Above Photo: Delegates celebrating the approval of the ‘Summary for the Policymakers.’ IISD / ENB / Anastasia Rodopoulou.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the “Summary for Policymakers” of the Synthesis of its Sixth Assessment Report on Monday, the text was not purely the work of scientists. Instead, delegates from 195 nations spent a week reviewing the document line-by-line and arguing over edits before finally approving it Sunday night.
The ins and outs of the process were revealed this week by the International Institute for Sustainable Development Earth Negotiations Bulletin, the only media outlet allowed to observe the proceedings. The account demonstrates how major emitters and fossil fuel producers including the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia succeeded in weakening the message of the highly influential document.
“[F]inland tried to say the root cause of climate change is fossil fuels, but [S]audi [A]rabia pushed back, and the line didn’t make it into the summary for policymakers,” climate journalist Ajit Niranjan wrote in a Twitter thread, in one example of how national lobbying altered the final document.
When the IPCC releases a report, it actually publishes several documents. For the latest Synthesis Report, which distills information from all of the previous reports in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Cycle, there is the long-form document, the Summary for Policymakers, and a list of headline statements and figures from the latter. A Summary for Policymakers is prepared for every published IPCC report.
“These summaries, unsurprisingly, inform a lot of policy. They also inform the media, investors, entrepreneurs, and academics around the world. In this way, IPCC reports are a sort of north star, the objective truth on all things climate,” journalist Michael Thomas explained in his newsletter Distilled.”But something important happens after scientists finish their research and before the public sees the final summary for policymakers: Non-scientist delegates from countries around the world get an opportunity to suggest changes.”
This year, more than 650 people from 135 countries and 121 observer organizations met in Interlaken, Switzerland, from March 13 to 19, according to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. In addition to Saudi Arabia’s pushback on fossil fuels as the root cause of the climate crisis, here are some other key changes made during these negotiations.
The 60 Percent Figure
One of the most striking conclusions of the latest IPCC report is that, in order for us to have a 50 percent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoiding ever more dramatic climate impacts, greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 60 percent by 2035 and carbon dioxide emissions must fall by 65 percent by that date. China opposed including this information in a written footnote, but did approve its inclusion in a table.
Carbon Removal and Capture
Additional lobbying surrounded the language on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) as climate solutions, Climate Home News reported. CDR sucks carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while CCS removes it from a polluting source directly. Saudi Arabia has historically lobbied for CCS, which Lili Fuhr of the Center for International Environmental Law told Climate Home was the “first line of defence” for those who want to keep using fossil fuels. In 2022, the petroleum-rich nation succeeded in gaining CCS more importance in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment report on the “Mitigation of Climate Change.” This time around, it lobbied against Germany’s recommendation that CCS be deemphasized in one paragraph and its limits pointed out.
“[A]ny additional context on CCS should include benefits,” the country argued.
Eventually, the reference to limits ended up in a footnote. A similar thing happened with CDR, though more countries backed emphasizing it, including China and Switzerland. The final document says it will be necessary for negative carbon dioxide emissions but also included a reference to limitations.
“Transitioning towards net zero CO2 emissions faster and reducing non-CO2 emissions such as methane more rapidly would limit peak warming levels and reduce the requirement for net negative CO2 emissions, thereby reducing feasibility and sustainability concerns, and social and environmental risks associated with CDR deployment at large scales,” the published draft reads.
In a paragraph on the capabilities of countries with different income levels to address climate change, India, Bolivia and China wanted to include a reference to technology transfers from rich to poor countries, but the U.S. opposed this suggestion. The U.S. and other developed countries have historically been wary of this language because of concerns over intellectual property, Bloomberg noted. In the end, the language did not end up in the summary.
Outside the bounds of the current negotiations, leaked documents revealed that references to reducing meat consumption in wealthy nations were once included in a draft of the “Mitigation of Climate Change” report, as Thomas reported.
“A shift to diets with a higher share of plant-based protein in regions with excess consumption of calories and animal-source food can lead to substantial reductions in GHG emissions… Plant-based diets can reduce GHG emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emission intensive Western diet,” the leaked report read.
However, delegates from Argentina and Brazil successfully opposed this language, according to an Unearthed investigation. The final language on food in the most recent summary reads: “Adaptation strategies which reduce food loss and waste or support balanced, sustainable healthy diets contribute to nutrition, health, biodiversity and other environmental benefits.”
As the most recent round of negotiations ran over, delegates from lower-income nations who contributed less but are more vulnerable to the climate crisis had to leave.
“The inclusive process is not happening,” one delegate said Saturday, as the Earth Negotiations Bulletin reported. “The ones struggling the most are the ones that are leaving…it is our lives that we are here fighting for!”
When the delegate from Brazil left Sunday, he noted that there would be no one from South America present anymore, and there was already no one from Africa still in the room.
“Many delegates lamented the lack of inclusivity that was created by the unscheduled extension of the meeting and underscored the need to proceed carefully with the review, bearing in mind that the countries that are being hit hardest by climate change no longer had a voice in the room,” the Bulletin read. “By the final day of negotiations, delegates reached an informal agreement to avoid changing text unless absolutely necessary, with many saying that adding or removing critical information would not be fair to those who were not present.”
This raises important questions about how the IPCC’s Seventh Assessment Cycle can be more inclusive, the Bulletin noted further.