Fearing government whitewash, scientists leak draft IPCC report urging bold emission cuts

"There is no point for us to just observe what a disaster is unfolding if nobody is doing anything about it."

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SOURCECommon Dreams

Concerned that aspects of its conclusions will be diluted by policymakers, a group of scientists has leaked a draft of a forthcoming IPCC report, which argues that to avert further climate chaos, global carbon emissions must peak by 2025 and all fossil fuel plants worldwide must be shuttered by the end of the decade.

“There is no point for us to just observe what a disaster is unfolding if nobody is doing anything about it.”
—Sonia Seneviratne, ETH Zurich

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change officially released the first part of its tripartite “Sixth Assessment Report” on Monday. That document, the only section of the comprehensive review to be published ahead of the United Nations’ upcoming COP 26 meeting in Glasgow, focuses on the physical science of the climate crisis and warns that unabated emissions will result in more frequent and intense extreme weather disasters.

The second and third parts of the landmark report, covering impacts and mitigation, are slated for publication in February and March of next year, respectively. However, The Guardian reported Friday that a group of IPCC scientists who wanted to share their unadulterated findings as quickly as possible recently leaked a draft of part three via the Spanish branch of Scientist Rebellion, an outgrowth of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion.

Journalists Juan Bordera and Fernando Prieto, who first reported on the leaked draft in CTXT, a Spanish news outlet, argued that while the authors don’t specifically mention capitalism, the report shows that the pursuit of capital accumulation for accumulation’s sake “has brought us to the current critical point.”

Avoiding the most catastrophic consequences of the climate emergency, Bordera and Prieto wrote, requires fundamentally transforming the global economy, including a rapid shift away from the carbon-intensive goal of endless GDP growth.

Economic inequality and carbon inequality go hand-in-hand, with rich people in every country bearing greater responsibility for planet-heating emissions than the poor. Oxfam has found that the world’s wealthiest 1% emit more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50% of humanity, and the leaked IPCC draft also highlights how affluent households are generating an outsized share of greenhouse gas pollution through disproportionate levels of SUV use, meat eating, and air travel.

“The consumption patterns of higher income consumers are associated with large carbon footprints,” a summary of the leaked report states, according to The Guardian. “Top emitters dominate emissions in key sectors, for example the top 1% account for 50% of emissions from aviation.”

The report finds that “the top 10% of emitters globally, who are the wealthiest 10%, contribute between 36% and 45% of emissions, which is 10 times as much as the poorest 10%, who are responsible for only about 3% to 5%,” The Guardian reported.

IPCC researchers say that wealthy people must adopt lifestyle changes to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, the newspaper noted:

The report underlines the lifestyle changes that will be necessary, particularly in rich countries and among the wealthy globally. Refraining from over-heating or over-cooling homes, walking and cycling, cutting air travel, and using energy-consuming appliances less can all contribute significantly to the reductions in emissions needed, the report finds.

Eating patterns in many parts of the rich world will also need to change. “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 emissions, while also providing health benefits… Plant-based diets can reduce emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emission intensive western diet,” the report says.

While the report makes clear that wealthy people must reduce emissions to save lives, it also advocates for meeting the needs of the world’s 800 million people who lack access to electricity. “It is not incompatible to struggle against energy poverty and climate change” simultaneously, the report says, according to CTXT. Because the rich are responsible for much greater amounts of greenhouse gas pollution than the poor, changing the behavior of the top 10% is more consequential, while “increasing the consumption of the poorest to basic subsistence levels would not increase emissions much.”

CTXT reported that the leaked IPCC draft says global carbon emissions must reach their highest point by 2025. To meet the Paris agreement’s more ambitious target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels by the end of the 21st century, the report states that net-zero emissions would have to be achieved “between 2050 and 2075,” and reiterates that to stay on track, greenhouse gas pollution must be cut in half by 2030.

Echoing the recent recommendations made by the International Energy Agency, the IPCC draft report says that to prevent widespread social and ecological devastation, existing coal- and gas-powered power plants should be shut down within the next nine to 12 years, and no new fossil fuel infrastructure constructed.

The Guardian reported that policies needed to bring about a low-carbon global economy have so far been woefully inadequate. “About $546 billion went towards cutting greenhouse gases and building resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis in 2018,” the newspaper noted, but “current investment falls below what is needed ‘by a factor of five,’ even to hold warming to the higher limit of 2°C, according to the report.”

Citing Bordera, The Guardian reported that “the leak reflected the concern of some of those involved in drawing up the document that their conclusions could be watered down before publication in 2022.” The newspaper noted that “governments have the right to make changes to the ‘summary for policymakers.'”

In recent days, a growing number of climate scientists have expressed discontent and alarm as their warnings about the need for far-reaching political-economic reforms to stave off civilizational collapse go unheeded. Scientist Rebellion, the group behind the IPCC draft leak, tweeted that “life on Earth is endangered,” and “[nonviolent direct action] is the most efficient way to bring across system change.”

To acknowledge the first point but disregard the second is to “act inconsistently,” the group said. “We’ll have blood on our hands if we remain passive.”

Sonia Seneviratne, a professor of Environmental Systems Science at ETC Zurich, has contributed to three of the six assessment reports published since 1990 by the IPCC. She just finished volunteering hundreds of hours of her time as a lead author for a chapter on extreme weather in the physical science report released Monday.

One day after that document—which implored policymakers to slash methane emissions—received a significant but short-lived amount of coverage by the corporate media, U.S. senators, including seven Democrats, signaled their support for preemptively outlawing a ban on hydraulic fracturing, even though fracked gas is a major source of methane pollution.

The next day, President Joe Biden’s administration—which has approved more than 2,000 new permits for drilling and fracking on federal land—used its considerable geopolitical clout not to push for swifter decarbonization but to encourage OPEC to boost oil production.

Seneviratne said earlier this week that such examples of climate denial from powerful elected officials have made her second-guess the utility of devoting so much time to these reports, and she is considering not doing so in the future.

“Yes, there is some level of frustration,” she told CBC News on Wednesday. “There is no point for us to just observe what a disaster is unfolding if nobody is doing anything about it.”

“If there is no real action happening as a follow up to [the latest] report, you can question whether this is effective,” she said. “There is a need for monitoring and looking at what is happening. It’s actually the policymakers that are asking scientists to make those reports; I would say the scientists have done their job and now policymakers have to do their own job.”

In an email to CBC News, Baylor Fox-Kemper, professor of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Brown University and IPCC report co-author, said that he is “with Dr. Seneviratne that the response to our reports has been less than I hoped.”

He added that “while we may be underwhelmed by the response, if we stop it is surely likely to diminish action.”

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