How China, the US and Others Watered Down a Key UN Climate Document

A behind-the-scenes account of the political horse-trading, published by Earth Negotiations Bulletin, shows how national interests were reflected in the influential document.

(Bloomberg) — China, the US and Saudi Arabia are among countries that significantly altered a United Nations document that will shape global climate policy for years to come, according to an account of international negotiations preceding its release.The report published this week was written by Earth Negotiations Bulletin, the only news organization allowed to observe proceedings when 195 nations gathered to approve a summary of climate science findings over the last five years. The document they were debating, meant to advise policymakers, is separate from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s much longer report, which is purely technical and isn’t vetted line-by-line by country negotiators.The IPCC report stressed that continuing to burn fossil fuels threatens human well-being and the stability of much of life on Earth, with the chance of avoiding the most severe impacts moving rapidly out of reach. One of the most controversial conclusions was that greenhouse gas emissions have to be cut by 60%, and carbon dioxide pollution has to fall 65% by 2035 from 2019 levels for a 50% chance of keeping global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That’s the target that global leaders agreed on in the landmark Paris Agreement and what scientists say is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Chinese negotiators successfully lobbied to delete a reference to those exact reductions in the final summary for policymakers, ENB reported, though they did agree to have the numbers included in an adjacent chart. China, the world’s biggest emitter of planet-warming gases on an annual basis, aims to reach peak emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon-neutrality by 2060.

This amendment was not unusual and is part of the IPCC’s process to review reports, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. The revised statement makes the relevant conclusions clearer and easier to read and understand, she said.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, “strongly opposed” the inclusion of a sentence saying the use of fossil fuels is the “root cause” of climate change, according to ENB. The Middle Eastern nation also objected to several references to the challenges faced by technologies designed to suck carbon from the atmosphere, the ENB report said. In the end, one reference was included.Saudi Arabia has been a strong advocate for carbon-capture technology, which would in theory allow for more fossil fuels to be burned while staying within the Paris Agreement’s temperature limit. But the process is extremely energy intensive and expensive, and has yet to reach the scale needed to cut emissions fast enough. Climate models show that cutting the use of highly polluting fuels would be a more effective way to tame emissions this decade. A spokesperson for Saudi Arabia’s Energy Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The US, the largest historical emitter, opposed a request from India, Bolivia and China to include a sentence that suggested transfers of technology would be one determinant of how quickly and deeply emissions are cut around the world. Developed countries have long been sensitive to wording about technology transfer because of intellectual property issues. 

The US State Department declined to comment. A senior administration official defended the final IPCC summary for policymakers, saying it was clear about the critical message.

An initial version of the ENB account said representatives from oil-rich Norway forced a change on a section referring to the need for “deep, rapid, and sustained” greenhouse gas emissions reductions starting this decade. The final wording just stresses the need for “strong” emissions reductions.

The text was changed following a discussion among IPCC members, and not at Norway’s request, a Norwegian official said in an email. An updated ENB story removed the reference to Norway requesting that change.

Norway supported stressing the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also agreed that the idea was sufficiently reflected in other parts of the document, Ole-Kristian Kvissel from the Norwegian Environment Agency told Bloomberg on Thursday.

The detailed discussions on wording, footnotes and charts meant negotiations in the Swiss town of Interlaken went into overtime. As the hours passed, delegates from nations who didn’t have the resources to extend their stay left. This situation, common in past climate negotiations, meant no delegates from Africa or South America — some of the world’s regions most impacted by climate change — were present in the room.

That led the rest of the negotiators to agree to avoid changing anything in the text unless absolutely necessary, with many saying that adding or removing key information would not be fair to those who were not present, according to ENB.

–With assistance from Jennifer A Dlouhy, Stephen Treloar, Dan Murtaugh and Matthew Martin.

(Updates with China response)

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