Science overruled

How vested interests rewrote the IPCC’s latest report

Corporations and politicians edited the Policy Summary to omit the scientists’ most powerful conclusions


by Juan Bordera
Antonio Turiel (Spanish National Research Council)
Fernando Valladares (Spanish National Research Council)
Marta García Pallarés
Javier de la Casa (Ecological and Forestry Applications Center)
Fernando Prieto (Sustainability Observatory)
Ferran Puig Vilar (engineer and climate expert)

Originally published in CTXT – Contexto y Acción, translation published by  MR Online.

The Summary for Policymakers for the April 2022 Working Group III Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the third part of the IPCC’s 2021-2022 Sixth Assessment Report addressing Mitigation , is according to UN Secretary General António Guterres, “a litany of broken climate promises.… Simply put, they [the vested interests] are lying,” denying the science, present in the report as a whole but excluded or downplayed in the Summary for Policymakers.

“Climate activists,” Guterres explains, are sometimes portrayed as dangerous radicals, but the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing fossil fuel production” (malaysia.un.org). These statements–which could belong to any social movement spokesperson–are just some of the strongest statements that the present UN Secretary-General has made in the wake of the official release of the Work Group 3 report, the world’s most crucial climate report hitherto and likely into the future.

The IPCC scientist in Working Group III in charge of proposing a concrete mitigation plan, that is, to reduce emissions and seek viable solutions (technological, economic, and social) to the biggest crisis ever faced by humankind. The science has never been clearer: we must drastically reduce emissions to have a chance of maintaining the climate stability that allows us to live on this planet.

But the Summary for Policymakers and Managers (the SPM), which will be the only thing the vast majority of policymakers and business leaders will read of the report’s 2,900+ pages, does not measure up to the science behind it, nor to the challenge of climate change, the ecological crisis, and the energy transition. The Summary for Policymakers in the IPCC Working Group III document is the only thing that is not strictly scientific. The protocol established by the United Nations allows countries, often pressured by their business lobbies, to make changes and negotiate line by line on the content of The Summary for Policymakers. This is undoubtedly the part of the report that most reveals the duplicity of souls, the lights and shadows, the true character — extremely bipolar — of the IPCC drafting process.

After the last phase of revision of the report, which took several days longer than expected – with its publication was even delayed due to the struggle to modify the Summary for Policymakers—one thing is crystal clear: the mark-up of the Summary of the report by lobbies and governments during the process – also documented by the BBC – is unfortunately and unquestionably real, and the rebellion of a part of the scientific community against this situation is not only more than justified, but, given the inaction, it is essential to try to remedy the situation.

A few months ago, thanks to a collective of scientists (Scientist Rebellion), we managed to publish the leak of the first draft of this group III, and the global impact was immediate. The Guardian, Der Spiegel, CNBC, Yale University, Monthly Review… dozens of media from more than 35 countries echoed the red warning message documented by the leaked draft of the IPCC.

To headline their articles, journalists usually chose between two of the pearls included in the first draft, which only the hands of scientists had touched. One of them, that emissions should peak in 2025 and fall rapidly, remains intact in the final version of this Summary for Policymakers. The other big headline, that all existing gas and coal plants should be shut down in about a decade, has completely disappeared from the summary.

But it is not the only thing that has changed. When comparing the two versions, the surprises are enormous. We have found a multitude of examples of changes that further soften a report that, if there is one thing it is guilty of from the outset, it is great moderation. And above all, if anything, the world has changed, since the report was written. The works analyzed in the compendium have a deadline: October 2021. Since then, we have experienced the first serious shocks of an energy and supply chain crisis that has been brewing for years. A war has begun that has changed politics and economics perhaps forever, and more and more voices are warning that we are on the verge of a major food crisis. When everything accelerates, the validity of the analysis becomes even more ephemeral.

This is probably the last major work of the IPCC that comes in time to guide our societies to maneuver and avoid collapse. Some believe that the direction set out in the report is clear, but reading The Summary for Policymakers, the sense it conveys is more of a civilization that is teetering unsteadily as it lurches forward; a civilization that is sustained by dwindling oil, which has to be phased out, and a glacier that is melting faster and faster. Both climate and energy stability depend on our ability to accept this situation.

In the process, between the version of the Summary leaked in August and the one finally published, the most notable changes are the following:

  • No mention of the closure of gas and coal plants within a decade. Fossil industry lobbies have managed to tone down the overall narrative of the summary directed against their industry. It is known that the delay in the publication of the report was mainly for this reason. Interested countries–notably Saudi Arabia–lobbied to remove this recommendation.
  • The tone is lowered regarding the responsibility of the wealthiest 10%. The leaked summary noted that they pollute ten times more than the poorest 10%.
  • Many references to direct emissions from aviation, the car industry and meat consumption have disappeared. In fact, the word “meat” disappears from the final published version of the Summary. These emissions are reflected in the newly published report in association with other emissions from the sector, and their importance is therefore diluted.
  • The first draft warned of “vested interests” as one of the factors hindering progress on the energy transition. That mention, which appears in the report, has been dropped from the Summary, a victim of precisely those same vested interests that pressure governments. Who says there is no poetry in scientific reports?
  • One of the sentences that most confronted the report’s absolutely predominant techno-optimism is removed: “the cost, performance and adoption of many individual technologies has progressed, but overall deployment and implementation rates of technological change are currently insufficient to meet climate goals”; a statement that clashed squarely with the logic of voluntary carbon markets and big business.
  • On the Carbon Capture and Sequestration mechanism: Saudi Arabia, again, along with other countries such as the UK, has fought to strengthen this controversial point that allows them to continue business as usual, demonstrating utter frivolity. The prevailing techno-optimism believes that a yet-to-be-developed technology will magically come to the rescue and even allow “continued use of fossil fuels”. Much material on these technologies has been introduced to justify the idea of net-zero emissions that has little or no scientific basis yet underpins the report’s central thesis.
  • Any faint mention of the problems with the materials needed for the energy transition, which are indispensable for developing renewable energy, batteries or electric cars, is missing from the summary. This was present in the first draft.
  • Also gone is the mention of participatory democracy as one of the main tools to unblock and accelerate a transition for which there is hardly any time left.
  • The point that “ambitious mitigation and development goals cannot be achieved through incremental changes” has disappeared altogether. The mark-up is applied to the references that seek to emphasize that individual and incremental changes are not enough.

Fortunately, by analyzing the full report of scientists (aside from the Summary of Policy Makers) – since the report other than the Summary is not subject to redaction by powerful interests and thus represents the scientific view fairly free of pressure – we can find a path that leads us to nothing less than a revolution in our energy and socio-economic systems, giving a glimpse of the emerging commitment of part of the scientific community to degrowth. This is the only way left to us to tackle the multiple emergencies in which our societies are immersed.

The word “degrowth” is mentioned 28 times in the full report, compared to zero in the summary for politicians. The sentence referring to the unsustainable nature of capitalist society is also retained, demonstrating the report’s sleekness.

For the first time, the IPCC echoes what civil society has been warning about for years and warns, in chapters 14 and 15, of the obstacle that the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) and its investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism pose for the development of climate change mitigation policies. Having gone unnoticed for three decades, today, this international agreement for the energy sector continues to protect investments in fossil fuels. It allows investors and multinationals–precisely those who have brought us to this crossroads – to sue states when they consider that they have legislated against their economic interests, present or future. The numbers speak for themselves: in Europe alone, the fossil infrastructure protected by the treaty amounts to 344.6 billion euros.

The question is, can we move away from fossil fuels without first moving away from ECT? And why has it not been included in the summary for politicians? At this point, it is no longer enough to include bold mentions in reports whose summaries are then watered down by lobbyists. It is not only natural for a part of the scientific community to rebel and take action: it is more than desirable. This is precisely what we need to provoke a debate we seem to avoid. This debate, the elephant in the room, is that we need to change the socio-economic model, and fast.

We need to act, take risks, and maybe, hopefully, inspire society to mobilize again. We need to abandon fossil fuels before they abandon us.

Leave a Comment

2 Comments

  • Perhaps the best thing the IPCC could do is disband the COP charade and admit that their pretense of actual power does more harm than good. As long as the world’s population remains under the illusion that science dictates policy, they will fail to see it is the Energy Charter Treaty and other world trade mechanisms, in tandem with markets, which dictate production goals.

    Why keep issuing report after report? For the sake of good theatre obviously. You don’t need 2,900 pages to explain M-C-M. “Summary for Policymakers” has gone from tragedy to farce.