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The Fraught Negotiations Behind the New IPCC Report

How Saudi Arabia, China, and the U.S. tried to weaken language in the climate report.

A hand tearing the IPCC report.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, IPCC

Governments lobbied to weaken language in the political summary of a landmark climate report published Monday, according to four people present at its approval session in Switzerland who spoke to Heatmap News on the condition of anonymity.

Amid jockeying over edits to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Saudi Arabia added caveats to protect fossil fuels and blocked language that stressed the limits of sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The U.S. tried to delete a sentence about climate finance gaps and cut the word “equitable” from a line about access to international finance. China tried to cut the report’s most powerful finding from the text — that the world has 12 years to cut carbon pollution by two-thirds — but settled for putting the numbers in a table instead.

“There were things we gave in, but there was some support from progressive governments,” said one scientist who was at the meeting. “In the end it was not terrible.”

The report published Monday ties together the last three installments of the sixth assessment report of the IPCC and is meant to offer recommendations to policymakers. Every few years, the UN-backed body asks the world’s top scientists to pore through thousands of studies and sum up the state of the peer-reviewed research on global warming.

Though the reports are rigorous scientific studies, their political summaries must be signed off by 195 governments in fiercely contested approval processes. Delegates go through the document line-by-line, proposing changes that reflect their national agendas. The report’s authors push back against suggestions that do not line up with the underlying science. In doing so, the language often becomes weaker.

“Every country plays this game in a certain way,” said one scientist who was at the meeting. “But they’re all trying to different extents.”

Delegates should have had an easier time reaching consensus on the most recent summary, which drew from earlier texts that governments had accepted. But negotiations were fraught and ran into overtime. The next big IPCC assessment will not happen until the end of the decade — by which point the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees Celsius will likely be gone — making this document the body’s last chance to help world leaders honor their climate promises.

The summary for policymakers came out of the approval process “not as it went in, but not significantly altered,” said Anna Pirani, head of the IPCC’s Working Group One Technical Support Unit. “It’s not a simple, trivial process, even though the material has all been approved before.”

A summary of the session by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, the only media allowed into the room, and confirmed by five people present, documents several instances of countries pushing to water down language. The Saudi Arabian negotiators were particularly skilled, three people at the meeting said, boasting a deep knowledge of the underlying report and using carefully crafted arguments.

In one example, Finland noted that fossil fuels were the root cause of climate change, but Saudi Arabia objected, and the line was not included in the final text. In a paragraph on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), several countries called for a line on its limits. Saudi Arabia said it would accept this only if the limits of renewable energy would also be included. The change was discarded from that paragraph, though the limits of CDR were raised later in the document.

In a sentence about the pollution from existing fossil fuel infrastructure — which is enough to blow through the remaining carbon budget — Saudi Arabia added a caveat to specify “without additional abatement.” The phrase refers to CCS: technology to capture carbon and store it before it reaches the atmosphere. Scientists expect CCS to play a big role in sectors that are hard to clean up, like cement-making, but see little role for it in generating electricity, where there are cheaper and more effective alternatives.

When Germany pushed to add a footnote on the limits of CCS at another point in the document, Saudi Arabia again agreed with a condition. It asked the authors to include a full paragraph from a previous report that was mostly neutral or favorable to the technology. The result was that the sentence on the limits of CCS was tucked away among several other sentences on its potential.

“If there’s any sport where you can shoot four own goals at once, that was the case here,” said one IPCC report author who was at the meeting.

Debates around how to pay for the world’s mitigation and adaptation efforts were also hotly contested. The U.S. tried to scrap a reference to “equity” in a line about access to capital and tried to delete a line about gaps between ambition and action in climate finance, according to the Earth Negotiation Bulletin summary. In both cases it failed. Still, it successfully pushed back on a suggestion from India, backed by China and Bolivia, to specify that a country’s ability to cut pollution depends on what other countries do with money, technology, and the remaining carbon budget.

In a separate paragraph, the U.S. also managed to caveat the fact that there is enough global capital to close the investment gaps, according to one scientist. It added that there are barriers to redirect capital to climate action.

“The U.S. was only blocking on finance — on other topics they were conceding,” the scientist said.

The approval process ran into overtime, forcing many delegates from poorer countries to leave. The IPCC Secretariat rebooked some flights, but by Sunday, according to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, there was nobody from Latin America or Africa left in the room.

That, two scientists said, led to a show of solidarity. Some countries fought against changes that affected peers who had left, and sacrificed their own interests to quickly push the process to the end. But it also weakened resistance to tougher negotiators who wouldn’t budge.

“Authors just wanted to get it behind them,” said one delegate from a European country. “In perhaps 50% of cases, they did not resist when adverse delegations tried to water down the text.”

The IPCC Secretariat keeps approval sessions secret to let delegates and scientists speak freely. By including governments in the approval process of the summaries for policymakers, but not letting them have control over the scientific report itself, it can tie policymakers to the science without compromising on facts.

“Governments come to the IPCC approval session with legitimate concerns — but also with vested interests,” said Lili Fuhr, deputy director of climate and energy at the Center for International Environmental Law, a non-profit legal organization with observer status at the approval session. “That is especially true for countries that have state-owned fossil fuel companies and representatives of those companies in their delegations to international climate meetings.”

Ajit Niranjan profile image

Ajit Niranjan

Ajit Niranjan is an award-winning climate and data journalist in Berlin, mainly working for German public broadcaster DW News. You can watch his videos here: Read More

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