Shortcuts / 30 September 2021

Australia’s climate agenda in 2021

As we head towards the end of the year, climate change is going to be the talk of the town. That’s because in just over a month’s time, around 25,000 people will descend on Glasgow in Scotland for what’s been called the most significant climate gathering since the Paris Agreement was nutted out in 2015: COP26. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at why this conference is such a big deal, where Oz is at with its climate commitments, what we can expect in the lead-up, and why it’s such a tricky issue.

Firstly, what’s with the name?
Strap yourself in – this is all about the United Nations and their lingo… A COP is a Conference of the Parties and it takes the form of a summit held every year. These COPs are essentially an ‘arm’ of the UNFCCC – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

So. Many. Acronyms.
We warned you…

What’s the UNFCCC again?
It’s part of the UN’s role in taking forward the climate change agenda that was established at the first Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio.

Gotcha. So what happens at these meetings?
Every year (with the exception of 2020…), each member country brings their climate policy negotiators to the COP. There are also observers from hundreds of NGOs, businesses and faith-based organisations.

So that’s how we get to 25,000 people…
Yup. It sounds like a logistical nightmare, but conference organisers have figured out a way to get it down to the key issues with the key people.

How does that work?
They use a traditional Zulu community meeting style method known as an ‘indaba’. It gathers the key people together and they’re only allowed to have one aide or adviser. Others are able to observe or listen but the main sticking points are discussed face-to-face with just those key people involved. It was a method used in the now well-referenced Paris meeting in 2015 to rave reviews.

What went down in Paris again?
Those member countries plus the European Union agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Which was a big step forward…
Yup. But recent reports from the IPCC say the world won’t achieve that target based on the current trends.

Yet another acronym…
You betcha. The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its job is to provide scientific advice to the UN every 5 years and present its climate Assessment Report.

What else does the IPCC say?
Their most recent report was released in August and it painted a picture where drought, floods, fires, and warmer temperatures worsen as the world locks in a 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature increase. In its 2018 ‘special report’, it said that a net zero emissions target by 2050 was the way to go to limit global warming.

What does that actually mean?
It basically means achieving a balance between greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere and those taken out through reforestation, or technologies such as carbon capture and storage. So you take out the emissions that you’re putting in.

So that’s why the ‘net’ part in that ‘net zero’ is important…
Yep. And as part of the agenda for Glasgow’s COP26, countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reduction targets which align with reaching net zero by 2050.

Alright, let’s talk details. When is COP26 and who’s going?
It’s on 1 November and it goes for 2 weeks. Around 120 world leaders of nations including the US, UK and China will attend along with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and also Pope Francis.

What about Australia?
PM Scott Morrison hasn’t yet confirmed whether he’ll be attending the conference, saying the logistics of getting there might be a bit tricky. But regardless, a representative from Oz will be there.

What’s our stance on climate change policy?
As things currently stand, Morrison says Australia will reach net zero emissions ‘preferably’ by 2050.

So where does that leave things?
It means Australia’s official position on greenhouse gas emissions reductions is that from the original Paris pledge in 2015 – to cut emissions by 26-28% by 2030.

How’s that going for us?
Energy Minister Angus Taylor has said Australia will ‘meet and beat’ that Paris target. But as we march closer towards COP26, the government is coming under increasing pressure to formally commit to greater emissions reductions.

But it ain’t easy…
Nope. And that’s because of the politics within the Coalition. Some members of the Nationals have been resisting deeper commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Why’s that?
Their traditional constituencies are those who work in ‘trade intensive exposed industries’ – so those that include agriculture and resources.

What are their concerns?
They argue that signing up to cut emissions further will increase costs in those industries and potentially threaten their futures. And there are some within the Liberal Party who also share those concerns.

But not all the Nats agree…
Nope. Some, like Victorian National MP Darren Chester, say they want the party to do more. He’s been in the news because he’s taking a break from the Nats over the issue.

What’s his argument?
That Australia can be a part of the solution to climate change because we’re a developed country and we have a lot of potential via our natural assets and innovation. He said he doesn’t want Oz to be locked out of any opportunities or be exposed to global penalties that might come our way if we don’t commit to emissions when other nations are.

So there’s some angst…
There is. But it seems like the Coalition is moving towards embracing a formal commitment of net zero emissions by 2050. Last week, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce gave a strong indication the party will back that “if it does not leave regional areas hurt”. He’s also said that his colleagues will have the ultimate say.

Sounds like there could be some fine print…
Yup. Potentially a lot of taxpayer’s dollars to fund adjustment packages for affected industries…

What does the Liberal Party have to say?
Last week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg made the economic case for adopting a net zero emissions by 2050 target. He warned that the costs of capital could increase if there was a perception Australia wasn’t doing its bit in the transition to lower-carbon energy. And for many Liberals, their city constituencies are demanding greater action on climate change so there’s pressure at both ends of the spectrum.

Not to mention an election is around the corner…
It is. And because of that, some of those Liberal MPs will be facing threats from the Greens as well as a new generation of ‘climate’ Independents like Zali Steggall, who knocked former PM Tony Abbott out of his Sydney seat of Warringah last election largely on this issue.

What’s her position on climate change?
She, along with the Greens, are essentially calling for an immediate halt on all fossil fuel production.

And what does Labor have to say on the issue?
Labor has its own wedge in the climate space given its traditional support base of heavy manufacturing and mining workers. Labor’s climate spokesman Chris Bowen claims Labor will adopt ‘stronger’ targets should it be elected and has stated support for net zero by 2050. But the details are a wait-and-see.

And outside of politics?
Some of the strongest voices urging the government to commit to net zero have been the National Farmers Federation, APPEA (the peak body of oil and gas producers), the once reluctant but now climate champion Business Council of Australia, and the Australian Energy Council. All argue that targets for reduction can only help investment certainty in the long run.

So there are a lot of players in the game…
Yup, which doesn’t make it easy. Another thing that’s making cutting emissions a tricky issue for Australia is our key export industries in mining, gas and agriculture.

Why’s that?
It’s often cited that Australia is a top per-capita emitter of greenhouse gases along with the fact that we’re a major fossil fuel exporter.

What are we doing about that?
The federal government says there are a range of measures in place that have seen emissions across the economy fall to the lowest on a per capita basis (meaning per head of population in a country) in 3 decades despite the growth in exports and industry.

And what do you mean when you say fossil fuel exporter?
So there are a couple of things to note.

Go on…
We do a lot of mining in Australia, and a lot of that is exported – it’s a big money earner for Australia. So digging the stuff up is a big contributor to our emissions. The other is our electricity sector. It’s dependent on burning coal, and that adds up when you look at emissions per person, and that’s domestically driven.

What does the government say about that?
It says it’s on track to do better than the cuts promised in Paris in 2016. But the fact that our per head of population emissions are higher than our major trading partners including the US is something that gets a lot of attention internationally….

What do the critics say?
One of the arguments from those who say signing up to that target isn’t necessary is that we are a small nation – it won’t make a difference what we do. They argue that Australia contributes about 1.3% of global carbon dioxide emissions from human activity – so do we really matter?

And on the other side of the coin…
Critics of that line of thinking say our population is 0.3% of the global total. And if we want to be taken seriously on the world stage by anyone on any issue, we need to do more here too. It’s also important to note that the emissions that come from, say, burning coal in countries where we’ve exported it to doesn’t count to our total. So that’s something that’s talked about a bit in relation to our global role.

So there’s pressure from all over to make moves on net zero by 2050…
Yup, and there are already 130 countries that have agreed to that target. So we are pretty isolated on our current stance, particularly as a developed country.

So how will this all play out at COP26?
Once at COP, delegates will have 2 weeks of negotiations to hopefully get something down on paper. The first week is set aside for government officials to discuss the technical details, and the 2nd is dominated by Ministerial and Heads of State meetings who try to nut out issues that couldn’t be resolved in the first week.

And when you say technical details…
We’re talking about finalising carbon market mechanisms that would allow trading of carbon credits between countries; implementing a mechanism to fund loss and damage experienced by vulnerable countries to climate disasters; how the $100 billion finance target to help poorer countries deal with climate change will be distributed; how to integrate ‘nature-based solutions’ for carbon management like forests and ecosystems.

So, just a few little things…
Yup. We have a feeling it will require another Shortcut in the near future…

Squiz recommends:

ABC – What does the latest IPCC report mean for Australia?

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