Climate change report: states seeking to downplay climate crisis

Men salvage parts from their destroyed home, following heavy rains caused by Cyclone Freddy in Blantyre, southern Malawi, 15 March, 2023. Scientists have warned that the climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and severe extreme weather events. (Keystone/AP Photo/Thoko Chikondi)

Climate experts and national delegations have been meeting this week to negotiate a key climate change report for decision-makers. Sources told some countries are trying to minimise the extent of global warming and the role of fossil fuels.

It’s a final stretch for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Gathered in Interlaken, in the heart of the Swiss Bernese Alps, delegates and scientists from across the world have been working since 12 March to approve the sixth assessment synthesis report of the UN expert panel on climate change. 

The content of the summary for decision makers, which must be adopted by consensus, is negotiated line by line, behind closed doors.

The stakes couldn’t be higher: the roadmap that will emerge from Interlaken is intended to guide the world's climate policies and influence negotiations at the next UN climate summit in Dubai in December.

War of words

The session is due to wrap up on Monday with the long-awaited publication of a synthesis reflecting the content of the IPCC’s last six reports. Tens of thousands of pages will be condensed into a summary of about 30 pages – a more digestible reading for world leaders.

However, this part of the process mixes politics and science. The 195 national delegations in Interlaken have to approve the final text by consensus, which may potentially undermine the scientific conclusions to the benefit of national interests.

Kari de Pryck, an expert in environmental governance, attending the meeting in Interlaken said: “No new knowledge will be allowed to be added, but there is a lot of room for manoeuvre in the way sentences are formulated, and for selecting certain information, sometimes to the detriment of others. The states will want to strengthen or weaken certain passages, according to their interests.”

There are several sticking points, according to de Pryck, author of GIEC, la voix du climat (IPCC, the Voice of the Climate), including the strategies for adapting to and mitigating global warming, stirring particular controversy.

But sources told that some countries have also tried to minimise the extent of climate change and the responsibility of fossil fuels.

Countries, including India, are said to have tried to manipulate the climate experts’ figures to downplay the level of rising temperatures.

Franz Perrez, Swiss ambassador for the environment and head of the Swiss delegation, said: “The draft synthesis report compares the global temperature increase between the pre-industrial era and the period from 2010 to 2020. It notes an average increase in global temperatures of about 1.1°C (1.09°C).”

For Switzerland, the average temperature rise surpasses 2°C.

“Some countries have suggested comparing this warming to the period from 2000 to 2020 (rather than 2010 to 2020) so that it is less significant – in that case, the average increase would be less than one degree. In addition, India proposed replacing ‘about 1.1°C’ with ‘1.09°C’,” he added.

Fossil fuel phase-out out

Meanwhile, other states have reportedly tried to cover up one of the main causes of global warming, fossil fuels, by seeking to weaken references to a fossil fuel phase-out – a goal that the IPCC has backed in the past. 

“Oil-exporting countries, such as Saudi Arabia, tend to try to remove the mention of fossil fuels, or even to downplay the urgency to act quickly,” said Sonia Seneviratne, IPCC expert and professor for land-​climate dynamics at ETH Zurich, who has participated in past approval sessions.

But she’s still confident about the process. She added: “Any changes in the synthesis report can only be introduced if they are consistent with existing scientific knowledge, and validated by the scientists who will have the final say.”

For Perrez, it is crucial that the synthesis report explicitly mentions the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “The IPCC argues that CO2 emissions must peak before 2025 before they fall drastically. We think it's important that this message persists in the synthesis report, as some countries want to weaken mentions of rapid emissions reductions,” he said.

Is aid to poor countries just a masquerade? 

The serene town of Interlaken is also becoming the site of a tug-of-war between countries of the Global South and those of the industrialised North. Poorer countries, harder hit by climate change, despite contributing the least, are calling for compensation from their richer counterparts, particularly the United States and European states.

But Western leading economies are not so keen to foot the bill. In 2021, Switzerland tried to mitigate the financial responsibility of rich countries towards poor countries during the approval of an IPCC report.

“We would like the text to mention the need for additional support to help developing countries cope with climate disruption. But we do not believe that emerging economies such as Saudi Arabia, China, Korea or Singapore should benefit from this support,” Perrez argued.

“On the contrary, we think they should be considered as ‘developed countries’ and also participate financially in the aid for poor countries.”

It remains to be seen how much wealthy countries like Switzerland will contribute. In February, Bern announced budget cuts that particularly affect cooperation and development aid. 

This is a cause of concern for Valentine Python, climate scientist and National Councillor for the Swiss Green Party. “Swiss commitments to help vulnerable countries were already below what was needed, but they are also being eroded even before they have materialised.”

Reining in energy consumption

Back in April, the IPCC released a report that broke a taboo by mentioning energy restraint for the first time. According to the group of experts, reducing demand, through changes in individual behaviour and systemic transformations, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 per cent by 2050, while improving well-being and quality of life.

The conclusion might cause some parts of the private sector to cringe. Python hopes that the issue will be included in the synthesis report.

“The latest IPCC report shows that the transition to renewable energies alone will not be enough. In parallel, it will be crucial to reduce demand. In the Swiss capital, business lobbies are nevertheless opposed to this conclusion, which they consider incompatible with the sector’s activities,” she said.

According to Anthony Patt, an IPCC author, pitting ecological transition against growth is not the issue. “The latest report suggests that we can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions without harming economic growth, in particular by reducing the costs of renewable energy,” he said. “The challenge will be to triple the annual investment in renewable energy. Obviously, the more we reduce energy demand, the lower the needed investment will be.”

This article was first published in French in It has been adapted and translated by Geneva Solutions. Articles from third-party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the media’s consent.