Africa: 'We're Not Quite There Yet' - IPCC Chair Talks South Representation and More


In an exclusive interview, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change discusses the ways forward for the next set of reports.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that deals with climate science, is scheduled to meet next month for its 61st session (IPCC-61). One of the key aims of the meeting is to reach consensus on a timeline for producing the next set of IPCC Assessment Reports i.e. reports for the seventh assessment cycle (AR7).

IPCC reports assess published scientific literature to capture the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change.

The body's last meeting - IPCC-60 in January 2024 - was particularly contentious as countries failed to set a timeline for the delivery of the three Working Group reports that will form part of AR7.

Typically, IPCC reports comprise three Working Group reports - on the physical science; impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and mitigation - as well as a "synthesis report" that consolidates findings from these reports. There are also some special reports on themes such as oceans and the cryosphere.

African Arguments interviewed Jim Skea, chair of the IPCC since July 2023, about his areas of focus for AR7, the contentious issue of the timeline, and critiques of the last assessment report (AR6).

What do you hope to achieve with AR7 that has so far remained unaddressed or under-appreciated?

There is a lot of work to be done on IPCC and a comprehensive "lessons learned" process is now underway led by governments. I identified my priorities when making my case to be elected as IPCC Chair and in a "vision document" presented at IPCC-60 in Istanbul in January 2024. My three themes are policy relevance, inclusivity, and interdisciplinarity, the latter including cross Working Group collaboration, and synergies with other UN environmental assessments. Policy relevance reflects both the need to produce actionable assessments to inform national and sub-national policymaking as well as the processes under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

What do you mean by policy relevance in terms of IPCC processes?

As agreed by the Panel, IPCC's primary target audiences are governments and policy-makers at all levels, the UNFCCC, the UN-wide system and intergovernmental processes more broadly. "Policy relevance" means producing assessments that these audiences will find useful and will inform their decision-making processes and actions. The outcome of the first global stocktake under the Paris Agreement included an invitation to IPCC to consider how best to align its work with the second and subsequent global stocktake and also to provide relevant and timely information for the next global stocktake.

Background work for AR7 is off to a rocky start given disagreements on the timelines for the Working Group reports. How will the IPCC tackle the differences among countries?

A lot of progress was made at IPCC-60 in January, but some things remain to be decided in the next session. The "I" in IPCC stands for intergovernmental, so the countries are the IPCC. All IPCC decisions are reached by consensus. It is up to governments to show flexibility, listen to each others' concerns, and reach that consensus. The process obviously matters, so the usual mechanisms such as contact groups, informal "huddles", and offline bilaterals are available and may well be used. There's no magic solution.

At IPCC-60, co-chairs of the Working Groups emphasised the need for innovation so underrepresented communities could be included in the event of a fast-tracked timeline. What could such innovation entail?

The starting point for the AR7 timeline is the same as the one initially proposed for AR6, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. One of the issues under discussion has been how to make better use of Indigenous Peoples' Knowledge. For example, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has made some progress on this, and IPCC Bureau members have been in discussions with their IPBES counterparts

At IPCC-60, India spoke of how the term "underrepresented communities" does not mean just indigenous peoples but that developing country authors and women are also underrepresented. The lack of diversity in climate science is a longstanding issue. A report by CarbonBrief showed that authors from Europe and the US dominate published literature, while those from Africa - home to around 16% of the world population - comprise only 1% of authors. Is the IPCC working to address this issue given that this skew impacts its reports too?

It is beyond the mandate and capacity of the IPCC to steer the world's scientific endeavours. Under-representation goes well beyond climate science. What we can do is address representation in IPCC's assessment activities and encourage the inclusion of a wider range of literature. At the moment, female scientists account for 41% of the IPCC Bureau [a 34-member group that guides the Panel], up from a very low level in the IPCC's early days. We aim for a 50/50 balance between developed and developing country participants in author teams and meetings. Nearly two-thirds of the IPCC Bureau are from developing countries. We've made good progress, but we're not quite there yet. Priority issues are now the quality of participation in meetings and diversity within geographical regions so that a small number of individual countries do not dominate.

Inequities in modelled mitigation action - i.e. scenarios for how the world can reduce emissions - have become highly contentious. Many Global South scientists have raised concerns that the scenarios place a disproportionate burden on poorer countries and assume that differences in energy usage and living standards between the Global North and South will remain. How will you address such concerns in AR7?

The IPCC assesses published scientific literature; we don't model mitigation action ourselves. Any lack of convergence in energy usage and living standards between the developed and developing countries in assessed scenarios is largely down to the socio-economic assumptions used to drive the models, rather than the models themselves. We ran a scenarios workshop just over a year ago which took on the issue of equity in scenarios. The workshop generated recommendations for the research community, research funders, and the IPCC. The recommendations related to both scenarios and models and the organisation of research and assessment activity. Some of today's Working Group Co-Chairs participated in that meeting and are actively taking forward the recommendations.

Mitigation scenarios assessed by the IPCC in AR6 have been critiqued for excessive reliance on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Some argue that unrealistic scales of CDR and CCS could undermine real mitigation efforts aimed at phasing down/out fossil fuels. Others worry that there are trade-offs like implications on food security if agricultural lands are diverted for energy crops. Will the IPCC address this critique in AR7?

This matter was addressed in the Special Report on Climate Change and Land, and in the Sixth Assessment Report where the assessed scenarios relied less on CDR than those covered in the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. But, it is clear that global warming will not stop unless emissions of greenhouse gases are drastically reduced and some carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. Whether the scales of CDR and CCS could "undermine real mitigation efforts aimed at phasing down/out fossil fuels" is more down to opinion than fact. It is a question for the policymakers.

Are there reasons to believe a fast tracked timeline for AR7 will limit time to address the above critiques? Will a shorter timeline also mean limited time for government review?

At its Plenary Session in Istanbul in January, the Panel has already decided on the IPCC's programme of work in the seventh cycle. Following that meeting, a fast-track timeline is not under consideration. Published science has already moved on from AR6 where the final literature cut-off date was October 2021. No matter what the ultimate decision on a timeline, there will be a five-six year gap between the final literature cut-off dates for AR6 and AR7 with a substantial body of new work to assess. There is no intention to deviate from the usual eight-week government review periods.

There is an overlap between scientists who produce research and those who assess it in IPCC reports. At the IPCC workshop in Bangkok last year, you acknowledged this overlap and suggested that it "stands out in the area of [mitigation] scenarios". More broadly, could there be an element of groupthink at play with IPCC authors belonging to the same institutions that model mitigation action?

The two points of intervention for addressing such issues are the scoping of the reports and the selection of authors which fall under the remit of the three Working Groups. Both scoping and author selection have yet to take place for the Seventh Cycle. The relevant Working Group Co-Chairs attended the Bangkok workshop and are well aware of its recommendations.

Rishika Pardikar is a freelance environment reporter covering science, law, and policy.

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