Not a total COP out … except for Australia


And it’s a wrap. COP26, the nemesis of the Australian coalition government is over and all 197 participating nations have pledged to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal, the number-one cause of climate change.

This morning, government backbencher Matt Canavan chose to interpret the softening of language around the global coal commitment as “a big green light” for Australia “to build more coal mines, supply the world with more coal, because that is what brings millions of people out of poverty”.

Commenting yesterday afternoon on the Australian Science Media Centre website, AusSMC, Professor John Quiggin, Australian Laureate Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland interpreted the revised coal terminology in a broader context when he said, “The compromises made to reach a final text have been disappointing, but relatively minor. For example, while “phasing down” coal is less satisfactory than “phasing out”, either contrasts sharply with the view of the Australian government (at least until recently) that coal demand will remain strong indefinitely into the future.”

In a statement from the Australian Conservation Foundation today, the organisation’s Climate Program Manager, Gavan McFadzean said that the gap in climate policies and commitment  between “Australia and some of its closest allies and trading partners – like the US, UK and the EU – has widened and it will result in dire consequences for our climate, economy and jobs.”

Speaking on ABC Radio National this morning McFadzean contextualised the overall achievement of COP26 in the light of recognition and mitigations achieved since the Paris agreement of COP21: “People need to remember that before Paris, we were heading to five or six degrees of global warming; between Paris and now we were heading for three to four degrees, and now, this agreement brings us within two degrees, so there’s no doubt that significant progress is being made to get emissions down.”

Outcomes of the summit continue to elicit a variety of responses from experts and commentators in Australia. The following is a selection from the Australian Science Media Centre’s stream of informed opinion:

Professor Matthew England, Scientia Professor at the Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW

“It’s extremely disappointing to see COP26 end like this — coal has to be abandoned for us to secure a safe climate future. Simply phasing down rather than eliminating our reliance on coal is fundamentally at odds with a commitment to net zero by 2050. Net zero cannot be achieved without urgent action to leave the world’s reserves of fossil fuels in the ground.”

John O’Brien, Partner, Energy Transition & Decarbonisation, Deloitte; and founder of the Deloitte Australia CleanTech Index 

“Side agreements have been much more impactful: 23 countries increased their emissions targets and agreements were announced to phase out coal in rich countries by 2040, end deforestation by 2030 and reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. 

Even more importantly the finance sector is driving change across whole economies and the companies that operate within them. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net-Zero (GFANZ), 450 financial firms with $130 trillion of assets under management, committed to net zero for both their operations, and their lending and investing. This will impact the financing practices of every bank and lender globally.”

Professor Ariel Liebman, Director of the Monash Energy Institute; Chair of the Energy Research Institute’s Council for Australia (ERICA);  Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems, Dept of Data Science and AI, Monash University; and Program Leader at RACE for 2030 CRC. 

“All countries can now transition to a 100 per cent renewable grid by at least 2035, so the discussion around coal and the last minute softening of the language requested by India seems quite pointless and unnecessary. The hard to abate sectors are all outside electricity and light transport now, with electric vehicles showing a rapid pathway to total decarbonisation of about 50 per cent of global energy use as early as 2035. Hence many of the obstacles seem to now be more political rather than economic.”

Kylie Walker, CEO of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering

“With the emissions projections released on Friday leaving lingering questions on how we transition from rhetoric to action, the Government need look no further than existing mature technologies ready for widespread deployment.

It’s time for a credible and robust plan which maximises Australia’s global leadership position in low-carbon technologies like solar, wind and energy storage (batteries and pumped hydro), combined with electrification of transport and sustainably designed buildings.”

Neville Nicholls, Emeritus Professor at the School of Earth, Atmosphere & Environment, Monash University

“COP26 has far exceeded my expectations and has shown that the rest of the world is serious and united about dealing with climate change. This has left Australia in a challenging position. We are vulnerable to climate change, dependent on fossil fuels, seen as recalcitrant by the rest of the world, and likely to face punitive action from our friends and enemies unless we adopt a serious and credible strategy to reduce our emissions.”

Professor Susan Harris Rimmer, Director of the Policy Innovation Hub, Griffith University 

“From a human rights perspective the COP agreement is a failure. 1.5 is the only target that keeps the world safe, including our Pacific neighbours and most of northern Australia. This is not a “near enough is good enough” kind of deal.

The Article 6 carbon market provisions failed to incorporate human rights standards. The fossil fuel provisions have too many carve outs. 

This was the moment to accept a “loss and damage” mechanism for rich countries to compensate poor countries and accept the injustice of emission impacts but that chance was lost. 

We need to kick fossil fuel lobbyists out of the next COP in Cairo. 

Australians need to vote climate. We need to understand what is in the balance here for our own increasingly short-term futures: Livable summers, insurable homes, water security, healthy cities, preparedness for weather events. Not to mention the ability to look your grandchildren in the eyes.

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