientific issues to the public.

30. The article said there are other possible metrics and uncertainty remains, but given that the authors must have been aware of the controversy surrounding this question, it would have been useful to include a paragraph or two that explained more about the debate about how methane should be measured and the impact of continuous release of methane as in the farming context.

31. Principle 1 states: “In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.” The Conversation and Stuff argue that they have reported widely and fairly on issues around methane and farming’s contribution to warming and that this story should be considered together with previous coverage. The Council notes that Stuff has dealt with this controversy in an in-depth November 2018 storyWhat’s the beef with methane, which said that GWP100 doesn’t tell you much about what methane did to temperatures and researchers were developing alternative metrics to do this better. The Conversation has also published an articleWhy methane should be treated differently compared to long-lived greenhouses gases.

32. Although the Council had some concerns about the oversimplified nature of the article and its failure to acknowledge the controversy surrounding the matter, the Q&A format presented the authors’ views and, in a matter of disputed science such as this the Media Council could not determine that there were any factual inaccuracies. Stuff and the Conversation have also covered other perspectives on this debate in other stories, which helps provide balance, as set out in principle 1. Therefore the complaint is not upheld. However the Media Council notes that it’s important that media outlets continue to cover all sides of an issue like this, report that not everyone agrees when there is ongoing debate and remain open-minded about developments in climate science as they evolve.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Liz Brown (Chair),
Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson,
Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.