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  • Writer's pictureBronwyn Kelly

Australia can lead the world at COP26 to fix climate change

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Any Australian who might have been despondent about our chances of fixing climate change may well have been heartened by reading the recent words of Professor Lesley Hughes from the Climate Council. She said “there is no physical reason why we must accept the inevitable demise of life on the planet”. She’s right.

But there are a couple of things that will stand in our way. Or to put that the other way round, there are two crucial things we must fix, and if we do, then nothing will be in our way – not physically anyway.

The first thing to fix is Australia’s entirely uncooperative stance on the international stage in climate change agreements. The second is the world’s persistent focus on using negotiating frameworks in the Paris Agreement that will not stop global heating.

Australia has behaved with shameful recalcitrance in international negotiations on climate change. Some might think that Australia is too small to be able to disrupt global cooperation efforts and that what we do or fail to do, either in emissions reduction or uncooperative behaviour in negotiations, doesn’t matter. But our performance at the last big UNFCCC meeting – the 25th Conference of the Parties to the Paris Agreement on Climate Changen Madrid in 2019 – proved that one little country can indeed sabotage everything. And we did.

At COP25, members of Australia’s coal mining lobby stalked the negotiation halls hand in hand with Australia’s Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, and derailed international efforts to reach agreement on emissions reduction targets necessary to contain global heating to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. By accounting tricks and collusion, Australia set a wrecking ball going in the COP25 process, which if it is not corrected will result in our planet heating by at least 4 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial revolution averages.

As one attendant at COP25 reported in The Guardian at the time, “The gleeful coal lobby stalked the Madrid COP25 meeting halls as the Morrison government threw out compassion and international citizenship.” It is obvious that if we let Australian officials do that again at the next UNFCCC meeting – COP26 in Glasgow in November – then our chances of stopping global heating will disappear.

When it comes to climate, it only takes one country to behave badly for the whole thing to crumble. The Paris Agreement – reliant as it is on unprecedented cooperation between 197 countries – is already delicate enough without wealthy countries like Australia giving other countries excuses to either drop out of it or slow their emissions reduction trajectories. But that is precisely what Australia has been doing since signing the Paris Agreement of 2015. We are among the least cooperative nations on climate change.

For the Paris Agreement to succeed, every country must buy in and commit to the temperature aims of the Agreement to their fullest capacity. Otherwise, any efforts made at home will be wasted because the heating we have tried to avoid will occur anyway and overwhelm our ability to live with it. All countries must keep the primary aim in mind, and that is simply to stop the heating.

The good news is that it is still physically possible to meet even the most ambitious aim of capping global heating at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures if countries pitch in at full speed. There is enough wealth in the world to do it and the reality is that what the world can’t afford is to do nothing.

To date though, there has been nothing in the negotiating framework used for the Paris Agreement that will give each country a clear target which stipulates the full extent of their fair obligation for emissions reduction. Absent that full understanding of the upper limit of a country’s fair obligation and no country will pledge to their fullest capacity.

The proof of this is in the obvious hesitancy of countries since 2016 to increase their pledges. Despite some countries of late making commitments to net zero by 2050 or 2060, this does not amount to an actual commitment to do all things necessary to meet the temperature targets of the Agreement. If anything, it amounts to a commitment to delay action and thereby disregard the central aim.

The voluntary system of NDCs was useful in encouraging countries to join the Paris Agreement. And it was an unprecedented achievement in international cooperation, commensurate with the unprecedented nature of the challenge posed by climate change to all nations’ common interests.

But the system of pledging intended percentage reductions of emissions can no longer function to stop global heating because it does not oblige each country to reach net zero before too much carbon is emitted in total. It is the total emitted that matters.

The world needs to cap the total tonnage of emissions to the atmosphere if we are to keep temperature rises to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. It is too late for the current negotiating system of commitments to percentage emissions reductions to succeed, and exhausting ourselves at another COP meeting with the activity of trying to make it work will lock in failure.

There is only one way to meet the temperature aims of the Paris Agreement and that is to set a budget of the tonnes of total emissions that can still be safely emitted to the atmosphere and work out each nation’s fair share of that remaining tonnage. Yet the Paris Agreement contains no mechanism enabling nations to work out those fair shares. Nor does it give its signatories the certainty they need to buy into the Agreement at their fullest capacity.

Apart from anything, the current percentage reduction approach gives each country no idea of whether there will be sufficient support for them to meet the targets and no idea of the benefits of the mutual cooperation that can only arise from mapping out a plan where every country can see the upper limit of their emissions budget and then work out the cost of staying within it. It also gives them no idea of what support they will get as they plan their way towards capping emissions at the ceiling if they are not a developed country, or what support they will be asked to give if they are a developed country. The missing piece of the necessary mapped out plans is the tonnage limit for emissions and the agreed fair shares of the tonnage.

The global tonnage limit is a target that is not yet the centre of the negotiations and until it becomes the centre – until it replaces the current target which is still being expressed by most as net zero emissions by a date that ignores the reality of the necessary limits on total tonnages that may be emitted – the world will not reach net zero before the high temperatures are locked in. Nobody wins if we fail on the temperature target.

No signatory disputes the IPCC estimates of the remaining tonnages of greenhouse gases that can still be emitted before the Earth bursts through the 1.5 degree safe global heating limit. What they haven’t yet worked out is how to fairly share the remaining tonnage. But it is not difficult to work that out and if we do, we can rescue our economy, our planet and our children’s futures.

A new negotiating basis for the Paris Agreement proposed in a petition that has been launched by Australian Community Futures Planning can give the countries attending COP26 a means of working out how to fairly share the remaining safe total tonnage of emissions. With that in hand we can secure every country’s path to planetary health and climate stability.

The Paris Agreement really only requires a slight tweak to make it work. It only requires all countries to work out the fair shares of the remaining safe load of carbon emissions. Everything after that is physically and financially achievable.

Australia could recover its international reputation as a decent global citizen if we took a leadership role and brokered hard for this new negotiating framework at COP26 – one capable of stopping the heating.

Sign the petition demanding that Australia lead the world at COP26 to stop global heating:

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