IPCC measures up consumer behaviour in next climate report

Winter sales in Potenza, Italy, 2 January, 2021. (Keystone/Antonio Vece)

The UN’s Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) is looking into a brand new area: how consumers behave and what motivates their decisions.

IPCC’s working group on mitigating the impacts of climate change has included a chapter on this topic in its contribution to a major flagship report due in 2022, a spokesperson for the UN panel said on Monday, as it announced that the draft was now open for a second review by experts and governments.

“The report has a number of innovations, including a new chapter on demand, services and social aspects of mitigation, and a chapter dedicated to innovation, technology development and transfer,” the experts said in a joint statement.

Why we are talking about this. IPCC is one of the leading scientific bodies assessing the science behind climate change. Its reports have been key in mainstreaming scientific consensus around climate-related issues.

Since its launch in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, it has published numerous groundbreaking reports that have been used in important climate negotiations such as the Paris agreement in 2015.

In 2018, the panel warned that global emissions need to roughly halve by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to have a two-thirds chance of staying under 1.5°C. 

As the international community moves toward stronger commitments to battle climate change, the content of the UN panel's next report , will play a central role in shaping future policy.

What's new. The draft's new chapter on demand, services and social aspects of mitigation highlights the impact of people's everyday decisions on climate change and how this can be taken into account to elaborate policies to better mitigate climate change. Jonathan Lynn of IPCC's press office told Geneva Solutions:

“Until now, IPCC experts have looked at the impact of economic actors in terms of supply. This new chapter will focus on what motivates people's decisions, for example when choosing a means of transportation.”

Culture, social norms, and behavioural changes will be analysed. The experts will also look at concepts such as sustainable consumption, circular economy and leapfrogging—essentially bypassing several steps of development with the help of technology—for solutions. Other factors important  for consumers, such as the price tag on a solar powered home, will also be taken into account when laying out policy options.

“The AR6 report will be more solutions-focused than previous publications,” Lynn added.

How it works. IPCC assessment reports are extremely long (over a thousand pages) and very technical. Hundreds of experts help write them which can understandably take a few five to eight years.

Experts review the literature on climate change in a wide range of areas from glaciology to economics, produce a draft and then go back and forth with experts and governments. According to Lynn, a draft can receive tens of thousands of comments from reviewers. The last assessment report had over 42,000 submissions. And authors are required to consider and reply to all of them, even if the reply is just a polite thank you. Lynn explained:

“The whole idea is to get a broader expertise, it's like a peer review process in a scientific journal but on a much bigger scale so authors understand the benefit of this.”

Comments by governments in general are focused on the science aspect of the report but can sometimes be political. “Even though these reports are neutral and do not intend to tell governments what to do, they are used in negotiations such as the Paris agreement and governments know this so they might prefer a different form of wording but it’s still a scientific process, not a political negotiation,” Lynn noted.

What's next. The working group will open  the draft for comments from 18 January until  14 March 2021 and, as it is still in the working stages, it will remain confidential until the final report is published by  the beginning of 2022.