COP26 president Alok Sharma has described the pivotal United Nations talks, which concluded over the weekend, as only a “fragile win” for ambition on climate change. But, against the odds, the summit produced the goods on several important aspects of international climate policy.
It resolved tricky outstanding issues for implementing the Paris Agreement. And most importantly, it reinforced the multilateral consensus that much stronger climate action is needed in both the short and long term.
Stabilising the climate depends on a lot more than the outcome of multilateral negotiations like Glasgow. But those agreements set a frame for real-world decisions.
Here’s a preliminary interpretation of some of the decisions at COP26 on climate change mitigation, and the implications for Australia.
Coal power “phase down”
Global climate negotiations are usually a relentless grind, with occasional fireworks. One such firework moment came in the final session when India, supported by China, demanded the Glasgow Climate Pact’s language on coal should be weakened from “phase-out” to “phasedown” of unabated coal power.
To prevent the disagreement scuttling the entire deal, the revision was agreed to, despite bitter protests by many countries intent on stronger action.
The wording of United Nations agreements is cumbersome, but deliberate. Here’s the full reference to coal in the final COP26 text. It calls on the parties to the Paris Agreement to:
accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognising the need for support towards a just transition.
(By way of definition, “unabated” coal power refers to the absence of carbon capture and storage in power stations. This technology is very expensive for power generation and unlikely to be used at large scale.)
So what does the above text mean, exactly? At the core of it, the international community is spelling out an expectation that countries strive to greatly reduce the use of coal in electricity generation, and to stop subsidising fossil fuels. The original “phase-out” language would obviously have meant nations should stop using unabated coal power altogether.
On the face of it, the change in wording makes a big difference. But the signal to investors in coal mining and coal power plants is the same: the international community has decided coal-fired power must fall, and its end is coming.
No previous United Nations climate change decision has so directly called for action to cut fossil fuels. So even the weakened language is unprecedented.
What’s more, nations can act independently of – and more ambitiously than – the wording in the COP agreement.
For example, China recently pledged to rely much less on coal power and stop building coal-fired power stations abroad. And the surprise US-China joint declaration on climate change announced at Glasgow enshrines the “elimination of support for unabated international thermal coal power generation”.
The international market for thermal coal – the type burned for electricity – will shrink and could do so quickly. Australia is the world’s number two thermal coal exporter behind Indonesia. We’d better get used to the fact the business is in decline.
Ratcheting up 2030 targets
Another key aspect of the Glasgow pact is the call for stronger 2030 emissions targets and short-term action.
By the end of next year, nations are asked to strengthen their 2030 targets to align with the 1.5℃ temperature goal. This puts big pressure on Australia.
The federal government still retains the very weak target of a 26-28% emissions reduction by 2030, based on 2005 levels, and recently said the target will be exceeded by up to 9%. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s insistence on Sunday that the target is “fixed” will not cut it over the next year.
Almost all other developed countries have strengthened their targets already, some greatly so. An important reference point is the United States, which has adopted a 50-52% reduction target in the same time frame.
In yet stronger language, the Glasgow pact “urges” countries that haven’t yet submitted a long-term emissions-reduction strategy to do so by next year’s conference.
This puts the onus on the federal government. Its recent “plan” to reach net-zero by 2050 falls far short of the mark of what constitutes a real national strategy.
International carbon trading
COP26 managed to resolve an issue that had proven extremely difficult since the Paris talks – rules for future international carbon markets.
The compromise reached appears to largely close loopholes for double-counting of emissions reduction. What kind and extent of international emissions markets will emerge under the Paris Agreement framework remains to be seen. However, the rules to underpin them are now available.
From an Australian perspective, an outcome on international emissions markets is very positive. Australian governments and negotiators have worked to help make it happen.
It opens the door to Australian companies or governments purchasing emissions reductions achieved in other countries, if this turned out cheaper than acting more strongly to cut emissions at home. It will also help Australia work with countries in the Pacific and Southeast Asia to reduce emissions there, and to share the resulting emissions reductions between countries.
Australia’s large land mass and unlimited potential for cheap renewable energy means it’s better positioned than most countries to become a net-negative emissions economy in the long term. In other words, Australia could one day remove more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it emits.
So an international carbon trading framework means Australia could eventually sell emissions reduction credits to other countries, and the revenue could fund large-scale CO₂ removal from the atmosphere.
A momentum that cannot be ignored
Earth’s climate will not be determined by what is agreed at global climate talks, but by the actions that businesses and people take, and the policies governments put in place.
The Glasgow outcome, however, shows there is global resolve to get on top of the problem. Governments that might prefer the old ways of a carbon-intensive economy cannot ignore that momentum.