Some of the world’s biggest coal, oil, beef and animal feed-producing nations are attempting to strip a landmark UN climate report of findings that threaten those domestic economic interests, a major leak of documents seen by Unearthed has revealed.

The revelations – which show how this small clutch of nations is attempting to water-down the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) major upcoming assessment of the world’s options for limiting global warming – come just days before the start of crucial international climate negotiations in Glasgow.

They come from a leak of tens of thousands of comments by governments, corporations, academics and others on the draft report of the IPCC’s ‘Working Group III’ – an international team of experts that is assessing humanity’s remaining options for curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or removing them from the atmosphere.

The documents passed to Unearthed show how fossil fuel producers including Australia, Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), are lobbying the IPCC – the world’s leading authority on climate change – to remove or weaken a key conclusion that the world needs to rapidly phase out fossil fuels.

In one comment seen by Unearthed, a senior Australian government official rejected the largely uncontroversial conclusion that one of the most important steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was to phase out coal-fired power stations.

Meanwhile, Brazil and Argentina, two of the world’s biggest producers of beef and animal feed, have been pressing IPCC authors to delete messages about the climate benefits of promoting ‘plant-based’ diets and of curbing meat and dairy consumption.

The news comes just days before these nations take their places at the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow – a UN conference that has been described as the world’s “last best chance to get runaway climate change under control”. It is likely to raise questions about the threat posed to progress at the summit by some economies that remain highly dependent on carbon-intensive industries.

IPPC authors can and do reject suggested changes to their drafts if the comments are not supported by the scientific literature. However, the leak of these comments offers a unique insight into the positions being adopted by some nations away from the public eye.

Climate scientist Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London, told Unearthed: “These comments show the tactics some countries are willing to adopt to obstruct and delay action to cut emissions.

“On the eve of the crucial COP26 talks there is, to me, a clear public interest in knowing what these governments are saying behind the scenes.”

He added: “Like most scientists I’m uncomfortable with leaks of draft reports, as in an ideal world the scientists writing these reports should be able to do their job in peace. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and with emissions still increasing, the stakes couldn’t be higher.”

A spokesperson for the IPCC told Unearthed that the processes it used for preparing and drafting reports were “designed to guard against lobbying – from all quarters”. The main elements of this, he added, were “diverse and balanced author teams, a review process open to all, and decision-making on texts by consensus”.

The Unearthed analysis of thousands of leaked comments submitted to the IPCC by national governments found that the majority of contributions were constructive comments aimed at improving the text.

Fossil fuel phase out

The documents reviewed by Unearthed comprise swathes of peer review comments on the second draft of Working Group III’s contribution to the IPCC’s landmark Sixth Assessment Report. This group’s report – which is not due to be published until next year – will be a definitive assessment of the ways available to the world to limit global warming.

The executive summary of this draft – which was released in a separate leak earlier this year – details how global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak in the next four years. It states that, even if no new plants come on stream, existing coal- and gas-fired power stations on average need to close or be retrofitted to avoid emissions within the next 10 and 12 years respectively, if warming is to be limited to 1.5°C.

The executive summary of this draft – which was released in a separate leak earlier this year – details how global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak in the next four years. It states that, even if no new plants come on stream, existing coal- and gas-fired power stations on average need to close or be retrofitted to avoid emissions within the next 10 and 12 years respectively, if warming is to be limited to 1.5°C.

The leaked review comments – which consist of detailed responses to the draft by governments; businesses; civil society and academics submitted earlier this year – reveal how a small number of major fossil fuel producing and consuming nations reject the need for a rapid phase out of fossil fuels.

Instead, this group argues, the IPCC must remain “technology neutral” and acknowledge the role that “carbon capture” technology could theoretically play in reducing the climate impact of fossil fuels.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) are the names given to technologies that can capture carbon emissions from industrial sites like power plants, and keep them out of the atmosphere or use them in industrial processes.

Australia; Saudi Arabia; Iran, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC); and Japan all make variations of this argument, despite the fact that, according to the Global CCS Institute, there is currently only one power station in operation in the world that successfully captures some of its carbon emissions.

Analysis of public data shows that this power station, Boundary Dam in Canada, has missed its original target of capturing 90% of the carbon emissions from one of its generators and is now aiming to capture just 65%.

Speaking to Unearthed about the various pathways available for reducing carbon emissions, Siân Bradley, a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, told Unearthed: “CCS/CCUS is a critical technology, but there has never been any credible suggestion that it 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.”

But by embracing this technology as a future bet, policy-makers can argue for a delay in action to limit fossil fuel use and justify new oil and gas fields coming on stream – regardless of whether CCS actually delivers.

Chief among those pushing back against the recommendation that fossil fuels be urgently phased out of the energy sector are Saudi Arabia and OPEC, which together produce around 40% of the world’s oil.

Saudi Arabia repeatedly seeks to have the report’s authors delete references to the need to phase out fossil fuels, as well as an IPCC conclusion that there is an “need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales”

In one comment, an advisor to Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources tells the authors to “omit” from the report a statement that the “focus of decarbonisation efforts in the energy systems sector needs to be on rapidly shifting to zero-carbon sources and actively phasing out all fossil fuels.” He claims that this sentence in the draft “undermines all carbon removals technologies such as CCU/CCS and limits the options for decision [sic] makers to carbon neutrality”.

Saudi Arabia even rejects the use of the word “transformation”, which the IPCC uses throughout the report to describe emissions reduction pathways that meet the goals of the Paris Agreement – the international treaty through which countries agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5°C.

For instance, the IPCC states in its draft Summary for Policymakers that scenarios “that limit warming to 2°C and 1.5°C imply energy system transformations over the coming decades. These involve substantial reductions in fossil fuel use, major investments in low-carbon energy forms, switching to low-carbon energy carriers, and energy efficiency and conservation efforts.”

Instead Saudi Arabia argues that urgent action to tackle the climate crisis is not necessarily needed: “The use of ‘transformation’ should be avoided as it has policy implications by requiring immediate policy actions. Transitioning to low-carbon economies can be achieved through planned interventions and by considering various transitioning options.”

Read more unearthed.greenpeace.org