COP26: how are we travelling?

World leaders have departed COP26, but the Glasgow climate-change conference continues for another week. So, what happened this week, and where did Australia stand?

The conference has seen several prominent international agreements on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in difference areas – particularly around methane and deforestation.

Over 100 countries have signed a global pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Methane, while making up a smaller proportion of greenhouse gas than CO2, stores heat far more potently, theoretically making its reduction a very effective way of limiting warming (but not a silver bullet). Australia is not a signatory to this pledge.

Australia has, however, signed on to the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, along with countries that account for 90% of the world’s forests. This declaration aims to end deforestation by 2030.

As well as political agreements, the conference is a hub for commercial and social enterprises.

“It’s probably the first COP where government has been not the most prominent party,” says John O’Brien, a partner in energy transition and decarbonisation at Deloitte, who has been attending the conference. “It’s the companies and the finance industry and civil society [that] is actually more important, and kind of driving things.”

He also believes emissions reduction, while being the sole focus of previous COPs, is now sharing the stage with climate adaptation.

“This one has had a lot more around resilience, adaptation, physical risk, biodiversity and valuing natural capital,” he says.

“So it’s also sort of the first COP where there’s been really close integration of adaptation and mitigation.”

Read more: COP26: what’s at stake? A climate primer

In addition to large-scale agreements, most attending countries have increased their emissions reduction targets from those set at Paris in 2015. Are they ambitious enough?

“We might not meet the 1.5°C target, but I think we have a good chance to stay below 2°C,” says Associate Professor Sven Teske from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, who is attending his 20th UN Climate Change Conference.

This assertion is consistent with several expert projections, including one recently published in Science. This paper, written by an international team of climate analysts, has examined the updated pledges made by 121 of the countries attending COP26. They found that the updated pledges are stronger in ambition than those made at Paris in 2015, and provide a better near-term foundation for keeping warming below 2°C. They will, however, need to be updated continually, and become more ambitious over the next decades, to have a greater than 50% chance of meeting this target.

While this is clearly a step in the right direction, the researchers say that the pledges also need to be matched with actions.

“Ultimately, realising the long-term climate benefits described in this study will require putting words into action by implementing these newer and enhanced targets,” write the authors.

While Australia recently set a 2050 target for net zero emissions, it has not updated its 2030 target of a 26% to 28% reduction on 2005 emissions. This is in contrast to other industrialised countries, which have set much more ambitious goals. The G7, for instance, agreed to halve  2030 emissions in July.

“I think it’s fair to say that there’s a bit of consternation in some of the other developed countries, including in the US and the UK, as to why Australia wouldn’t take on a stronger [2030] target – in the 40% range somewhere,” says Professor Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University.

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