• In April, the IPCC hosted its first ever virtual lead author meeting.
  • This format presented particular challenges that conflicted with the meeting's aims, but it had benefits, too.
  • Analysis of this approach's pros and cons suggests a hybrid of virtual and physical meetings might be the most productive way forward.

In April 2020, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) hosted its first ever virtual lead author meeting (LAM). Although the decision came about due to the COVID-19 crisis, the opportunity to experiment with a virtual format was quickly embraced by the Authors and Technical Support Unit (TSU) of IPCC Working Group III. A precedent has now been set for the climate research community and future global assessments.

A physical LAM would typically involve five days of intense discussions for which more than 250 authors from 65 or more countries would meet in person, potentially anywhere in the world where a government is willing to host. The meeting in April (hereafter eLAM3) was the third of four LAMs of IPCC’s Working Group III on climate change mitigation, originally intended to take place in Quito, Ecuador. LAMs provide authors and scientists with the opportunity to meet face-to-face to work on their chapter text and address cross-chapter scientific issues for the entire report.

The aim of eLAM3 was to work on the second order draft prior to government review. Compared with a physical meeting, the scientific activities and ambition for eLAM3 were scaled back, with an increased focus placed on cross-chapter issues. However, none of the scientific objectives of the meeting were dropped. A survey carried out after eLAM3 showed that 90% of respondents indicated that the objectives were set at an appropriate level, and that the meeting had been successful in meeting these objectives. Furthermore, 86% of eLAM3 participants ranked their overall experience as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’; this compared with 97% of respondents for LAM1 and 88% of respondents for LAM2.

Challenges

Because the goal of IPCC author meetings is to build an international scientific consensus and ensure the voices of all the volunteer authors are heard, the virtual meeting format posed particular challenges. Aspects of a physical meeting that could not be replicated included the time and intensity to explore complex scientific issues, the ability to interact spontaneously, and the opportunity to strengthen relationships. Physical meetings are also crucial for team and trust building. Participants missed the ability to discuss scientific elements on an ad-hoc basis, and smaller sub-meetings where key chapter decisions are discussed and finalised suffered the most. To ameliorate this, and in order to ensure the scientific integrity of the assessment, follow-up meetings in the weeks after eLAM3 were required, which meant increasing the necessary time commitment from volunteer authors.

While participation in plenaries and in cross-chapter breakout groups (BOGs) was higher than at previous in-person meetings, the fact that authors were located in time zones all around the world meant timing still posed a barrier to effective participation. Dealing with such a challenge required carefully coordinating time-slots, as no one can contribute effectively at 3am local time. However, as a result this dramatically reduced the number of effective working hours a day. The percentage of participants who felt that they were not fully able to participate in eLAM3 increased compared with earlier LAMs (LAM1: 7.2%; LAM2: 11%; eLAM3: 29%). More respondents from developing countries felt they were not able to fully participate in the meetings (36%) than those from developed countries (25%). Authors also noted the lack of social interactions in a virtual setting.

Significant factors cited as hindrances to participation in the meeting included:

1. Competing domestic and work commitments (the two largest barriers to participation regardless of region or gender).

2. Difficulties with remote access and limited access to computers (a larger problem for participants from developing countries).

3. The timing of live meetings (the largest barrier to participation from those regions for whom the selected time zone was unfavourable).

4. Other people dominating discussions (identified as a barrier to participation for more women than men).

Pros and cons

While a virtual meeting brought trade-offs, participants also cited its benefits. Virtual plenaries were more productive and better at keeping to time. BOGs also worked well, ensuring cross-chapter coordination continued well after the meeting. Online chat functionality during meeting sessions was welcomed and facilitated more democratic participation and shorter interventions; the virtual setting also allowed greater participation from authors from other IPCC Working Groups. Ex-post analysis showed that hosting the meeting virtually has saved 368t/CO2 and more than $1million from avoided air travel and accommodation, or 1.33t/CO2 and $3,790 per person.

The success of this virtual meeting was in part facilitated by its timing in the Sixth Assessment Report cycle (AR6). As this was the third LAM, most participants had already established working relationships. A productive meeting would not have been possible if participants had not already met face-to-face.

The benefits and trade-offs of a virtual meeting are unique to the nature of the meeting but organisers could consider practical approaches to ensuring the meeting runs smoothly. Technological barriers could be addressed by:

1. Opting for technologies that most participants are able to access.

2. Organising training in advance to familiarise participants with the meeting platform.

3. Use of pre-recorded material where possible to address local internet issues.

4. Providing financial support for technology licences, purchase of IT equipment, data, physical facilities such as meeting rooms or high-quality internet connection where possible.

App download numbers from the US in April show the working world moving online
App download numbers from the US in April show the working world moving online
Image: Statista

Practical steps to enhance participation at the meeting would involve scheduling considerations to ensure participants from all time zones are able to join and clearly defining roles and responsibilities of the organising team and participants. The role of meeting facilitators is of paramount importance, ensuring effective communication so that all participants have access to meeting information including the latest schedule and relevant documents. Where all participants are unable to fully participate in the virtual meeting, and especially in cases where key decisions must be taken, meeting organisers can ensure they have an opportunity to comment subsequently and where relevant, refine these decisions. Meeting recordings and notes including remarks and chat comments need to be made available in order to keep all participants up to date.

The best of both worlds

In short, while virtual meetings are here to stay, they are not a perfect substitute for physical meetings. A hybrid system mixing virtual and physical elements could provide the best of both worlds, leveraging trends toward digitalisation that are already so apparent in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It will, however, be critical to avoid digitalisation exacerbating existing inequalities, which in the IPCC context means overcoming barriers to participation, especially among the groups under-represented in the IPCC. This will foster inclusiveness and diversity and will ensure that IPCC reports are robust, credible, and salient for the climate policy community globally.