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Fossil Countries Lobby to Soften IPCC Report on Urgency of Emission Cuts

Fossil producers Australia, Saudi Arabia, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and beef producers Brazil and Argentina are lobbying hard to water down an upcoming United Nations science report on the pathways for limiting global warming, according to a trove of internal documents released this week by Unearthed, the investigative journalism arm of Greenpeace International.

The revelations “come from a leak of tens of thousands of comments by governments, corporations, academics, and others on the draft report of the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]’s Working Group III—an international team of experts that is assessing humanity’s remaining options for curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or removing them from the atmosphere,” Unearthed reports.

The documents show how some of the world’s biggest oil, gas, and coal countries “are lobbying the IPCC—the world’s leading authority on climate change—to remove or weaken a key conclusion that the world needs to rapidly phase out fossil fuels.”

“Phrases like ‘the need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales…’ should be eliminated from the report,” wrote an advisor to the Saudi oil ministry.

“Coal is likely to remain the mainstay of energy production in the next few decades for sustainable economic growth in the country,” said a senior scientist in India’s Central Institute of Mining and Fuel Research.

In another review comment, “a senior Australian government official rejected the largely uncontroversial conclusion that one of the most important steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was to phase out coal-fired power stations,” the news story adds.

Brazil and Argentina, meanwhile, “have been pressing to delete messages about the climate benefits of promoting ‘plant-based’ diets and of curbing meat and dairy consumption.”

Working Group III isn’t scheduled to issue its report until next year. But an early draft of its executive summary, leaked to media in August, warned that humanity has just four years to peak and start drawing down global greenhouse gas emissions to avoid climate breakdown.

Segments of IPCC reports are often leaked while they’re still in production, and IPCC officials routinely caution that language is open to change up the hours or minutes before a final report is released.

The majority of the thousands of reviewers’ comments analysed by a two-member news team “were constructive comments aimed at improving the text,” Unearthed says, and “IPCC authors can and do reject suggested changes to their drafts if the comments are not supported by the scientific literature. However, the leak of these comments offers a unique insight into the positions being adopted by some nations away from the public eye.”

The documents “show the tactics some countries are willing to adopt to obstruct and delay action to cut emissions,” said Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London. “Like most scientists I’m uncomfortable with leaks of draft reports, as in an ideal world the scientists writing these reports should be able to do their job in peace. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and with emissions still increasing, the stakes couldn’t be higher.”

An IPCC spokesperson cited the agency’s “diverse and balanced author teams, a review process open to all, and decision-making on texts by consensus” as processes “designed to guard against lobbying—from all quarters”. 

But the leaked comments from governments, businesses, civil society, and academics “reveal how a small number of major fossil fuel producing and consuming nations reject the need for a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels,” Unearthed says. “Instead, this group argues, the IPCC must remain ‘technology neutral’ and acknowledge the role that ‘carbon capture’ technology could theoretically play in reducing the climate impact of fossil fuels.”

The investigative story goes long on the gaps in that argument, citing Canada’s Boundary Dam carbon capture plant as an example of a project that has failed to meet targets or expectations.

“Australia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and Japan all make variations of this argument [for technology ‘neutrality’], despite the fact that, according to the Global CCS Institute, there is currently only one power station in operation in the world that successfully captures some of its carbon emissions,” Unearthed says.

“CCS/CCUS is a critical technology, but there has never been any credible suggestion that it could deal with the bulk of fossil fuel related emissions as they stand today,” said Chatham House Senior Research Fellow Siân Bradley. Delivering on the targets in the Paris climate agreement “requires the transformation of global energy and industrial systems, which means phasing out the vast majority of fossil fuel use and rapidly scaling CCS in ‘hard to abate’ sectors.”

While the Unearthed exposé makes no mention of Canadian fossil industry lobbying, tar sands/oil sands operators have been suggesting they can make CCS work by mid-century, if only they can line up C$75 billion for research and development. In August, Cenovus Energy CEO Alex Pourbaix said 75% of that should come from taxpayer subsidies. Days later, Energy Mix readers came back with better ideas on how much decarbonization a $50-billion investment could buy.

Unearthed has more on Saudi Arabia lobbying for what it calls a “circular carbon economy”, OPEC’s call to remove any reference to a fossil fuel phaseout from the Working Group III report, and Australia’s defence of coal exports. It also recounts “an escalating dispute over the role of animal agriculture in driving climate change,” with Brazil, Argentina, and the agribusiness lobby pressing the IPCC to “remove or water down messages in the report about the need to curb meat and dairy consumption to tackle global warming.”

While Unearthed’s revelations are shocking, they’re far from unprecedented. As the IPCC prepared to release its landmark report on pathways to a 1.5°C limit on average global warming in October 2018, Saudi Arabia led an intense, but ultimately unsuccessful effort to dilute the report’s impact. The IPCC’s scientific findings survived to become one of the catalysts for mounting global pressure for climate action.

“This process really drove home the fact that science can’t be negotiated,” said Catherine Abreu, then-executive director of Climate Action Network-Canada, who served as head of delegation for the 30 or so civil society representatives who helped push the 1.5°C report across the finish line.

“Of course, we see that political agendas find their ways into most places,” Abreu told The Energy Mix at the time. “But the scientists, the authors of the special report, showed up so strongly in this meeting, and the co-chairs of the three working groups under which the authors organized their efforts actually chaired the meeting for the first time. We saw political agendas emerge throughout the week, and there were moments of frustration, for sure. But in the end, the science prevailed, and that’s a really inspiring part of this story.”