The United Nations’ COP26 climate summit began in the Scottish city of Glasgow on Sunday – bringing together representatives from around the world to assess the world’s progress on keeping temperature rises limited to 1.5°C to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
While several G20 countries, including the US and UK, have pushed Australia to step up its climate ambitions – others are urging that “the likes of Australia and Saudi Arabia need to be marginalised” due to their lack of action.
In her opening remarks to the first session of COP26, the executive director of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Patricia Espinosa warned the choice was stark.
“We either choose to achieve rapid and large-scale reductions of emissions to keep the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees – or we accept that humanity faces a bleak future on this planet.”
We asked Professor Jacqueline Peel, the director of Melbourne Climate Futures and Don Henry AM, Melbourne Enterprise Professor of Environmentalism at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute for their take on what’s at stake.
1. What would be the best outcome from COP26?
PROFESSOR PEEL: The most important outcome would be increased ambition in countries’ mid-term (2030) targets to put the world on track to keep temperature rises below 2.0°C, and as close as possible to 1.5°C.
In essence, this policy ambition meets what the scientists say is necessary to avert climate catastrophe. Getting to net zero emissions by 2050 is important, but deep emissions cuts are most critical in the next decade to ensure we put the globe on a pathway to a sustainable climate future.
PROFESSOR HENRY: COP26 is all about implementing the historic 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Countries are expected to bring their national commitments to 2030 to the table.
These should be a fair share of, and build ambition to achieve, the global goals of keeping average global warming well below 2.0°C and striving to achieve 1.5°C, and global net zero emissions in the later part of the century.
For developed countries, this means net zero by 2050 or earlier – and for their crucial 2030 targets, at least halving emissions or more. Developed countries are also being urged to agree over $US100 billion in finance per year to assist developing countries transition to low carbon economies and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
A rule book for implementation of the Paris Agreement also needs finalising.
2.What could be the consequences should Australia fail to act effectively on climate change?
PROFESSOR PEEL: Australia is in line to experience some of the most severe consequences of climate change. Indeed, we are already seeing the effects of climate shifts in the Australian environment with hotter summer temperature extremes, increasing drought, more severe storms and increased flooding.
So, Australia has a big stake in ensuring the world acts decisively to address climate change.
In political and economic terms, Australia could suffer if it is seen not to be pulling its weight in the climate negotiations. One consequence, for example, could be that other countries impose carbon tariffs on goods from Australia to account for our lack of climate action.
PROFESSOR HENRY: If Australia fails to act effectively it will have two main consequences.
Firstly it will hold back the achievement of the Paris Agreement goals (which Australia signed onto) and give succour to other countries who aren’t doing their fair share of effort. This will make it harder to achieve the Paris Agreement goals and increase the risk that Australia – and every country on Earth – will suffer increasingly damaging impacts of climate change.
Secondly, Australia will be economically disadvantaged by ‘border adjustments’ and other penalties by countries who act but don’t want their economies disadvantaged, and we will miss out on jobs and investments that are rapidly growing in clean economies.
3.What responsibility does Australia have in terms of addressing climate change in our region?
PROFESSOR PEEL: Australia plays an important leadership role in our region as one of the key developed countries.
Under the United Nations climate framework, developed countries are supposed to ‘take the lead’ in addressing climate change. This includes leading on emission reductions and providing finance for developing countries and vulnerable small island states – like our Pacific neighbours – to adapt to climate change.
For many countries in the Pacific, climate change poses an existential threat – their territories may become uninhabitable with rising sea levels and other climate impacts. Australia has a strong moral responsibility, if not a legal responsibility, to ensure it plays its part and does its ‘fair share’ to safeguard our region against the worst predicted impacts of climate change.
PROFESSOR HENRY: Australia and our region are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Some of the Torres Strait’s islands, low lying areas in Australia, and some of our Pacific Island neighbours’ very survival is threatened by climate change.
It is a major social, economic, environmental, and security issue for our region. Australia is one of the heaviest greenhouse polluters per capita on Earth and we are one of the world’s biggest exporters of coal and gas.
Our region also has much to gain economically from a shift to low carbon economies. Australia has high levels of national, regional, and global responsibility to be a leader not a laggard on addressing climate change and building low carbon economies.
4.How do we bring the different voices in Australia together to address climate change cohesively?
PROFESSOR PEEL: This is already happening to some extent, driven by a common acceptance of the science across business, cities, courts, state governments and civil society, and recognition of the need for decisive action to reduce emissions and build climate resilience in the next decade.
The difficult part of the climate policy puzzle in Australia has always been the role of the federal government, which lags behind others. A commitment to net zero by 2050 is a good first step, but a more cohesive and coordinated climate policy for the country requires national climate legislation with clear interim targets and actions alongside a net zero long-term goal.
PROFESSOR HENRY: Governments, business, civil society, communities and individuals have crucial roles to play to address climate change. Many sectors of Australian society are moving quickly.
The business sector is broadly supporting halving emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050, and State Governments representing over two thirds of Australia’s economy are committed to the same.
More Australians have solar power on their roofs per capita than any other country. Knowledge and action across all sectors and interests is needed to rapidly scale up Australian action on climate change.
COP26 will help globally but we will have much to do still for Australia to shift from a laggard to a leader.