IPCC reports spread knowledge effectively

Early August saw the presentation of the latest special report from the IPCC, the UN’s climate panel that compiles the latest in scientific knowledge regarding climate change. The result was without a doubt worth the long and cumbersome process, according to Christian Azar, professor of energy and environment at Chalmers and one of the three Swedish delegates in the final negotiation for the summarising report. 

“The final negotiation session, in which delegates from 150 countries gather in a room for several days to approve every formulation in the section that is specially aimed at decision makers, can be an incredible test of patience. But the process is instructive for all parties, and I must say that the result is well worth it – a balanced summary of the report that all countries can support,” Azar says. 
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) produces a larger evaluation report every seven years – most recently in 2013/2014 – that summarises the situation concerning global climate change. But in the interim, special reports are also produced that summarise specific climate-related subjects; the latest one is titled Climate Change and Land. The report describes climate change and desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. 

“It is a scientific basis for decision makers around the world and presents the current status, challenges, risks and possible actions. However, I want to be clear that the IPCC does not propose actions or goals; sometimes the debate that follows the reports can give that impression. What actions and goals to choose must be a political process. A solution to the climate issue entails comprehensive changes to our energy- and transport systems and raises central issues concerning our lifestyles, such as car travel, meat consumption and aviation, so if science were to decide which actions to take, we would give up democracy within an extremely large area,” says Christian Azar.  

From 7,000 reports to 40 p​​ages

During the work with Climate Change and Land, more than 100 main authors have assessed 7,000 scientific publications on the subject and subsequently compiled a comprehensive basic report. The IPCC’s main reports often comprise up to 1,000 pages. But to make it easier for readers to gain an overview of the material and for it to make an impact outside the world of research, the work concludes with the creation of a Summary for Policy Makers, a summarising report aimed at decision makers. 

When the time came to approve the summarising report, delegates from all of the 150 participating countries and the authors of the main report gathered in a large room. They included the Swedish delegates Christian Azar and Markku Rummukainen and Lena Lindström from SMHI, the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute.  

“There, we went through the 40 pages of the report so that all the countries could approve each sentence. And all the graphics, figures and other details that will be included. It is an incredible process. A colleague described it as a once in a lifetime experience, and it really is an extraordinary event,” says Azar, who has been involved in several of the IPCC’s earlier reports. 

“On more than one occasion I have thought that there must be a more efficient way of doing this, but nonetheless the end result is a balanced report. It is a useful tool for politicians, staff at government agencies or other people who need to be able to familiarise themselves with the subject. Quite simply, I believe that it is a good way of spreading knowledge in the political system – without compromising on the science”. 

“It is also important to emphasise that that the summary is written by the researchers, the main authors of the report, but it takes place in a joint process. For example, if a country has objections to a formulation in the draft and wants to change it, that cannot be done without support for it in the underlying report. ” 

Next step: Will and courage​

As mentioned, Azar regards what countries and major organisations subsequently do with that knowledge as a democratic and political issue, which requires interaction between politicians and citizens.  

“Fundamentally, policies are required to solve this problem, instruments that result in us choosing renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, and regulations that prevent deforestation. But politicians can only do as much as the mandate that they receive from citizens enables them to do. Citizens therefore put pressure on politicians, especially in the countries that are major players, such as the US, China, India and the EU. Then the politicians must dare to push these issues, build more public opinion on the issues so that more people vote for them. 

“Naturally, this is facilitated when we gain new technology that makes it easier and cheaper to reduce emissions. That results in both citizens and politicians accepting climate policy more readily.” 

Shared ownership of the report​

Azar also sees other advantages of the method used to create the summarising report. After going through and accepting the summarising report, all the countries gain shared ownership of it because they have gone through every section in detail. This is also an instructive process for all parties; the researchers learn more about how to express themselves in an understandable way, and delegates who perhaps do not fully understand what is meant by a specific formulation also obtain the opportunity to learn more.  

“The report will now enter the ‘system’ and start to be processed by many people in politics, government agencies, additional bodies and organisations, and other people interested in the subject. The report informs them of how climate change affects agriculture, forestry and natural ecosystems, and how they in turn affect the climate – by both emitting and capturing greenhouse gases. The way in which we use land can also reduce emissions or increase carbon capture in both forestry and agriculture. There are many challenges, but also many opportunities; decision makers how have sound documentation to use as a basis when deciding which path we should take.”
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Text: Christian Löwhagen

Read the report Climate Change and Land at the IPCC official website

Published: Fri 13 Sep 2019.