Cautious optimism and Australia on the outer: Five things you need to know about Cop26 so far

Cautious optimism and Australia on the outer: Five things you need to know about Cop26 so far

Cautious optimism and Australia on the outer: Five things you need to know about Cop26 so far

Will it turn out to be another great moment in greenwashing? Here is what was promised, and what wasn’t, at Cop26

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison walk together during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 2, 2021.

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Climate and environment editor

Last modified on Fri 5 Nov 2021 20.32 EDT

A climate summit billed as the last, best chance to deal with global heating finally got under way in Glasgow this week. More than 100 national leaders came together for the 26th conference of the parties (Cop26). Speeches were given, deals were done and protests were held. But was any progress made?

Here are five things to know from the first week.

Glasgow wasn’t really about net zero by 2050

After the intense focus on whether Scott Morrison could reach an agreement with the Nationals on setting a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the new goal was barely mentioned during the prime minister’s national statement at the Glasgow summit.

Morrison did focus on what Australia would do by 2030, which was actually the focus of Cop26, arguing it was on track to make a 35% cut in emissions by the end of the decade (compared with a base year of 2005).

In reality, official projections suggested the cut would be 30%, and possibly up to 35% if clean technology really took off in the short-term. But the higher figure may turn out to be correct – experts outside government have found commitments by state governments and the private sector may get Australia there despite there being no new national policies.

Despite this evidence, the Nationals rejected the idea of increasing the official 2030 target. It left Morrison on the global stage claiming credit for a potential future cut in emissions that isn’t the country’s official target.

That remains a 26-28% cut, the same commitment promised by Tony Abbott before the landmark Paris climate agreement was signed six years ago – and about half what the US, European Union and UK have promised.

Given the stakes and goals of the Glasgow meeting – to produce commitments that would roughly cut emissions in half by 2030 – this went down about as well as you might expect.

Reasons for (cautious) optimism

Observers were quick to contrast Morrison’s speech with what immediately preceded it. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, arrived with new commitments – a 50% renewable energy share and 500GW of non-fossil fuel energy by 2030 on the way to net zero emissions by 2070.

While the long-term target drew headlines for being 50 years away, the short-term goals were seen as a significant pledge from a developing country that has often been a frustrated participant in global climate talks.

A couple of snap analyses found it could make a difference, helping keep average global heating to less than 2C of pre-industrial levels if delivered along with other national commitments.

It is a big “if” for a range of reasons. India and other developing countries will need financial support from the rich to help transform their economies, and there are doubts over whether the US political system can deliver on Joe Biden’s ambition.

Analysts agreed the world was still a long way from keeping heating to 1.5C, which the scientific consensus has marked as a threshold to limit the impact of worsening heatwaves and extreme events and give coral reefs and at-risk species a chance of survival.

That said, optimists stress how far several major emitters, and many in the business and investment community, have moved since the last summit in Madrid two years ago.

The carnival-like nature of the conference is messy as hell, the commitments aren’t anything like enough yet and the potential for commitments to be greenwashed away is significant – but this is how the Paris agreement is supposed to work. Countries submit short-term targets and ratchet them up over time.

Australia stands alongside Russia as one of the few that is effectively refusing.

It’s possible Glasgow may yet turn into another version of the failed 2009 summit in Copenhagen as some have suggested, but the momentum is much greater now.

Some moves on fossil fuels, but not for Australia

Despite some media reports suggesting otherwise, the prime minister signed up to next to nothing in his two days at the fortnight-long summit.

Australia was even more on the outer among its allies by Thursday, when it had been confirmed it would not sign up to pledges to phase out the use of coal power.

These deals aren’t the main focus of the conference – they are side discussions to the main focus of the talks, which are mostly about how to implement the Paris agreement.

But they can help build momentum. A global push to rapidly wean off the dirtiest power source would go a long way towards putting the world on track to limit global heating, and has been a major goal of the conference hosts this year.

In the end, the British managed only a watered down commitment. Some developed countries only promised to get off coal in the 2030s or “as soon as possible thereafter”. Developing countries made the same commitment for the 2040s, which could mean 2049 – nothing like soon enough.

But it is worth taking note of which countries signed up. They included some major European powers such as Germany, South Korea (the fifth biggest coal user and a major customer for Australian exports), Indonesia (seventh biggest, and the world’s biggest thermal coal exporter) and Vietnam (a growing market for coal that Australia has been eyeing off).

Australia – along with China, India and Japan, among others – chose not to. They also rejected making a commitment that public funding should no longer go to overseas fossil fuel projects.

Australia’s position isn’t a surprise. Angus Taylor, the emissions reduction minister, was explicit before jetting to Glasgow that he would use the climate change summit to promote Australia as a place to invest in gas, and the government has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to what it calls a “gas-fired recovery”.

An end to deforestation – but not at home

One of the side deals to make headlines during the week was a declaration that deforestation – the clearing of the ecosystems that are the lungs of the planet – for agriculture and development would halt and start to be reversed by 2030.

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Some environmentalists at home celebrated, expecting this would demand an end to native forestry and old-growth logging in Australia. But that was quickly shot down by the assistant forestry minister, Jonno Duniam, who said the country’s industry was already living up to the aspirations of the declaration.

According to the government’s official accounts, Australia’s forests and land mass have been a net sink for greenhouse gas emissions in recent years as land-clearing and forestry have slowed and there has been re-planting.

Basically, native forests are still being cleared, at a rapid rate in some areas, but the accounts say total forest cover is increasing – and therefore the country does not meet the technical definition of deforestation.

The declaration’s main goal is to build support to protect vast ecosystems, ranging from the eastern Siberian taiga to the Congo basin.

China remains an unanswered question

The president, Xi Jinping, did not turn up – he hasn’t left China since the pandemic began. The Chinese delegation is active as always, but Xi’s decision not to record a video message to be played alongside other leaders’ speeches was seen as a slight.

He did announce a previously flagged modest step forward in his country’s commitments ahead of the conference, confirming its emissions will peak by 2030, by which time it expects to have an extraordinary 1,200GW of solar and wind.

But the previous goodwill between China and the US on climate appears to have dissipated, at least at leadership level. Biden was sharply critical of Xi’s non-appearance this week and the Chinese leader struck back, pointing out the US has a less than stellar emissions history. And for all its investment in renewable energy, often doing more than promised, China also continues to back coal.

Much of the second week in Glasgow will focus on how the Paris agreement is being implemented, but there will also be discussion about continuing the push for escalated 2030 emissions commitments next year to bridge the gap between what’s promised and what’s needed. As with everything, China’s position will be central.

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