A leak of thousands of documents has this week revealed some of the world’s heavyweight countries in fossil fuel and meat production asking the United Nations to downplay these industries’ contribution to the climate crisis.
On top of this, some wealthy nations were seen pushing back on recommendations to help finance poorer countries in mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis.
This comes just days before the start of the UN Climate Change Conference — known as COP26 — a crucial event that has been described as the last best chance for countries to pull up their socks and effectively tackle climate change.
The documents, seen by investigative journalists at Greenpeace’s Unearthed and the BBC, are in fact thousands of comments and recommendations by countries for the UN to make changes to a soon-to-be-released report on the world’s climate mitigation options.
Some countries can be seen asking for changes to be made to the report to water down statements about the urgent scaling-down needed on meat production and the use of fossil fuels. The BBC also reports that some wealthy countries questioned the need to financially assist poorer nations with investments into green technologies.
Saudi Arabia, Australia, Japan, Norway, China, and Iran all had representatives commenting on the draft report and pushing back against statements on the need to move away from fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The document leak also includes controversial commentary from organizations and institutions similarly remarking that the rapid reduction of fossil fuel consumption is unnecessary.
Meanwhile, some of the world’s biggest animal agriculture economies, Brazil and Argentina, were strongly arguing against evidence in the report that points to reducing meat (specifically beef) consumption as a highly effective approach to cutting down on emissions.
The purpose of the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) assessment report — on which the countries and institutions were commenting — is to lay out the best possible measures to reduce greenhouse emissions globally. Produced every six to seven years, it supports the effort to reach the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as set out in the Paris Agreement in 2015. Governments then use the report to decide on what immediate action their countries can take against climate change.
According to experts cited by the BBC, including the IPCC and Christiana Figueres, who oversaw COP21 in Paris in 2015, comments from governments are an important part of the report review process and authors aren’t obliged to act on them, with IPCC processes reportedly designed to weed out lobbying.
“This IPCC process is fully transparent and we routinely publish the preliminary drafts, the review comments, and the author responses to the comments, once the report is finalized,” an IPCC spokesperson told Unearthed.
Nevertheless, with COP26 now just days away, the leak of the comments gives an insight into the priorities and intentions of specific countries and institutions, and what they are likely to bring to the table in terms of willingness to take climate action. A question now is, will they continue to put domestic economic interests ahead of the guidance from scientists on what action is needed to curb catastrophic climate change?
Supporting Poorer Countries’ Green Journeys
Switzerland and Australia made comments to challenge the report’s statement that poorer countries will need support from wealthier nations in their missions to tackle climate change and adapt to its impacts.
For years, climate financing for developing nations has consistently fallen short, despite it being agreed upon in 2009 that wealthy countries would support developing nations with climate financing of $100 billion a year by 2020. That target has yet to be met.
There is an urgent need for rich nations — many of which are responsible for the historic and ongoing carbon emissions that have gotten the world to the brink of catastrophe — to support developing nations, both in taking steps to mitigate climate change but also to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Developing nations — which have largely contributed the least to climate change — are the most vulnerable to its impacts, both now and as these impacts worsen.
Australia reportedly argued that not all developing countries would need this kind of financing to support their climate strategies, while Switzerland explained that financing was not the only resource available for poorer nations to tackle climate change.
Speaking to the BBC, the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment said: "While climate finance is a critical tool to increase climate ambition, it is not the only relevant tool. Switzerland takes the view that all parties to the Paris Agreement with the capacity to do so should provide support to those who need such support."
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2019 climate finance mobilization figures, released in September 2021, wealthy nations have so far fallen short by just over $20 billion on their $100 billion finance commitment to developing countries.
Watering Down the Threat of Fossil Fuels
Several countries and organizations asked the authors to change language in the report that calls for the rapid reduction of fossil fuels — with some claiming that the implementation of carbon capture technologies makes the call for a reduction unnecessary, and others saying that rushing to cut down fossil fuels is unrealistic in the given time frame.
One of the loudest voices in this call is Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest exporters of oil, whose representative repeatedly asks for the authors to delete statements that call for the phasing out of fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia also reportedly advocated heavily for the use of new carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, the efficiency of which has yet to be proven, as opposed to reducing emissions.
Japan, Australia, and China — all big players in the fossil fuel industry — reinforced this call for the use of CCS, with the claim that this technology could drastically reduce carbon emissions. Argentina, Norway, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) also expressed similar sentiments.
On this, Unearthed spoke to Siân Bradley, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, who said: “There has never been any credible suggestion that [CCS] could deal with the bulk of fossil fuel related emissions as they stand today.”
“Delivering the Paris Agreement”, Bradley continued, “requires the transformation of global energy and industrial systems, which means phasing out the vast majority of fossil fuel use and rapidly scaling CCS in ‘hard to abate’ sectors.”
Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, Robert Howarth, further told Unearthed that there is no scientific evidence that proves that the world can heavily depend on CCS.
“Clearly if a nation has huge reserves of fossil fuels they may feel some national interest to protect that interest and try to encourage the world to use them,” he said. “But that’s not in the global interest, you’d hope that countries would have a broader perspective than that.”
Bradley and Howarth share an explanation similar to the IPCC, which pointed out that there may be a place for the use of CCS in the future, but its efficacy has yet to be proven and right now the world’s best bet is to immediately reduce fossil fuel use.
Iran commented separately on the reduction of fossil fuel use, by saying that the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is unrealistic.
“Given current trends and technologies, a continuous annual reduction in greenhouse emissions of more than 5% between 2021 and 2030 is highly unlikely,” Iran’s representative said. “Even developed countries have not been able to continuously reduce emissions to this level yet.”
Australia’s representative rejected the country being mentioned as one of the world’s biggest producers and consumers of coal. According to the International Energy Agency, Australia has been the world’s fifth largest producer of coal between 2018-2021.
Two of the world’s biggest beef producers, Brazil and Argentina, heavily dispute the report’s findings that reducing the consumption of animal products is essential for reducing global gas emissions.
Brazil rejects the IPCC’s evidence-based claim that "plant-based diets can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emission intensive Western diet.”
“It cannot be assumed that plant-based diets and healthy diets are the same, that both will have a low environmental impact or that a sustainable diet will be healthy,” the Brazilian commenter offers.
Meanwhile Argentina disputes the same claim, with its representative saying that there is “no scientific basis for such affirmation on plant-based protein diets.”
Both countries also challenge the inclusion of the international “Meatless Monday” campaign — a campaign that encourages people to opt for a meat-free diet once a week — as a potential solution in the report, saying that it is a “biased” concept.
Brazil’s animal agriculture has been linked to deforestation in the Amazon, with the rate of deforestation increasing under the leadership of current president Jair Bolsonaro. Despite this, the country rejects claims that reducing meat consumption is necessary, and also disputes the report’s claim that increased deforestation in the country has been a result of changes in government regulations.
Ahead of COP26, you can join Global Citizen in taking action here to call on world leaders and corporations to step up and make the real changes required to mitigate and adapt to climate change — including setting science-based targets to drastically reduce carbon emissions, and providing the financing needed to ensure the whole world can adapt to climate change.