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We need power to prescribe climate policy, IPCC scientists say

<span>Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Senior climate experts are calling for an overhaul of the structure and powers of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in despair at the slow pace of climate action.

Five lead authors of IPCC reports told the Guardian that scientists should be given the right to make policy prescriptions and, potentially, to oversee their implementation by the 195 states signed up to the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC).

Their call came after it emerged that the United Arab Emirates had been planning to use its position as Cop28 host to strike oil and gas deals .

Sonia Seneviratne, an IPCC vice-chair and coordinating lead author since 2012, said: “At some point we need to say that if you want to achieve this aim set by policymakers then certain policies need to be implemented.

“As climate change becomes worse and worse, it is becoming more difficult to be policy relevant without being prescriptive.”

Scientists should be able to call for fossil fuel cuts and phaseouts, she said. The discrepancy between IPCC science and action on the ground was “very difficult for us to understand as scientists because it doesn’t seem to make any sense”.

Gert-Jan Nabuurs, a coordinating lead author on three IPCC reports, said: “The IPCC’s critical, independent and guiding roles seem to be less and less evident. As they decline, countries seem to be exerting a larger and larger influence.”

The problem for authors was that “we can’t be policy prescriptive, so we can’t make hard statements on what should be done”, he said.

Nabuurs questioned the value of continuing to produce assessment reports when “we already know that in five to six years’ time the message is not going to be very different, the problem will still be there, emissions will still be going up, there will be more evidence of impacts and less time to try to stay under 2C [of heating above pre-industrial levels]”.

Greenhouse gas emissions are on track to rise by 9% by 2030, despite years of warnings from scientists that climate tipping points may be near. Emissions would need to fall by 43% by the decade’s end to meet the Paris climate agreement goal of capping global heating at 1.5C.

Julia Steinberger, a coordinating lead author on climate mitigation pathways on the IPCC’s most recent, sixth assessment report, known as AR6, said: “Right now, not only is the IPCC prevented from making strong, clear, commonsense statements – like the need to urgently move away from fossil fuel use and investment – but many scientists have personally taken being ‘non policy prescriptive’ to be part of their communication in general, not just the IPCC’s. This self-silencing is counterproductive, in my opinion.”

More than half of all atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions since 1751 have occurred since the Cop summits began in 1995. The UNFCCC has overseen a new emissions record in almost every year since then, and 2023 looks as if it will be no different.

Yamina Saheb, the lead author of a chapter in AR6, said: “I would like to see a situation where scientists make recommendations and then you track them. You ask governments to sign off on what they will do and then you evaluate how much progress they have made.”

Steinberger said: “It’s no secret that specific governments have acted as agents of the meat and livestock industry and succeeded in changing the language [in the AR6 summary] from ‘plant-based diets’ to ‘sustainable healthy diets’.

“Other governments, like Saudi Arabia or Switzerland, have lobbied for their [fossil fuels and finance] industries.”

The veto that governments such as the UAE hold over key reports is a particular concern for IPCC authors.

“I think this Cop will demonstrate the impossibility of viable climate diplomacy while the fossil fuel industry runs so many governments and infiltrates negotiating teams,” Steinberger said.

The IPCC’s modus operandi is to provide assessment reports of the latest climate science, which can be more than 3,000 pages long, every six to seven years. A shorter “summary for policymakers” is also assembled, condensing the main findings.

Government representatives review the papers line by line and go back and forth making editorial tweaks with IPCC scientists. Both have vetoes but in practice scientists say they feel they cannot use theirs without sinking the text.

One backroom US diplomatic paper from AR6 negotiations in March 2021, seen by the Guardian, chided scientists for making “policy recommendations” and for not recognising that “behaviour and lifestyle changes for demand-side mitigation can be highly sensitive”.

The paper warned against using terms such as “wasteful” or “excessive” to describe consumption, because “these imply judgments”, and questioned why “the concept of [energy] sufficiency” had been included in the summary. The idea denotes reducing demand for energy, materials and water while increasing human wellbeing.

Saheb said a climate flow diagram showing that mitigation funds fell short of investment needs in developing countries was dropped from the AR6 summary after objections from the US and other rich countries.

The US paper, which was signed by Trigg Talley, the senior adviser to the US special climate envoy, John Kerry, accused scientists of “a pervasive anti-market bias and an excessive focus on short-term pandemic recovery stimulus and quantitative easing”.

It said: “While the report assesses fossil fuel producers’ stranded assets, it does not assess the ‘stranded livelihoods’ of those who depend on the industry.”

Glen Peters, a lead author on emissions scenarios in AR6, said IPCC scientists should be allowed to identify the causes of national greenhouse gas emissions increases – such as coal use in China – and offer examples of successful mitigation pathways elsewhere.

A statement by IPCC scientists that China and India were responsible for more than 50% of net global emissions increases between 2010 and 2019 was removed from the last summary for policymakers, negotiating documents show.

Peters said: “The IPCC needs to move to solving the problem. If that does not happen in AR7 then I think the IPCC is going to lose relevance. The IPCC in a sense has to change now, because the world around it has changed.”

Not all IPCC scientists agree. Joyashree Roy, a coordinating lead author on AR6, argued that the IPCC was already becoming more independent and that transforming it into an oversight group would lead to “fragmented decisions [that] cannot solve this unique problem for humanity”.

She said: “Negotiators are doing so much more homework which is visible over time and in their expression of arguments during the review process and approval sessions of summaries for policymakers.

“Countries are participating with serious preparations backed by scientific arguments, so it helps in enriching both the reports as well as the understanding of the parties.”

The IPCC maintains that its first responsibility must be to provide science to inform and underpin the work of UNFCCC negotiators.

An IPCC spokesperson said: “It is important to note that the IPCC assessments are policy relevant but not policy prescriptive: they may present projections of future climate change based on different scenarios and the risks that climate change poses and discuss the implications of response options, but they do not tell policymakers what actions to take.”

The official said the IPCC’s latest cycle showed progress in its gender and regional balances.

“Sixty per cent of the IPCC bureau members are from developing countries,” they noted. However, less developed countries make up 84% of the world population, and the least developed counties account for 14% of the global populace but only 7% of IPCC scientists.

Saheb said: “The peer-reviewed science that is considered is only what comes from the global north. People in the south don’t have access to databases because they are very expensive and these meetings are all in English, which not everyone speaks. I think this iniquity is a continuation of colonialism.”

More than 650 climate scientists signed a plea to the US president, Joe Biden, this month calling for a faster, fairer phaseout of fossil fuels and more climate funding for poor nations.