Unearthed today: The IPCC’s mitigation report, summarised

"Now we see that really it's not about information deficit, it's about power relations, and people wanting to keep economic and political power. And so just telling people some more climate science isn't going to help anything."

Photo: Hamish Blair, Getty Images

Yesterday marked the release of the latest huge and hugely significant IPCC report by the world’s leading scientists (The Guardian) on what can be done to prevent climate change, and – as is traditional on such days – I didn’t send you a word. It can be useful to wait until the best summaries are published!
So here is a round-up. Carbon Brief has their usual detailed analysis. It may seem long, but the sub-heads are brilliant. If you’re looking for something a little shorter, National Geographic, The New York Times and The BBC all have good 4-5 things you need to know pieces that focus on, amongst other things: ​​​​​

  • The situation is now very urgent, and current promises are nowhere near sufficient to stop the worst impacts of climate change, even if they were to be implemented, which they are not.
  • Clean energy, and specifically variable renewables, are becoming very cheap, but we’re still not investing in them at anything like the scale needed.
  • Deep and rapid cuts to methane are crucial, with cuts needed in emissions from oil and gas extraction as well as agriculture.
  • There need to be immediate and deep cuts in fossil fuel use and – in particular – coal for power. See the Guardian for this one in-depth.

Beyond these key issues there are a couple of things about the report worth noting. First up the summary for policymakers reportedly downplays the role of fossil fuels in blocking climate action and, to a degree, to up-sells the role of carbon capture.

“It’s like Star Wars without Darth Vader,” environmental sociologist Robert Brulle, of Brown University tells The Guardian’s Amy Westervelt. “The scientists clearly did their job and provided ample material on climate obstruction activities in the report,” he says. “The political process of creating the Summary for Policymakers ended up editing all of this information out.” Amy goes on to note the role of scientists linked to fossil fuel firms in the review process, also noting that this has been long known.

​​​​​​Climate Home goes further, citing sources who say Saudi Arabia “watered down” the report’s summary by pushing for the use of unproven technologies that would allow the continued extraction of oil and gas. In neither is there any allegation that the main body of the report – that’s what Carbon Brief use above for example – is compromised. More that the editing of what does or doesn’t go into the summary from the report is partially politicised.

This political lobbying is something we reported on before the COP, citing the role not just of Saudi Arabia but also Australia, the rest of OPEC and – when it comes to agriculture – Argentina and Brazil. The story revealed the role these nations are often playing in trying to confuse and water down the messages and substance of climate action, across the board.

As the IPCC report makes clear, we do not really lack deliverable solutions to climate change, we lack delivery of those solutions. And for all the controversy – which again is not new – over the summary the IPCC report did for the first time start address at length the issues of power and justice which lie at heart of the issue, bringing social and political scientists into the mix along with their physical colleagues.

Whilst the report did lay out a crucial role in almost all it’s scenarios for the fossil industry’s favourite tool of carbon removal, in particular through land-use change and BECCS (where plants are grown, burned for energy and the carbon stored), it did so in the context of “difficult-to-abate” emissions from sectors that will find it harder to slash their climate impact, such as aviation, agriculture and some industrial processes. It ​​​​​​ also noted increasing concerns about how those methods are deployed – including on both biodiversity and local livelihoods – and so includes more pathways which use these tools less.

Report authors noted that carbon removal is often “inflated” in scenarios to cut emissions because of insufficient focus on cheaper renewables and on-demand. And that’s – again – where the social and political sciences come in. The BBC notes that relatively low-cost, though still politically led, changes such as low carbon diets, cutting food waste, changing how we build our cities, and how we shift people to more carbon friendly transport options could cut emissions by 40-70% by 2050.

At the same, as Amy and others observe, the report is the first to really platform the direct link between action on climate change and social justice. Not only does it note that 10% of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute up to 45% of consumption-based household greenhouse gas emissions it also talks about tackling climate change in terms of development and notes the importance of funding changes in a socially just way.

“The ways to meet the challenges of the climate crisis – moving to low-carbon energy, looking after the environment, shifting transport – tend to also improve energy security, justice, social concerns, there are a lot of win-wins and co-benefits,” Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at Exeter University tells The Guardian.

“Many governments are struggling with the question whether people would support changes. This report shows that public acceptability is higher when cost and benefits are distributed in a fair way,” tells The Guardian.

My favourite quote of the day? “Back in the 80s, we believed in the information deficit model of social change” says atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira. “And now we see that really it’s not about information deficit, it’s about power relations, and people wanting to keep economic and political power. And so just telling people some more climate science isn’t going to help anything.”

Also in the news:

Oil firms make record war-time profits: Exxon is set to reach a 7-year profit record, Reuters reports. It comes as the FT notes that UK oil giant Shell paid no tax on its oil and gas production in the UK’s North Sea again last year even as a global energy crunch pushed prices for the fuels to record levels. Remarkably tax refunds related to the decommissioning of old oil platforms meant that rather than paying tax on its upstream operations. Many have argued that we can’t tax oil and gas firms because we need them to invest the money in renewables and new oil and gas supply. Yet in the US a new report found that oil firms have instead significantly increased stock buy-back and dividends to shareholders. So that’s working out brilliantly then.

UK set to back fracking, nuclear less so efficiency, onshore wind: The UK’s energy strategy is due out very shortly and we’re getting lots of teases. The Times reports that fracking is back on the cards alongside nuclear – though with a question mark over how it’s funded. Onshore wind, however, isn’t looking like it’s going to get any support – The Guardian notes – whilst The Telegraph reports that the Treasury has vetoed a relatively small scheme to support energy efficiency for households in order to keep open the option of a pre-election tax cut next year.