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After Intense Debates About Timelines, Next IPCC Synthesis Report to Arrive in 2029

After Intense Debates About Timelines, Next IPCC Synthesis Report to Arrive in 2029

These IPCC reports are assessments of scientific literature related to climate change. They capture the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change. Photo: X/@IPCC_CH.

Bengaluru: The 60th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC-60) came to a close on January 19 after tense negotiations. Countries could not agree on a timeline to produce the next round of IPCC assessment reports, i.e. the 7th Assessment Report (AR7).

Broadly, these IPCC reports are assessments of scientific literature related to climate change. They capture the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change.

They comprise three working group reports: working group I (WG1): the physical science; working group II (WG2): impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and working group III (WG3): mitigation of climate change.

They also include a ‘synthesis report’ which consolidates findings from the three working group reports. At IPCC-60, countries managed to arrive at a consensus only on the timeline for the synthesis report i.e. by late 2029. But not for the working group reports.

And then there are ‘special reports’ like the report on the state of oceans and the cryosphere.

During IPCC-60 negotiations, the US and some island countries wanted to fast-track the process to produce AR7 reports by 2028, in time for the next round of the Global Stocktake (GST), which is a five-yearly evaluation of climate action under the Paris Agreement. This call was also supported by some European countries.

But some developing countries like Egypt, India, Brazil, China, Argentina, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Kenya expressed concerns about an accelerated timeline, according to a report by the Third World Network (TWN).

They said it would impact the robustness of the IPCC reports, limit time for their review of such reports and allow less time for scientific literature to develop, the brunt of which would be borne by countries in the Global South given how the scientific publication model at present disadvantages Global South authors.

During the initial stages of the discussion, European countries like the Netherlands, Germany and France also expressed some concerns about the shorter timeline.

A ‘programme of work’ prepared by an IPCC informal group too acknowledged a set of issues with a shorter timeline: constrained integration across the three working group reports, a lesser time window to allow new literature to develop,  the limited number of topics that could be covered and an impact on the comprehensiveness of the literature assessment.

The Wire Science interviewed Sonia Isabelle Seneviratne, a Swiss scientist and member of the IPCC Bureau, on the various issues that made the IPCC-60 contentious. She responded to the initial round of questions but none of the follow-ups.

Excerpts below, edited slightly for clarity and brevity:

On a broad note, could you lay out the various options that were discussed at IPCC-60 and the major sticking points?

Three options for the IPCC reports’ structure were proposed, which are described in IPCC documents that were provided prior to the meeting:

First, a “light option”, including three working group assessment reports, a synthesis report, a previously agreed special report on climate change and cities and a previously agreed methodology report on short-lived climate forcers. This option would also lead to all working group reports being finished in 2028.

Second, a “classical option”, extending the light cycle by adding a second Special Report and an extra Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories (TFI) methodology report.

Third, a “special report gallery” option, which would replace the three WG reports with a series of special reports and an extra TFI methodology report.

In the case of all three options, the plan was to have the IPCC synthesis report finished in 2029.

The questions were related to which of these three options could be best suitable for the next cycle, noting the IPCC mandate to provide reports that should be “policy relevant”. The topic of a possible second special report was also extensively discussed in case the “classical option”.

The document prepared by the informal group on the programme of work prior to the meeting highlighted the associated timelines of the three options based on past practice.

Follow-up question: Surely “policy relevant” doesn’t just mean inputs for the next round of the GST? IPCC reports, regardless of whether they are finalised a year or two before  or a year or two after the upcoming GST, can still act as policy guide. Do you have any further comments?

Seems like this was the first time the IPCC has strongly considered having a shortened timeline for assessment reports. In your view, why has this come up now? 

I don’t think we can really speak of a “shortened timeline”. It was noted that previous IPCC cycles typically lasted between five and seven years, if one excludes the sixth cycle that was affected by the COVID pandemics and the inclusion of three special reports, in addition to the traditional assessment reports.

The discussed timelines all fit in this well-established tradition.

– IPCC first assessment report: 1990

– end of IPCC 2nd assessment report: 1995 (five years later)

– end of IPCC 3rd assessment reports: 2001 (six years later)

– end of IPCC 4th assessment reports: 2007 (six years later)

– end of IPCC 5th assessment reports: 2014 (seven years later)

– end of IPCC 6th assessment reports: 2023 (nine years later, but including delays due to the COVID pandemics and the writing of three special reports in addition to full assessment reports)

I see two main reasons to go for a “light cycle” with only one special report.

First, the special reports require almost as much work as full assessment reports, because they have as many review rounds as full assessment reports. The only difference is that they tend to be a bit shorter.

So a light cycle with only one special report reduces the burden on the authors and reviewers, while allowing a faster completion, with the assessment reports being completed in 2028, and the synthesis report in 2029.

I note that this reduced workload is also of advantage for authors from developing countries. In addition, several countries, in particular small island developing states and the USA, highlighted that this timeline would be most policy-relevant, because it would allow the assessment reports to be completed in 2028, in time for the next GST where intergovernmental policy decisions on climate change are taken.

This was probably one reason for this choice. Another reason is that a longer cycle leads to more literature that needs to be reviewed, making the work of authors more and more complex.

Finally, an important reason why this option was chosen was because the IPCC working group co-chairs indicated that this timeline was realistic.

Follow-up question: The completion of reports by 2028, which means we have about four years, is most definitely a shorter timeline given previous timelines were on average six to seven years. 

Do you not think we need to acknowledge that the time reduction is significant, even if the argument is that it is necessary? Because once we acknowledge this, we can then proceed to assess what impacts such a timeline would have on comprehensiveness of reports and very importantly, on the literature review, given how the scientific publication model at present severely disadvantages Global South authors.

This would, of course, mean that the option to not fast-track the process would also be on the table if repercussions are ultimately considered too important to ignore. 

Another thing: the issue of workload on scientists needs to be balanced with the demand for allowing time for the development of climate literature in the Global South and ensuring their equitable representation, especially given how both Global South negotiators and Global South scientists have raised concerns regarding the latter.

The IPCC working group too said a timeline to finish sooner would have implications on the time allowed for scientific literature to develop.

In a comment to Climate Home News, you said “some countries do not necessarily want climate policy to advance very fast and IPCC information will be critical for informing the Global Stocktake” in the context of the opposition from India, China and Saudi Arabia to tie the AR7 cycle to the next round of the GST. 

Could you elaborate on what you meant by this? The comment seems like a personal opinion and it paints some countries in a bad light.

This comment does not specifically mention India, China and Saudi Arabia, but it is indeed true that these countries were particularly reluctant to the IPCC assessment reports being all completed in 2028.

It can be noted that these countries have substantial emissions and/or are exporters of fossil fuels. On the other hand, representatives from developing countries which are very concerned by climate change, in particular the small island developing states such as St Kitt and Nevis, Grenada, Haiti and Jamaica, strongly argued for a fast cycle (“light option”) with reports being concluded in 2028.

I don’t think that it is controversial to state that the preferences of the respective countries, both those arguing for a later delivery or an earlier delivery of the IPCC assessment reports, are probably also related to their positions on climate policy.

Follow-up question: The US is also a top oil and gas producer and exporter. If we start assessing country positions at negotiations vis-a-vis their fossil fuel production (which is what you allude to), then we need to explain why the US seeks “policy-relevant” guidelines from the IPCC while disregarding IPCC reports produced so far that call for “immediate and deep emission reductions” when it comes to undertaking domestic action.

So I would say there is no general basis to attribute demands at negotiations to appetite for actual climate policy and climate action. I also do not see why you equate IPCC assessments reports to mitigation in the WG3 alone to then argue that some countries do not want them to be delivered early because they have substantial emissions or are fossil fuel producers or exporters.

Speaking about India, I can say adaptation is also very important for us. Your comments?

In the same Climate Home News report, a negotiator from Egypt too lays out concerns with a shortened timeline. What do you make of such views?

It is of course part of the IPCC process to consider the advantages and disadvantages of different considered options for the structure of an IPCC cycle.

With respect to a timeline with the delivery of the three assessment reports in 2028, the IPCC working group co-chairs clarified at the IPCC plenary meeting that this timeline was achievable while ensuring the necessary quality of the reports.

I don’t see reasons either for me or country delegates to question the statement from the IPCC working group co-chairs on this point.

Follow-up question: It isn’t very scientific to say something is not open for discussion. For instance, I would like to understand what exactly the working group co-chairs meant when they said a truncated timeline would require innovation to ensure underrepresented communities are included. 

It is strange to me that a barrier to include underrepresented communities was presented as an opportunity to be “innovative”. Do you not think this needs pushback or at least a clarification? Similarly, country delegates can have other concerns. Do you agree?

Are there reasons to believe a shortened timeline wouldn’t disrupt the scientific integrity of AR7 reports? What about the impacts of such a timeline on assessing papers from the developing world, given how a majority of climate research at present is produced in the US and the EU?

There are no reasons to believe that the approved timeline would disrupt the scientific integrity of the AR7 reports. The planned timeline is similar to that of past cycles, with the exception of the AR6 cycle, which was disrupted by the COVID pandemics and the inclusion of three special reports in addition to the three full assessment reports.

Literature from developing and emerging countries is an essential basis for the assessment; this will also be the case in this cycle. Unfortunately, the imbalance in literature output between countries cannot be easily addressed, but the strong inclusion of authors from developing and emerging countries can help to have a better representation of literature from these countries. This will certainly be an important consideration.

In addition, it was also agreed at the IPCC plenary that additional efforts should be made to include both indigenous and local knowledge in the IPCC assessment. This effort should help to have a greater inclusion of local information from developing countries in this cycle, beyond the classical scientific literature.

[Editor’s Note: As pointed out earlier, the timeline is a shorter one, compared to the average of past cycles and it will very likely have a limiting impact on assessing literature from developing countries.]

The Wire Science sent the follow-ups to Seneviratne on January 31 and allowed time for a response till February 13 with reminders in between. Seneviratne said she was busy and cannot respond to the follow-ups.

Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru.

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