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COP26: Have we missed our moment?

Joëlle Gergis on what happened at COP26, and what it means for the fate of our planet.

After two weeks, COP26, the international climate summit in Glasgow is wrapping up. The summit has been called the world’s best last chance. So has it worked? 

The primary goal of the conference was to reach a consensus that would keep levels of global warming below 1.5 degrees.

According to research released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), staying below 1.5 degrees is critical to avoid catastrophic climate change. 

Today, climate scientist and one of the lead authors of that IPCC report, Joëlle Gergis, on what happened at COP26, and what it means for the fate of our planet. 


Guest: Climate scientist and author, Joëlle Gergis.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY: 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

 

After two weeks COP26 - the international climate summit in Glasgow - is wrapping up. The summit has been called the world’s best last chance - so, has it worked? 

 

The primary goal of the conference was to reach a consensus that would keep levels of global warming below 1.5 degrees - to keep 1.5 alive. 

 

Archival tape -- COP26 Opening:
“What we came here to do and that's keep 1.5 alive and make Paris the success that the world needs it to be.” 

 

According to research released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - staying below 1.5 degrees is critical, to avoid catastrophic climate change. 

 

Today, climate scientist and one of the lead authors of that IPCC report, Joelle Gergis, on what happened at COP26 - and what it means for the fate of our planet. 

 

It’s Friday November 12

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:
Hi, Joelle, it's Ruby. 

 

JOELLE:
Hi, Ruby, how are you? 

 

RUBY:
I'm OK. How are you going? 

 

JOELLE:
Yeah, I'm it's it's a very interesting time, I've been really trying to lay low because I'm really trying to stay focussed on my writing. But there's just so many things that I think that do need to be shared with the public. So I hope it's useful. 

 

RUBY:
Mm well thankyou. I really appreciate it. Can we start with the opening of COP-26. Did you watch the speeches? 

 

JOELLE:
Yes, I did.

 

Archival tape -- COP26 Opening:
Welcome to the opening ceremony for the world leaders summit of COP26.

 

JOELLE:
So I think it was a Saturday morning, and I was sitting down to catch up on the opening speeches of the COP26 World Leaders Summit. And I was really, really moved by some of the really powerful words being spoken by our world leaders, and it sort of filled me with hope, thinking, well, imagine if this was the moment where we were actually going to turn things around. 

 

Archival tape -- Mia Mottley:
“So I ask to you, what must we say to our people living on the front line, in the Caribbean in Africa in Latin America..”

 

JOELLE:
The one who I found particularly moving was Mia Mottley, so the prime minister of Barbados.

 

Archival tape -- Mia Mottley:
“Our people are watching and our people are taking note. And are we really going to leave Scotland without the resolve and the ambition that is sorely needed to save lives and to save our planet?”

 

JOELLE:
She got up and and just I mean, I was so moved by what she said she basically spoke to the world leaders and said, we need to try harder.

 

Archival tape -- Mia Mottley:
“We do not want that dreaded death sentence and we have come here today to say try harder, try harder.”

 

JOELLE:
And David Attenborough, he always makes me cry these days. 

 

Archival tape -- David Attenborough:
“Nature is a key ally, whenever we restore the wild, it will recapture carbon and help us bring back balance to our planet.”

 

JOELLE:
The wisdom of someone who has been around for that long and understands what is at stake ecologically. I mean, for me, he just speaks a lot of sense, and he talked about that this could be an era of regeneration. 

 

Archival tape -- David Attenborough:
“In my lifetime I've witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery that desperate hope. Ladies and gentlemen, delegates, excellencies, it's why the world is looking to you.”

 

JOELLE:
I guess as the week has progressed, we've been seeing that still, we're really quite far away from where we need to be. And I guess my hope is starting to wane. But ultimately, as a climate scientist, I understand that we need to continue to keep up this fight, no matter how difficult it feels and how despairing you can feel at times because so much is at stake.

 

RUBY:
It is. And before we get to that, to what’s at stake, can we talk about the pledges that have come out of the summit at this point? What is being promised? 

 

JOELLE:
Yes, sure. So I think the good news is that 137 nations have now pledged net zero emission targets, mostly by 2050. And this represents close to 90 per cent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions. So this is really significant.

 

Archival tape -- Boris Johnson:
“We can get real on coal, cars, cash, and trees. We have the technology to deactivate that ticking doomsday device.”

 

JOELLE:
13 of these regions, including the UK, the EU, Canada and New Zealand have already legislated the 2050 targets, which is terrific progress. 


Archival tape -- Jacinda Ardern:

“Regardless of who is in power in the future. There are now accountabilities that will be set through parliament. That means that you won't see New Zealand easily able to walk away from what we must do.” 

 

JOELLE:
In countries like Australia, the US and Brazil, we have theoretically agreed to net zero by 2050 in policy documents, but these pledges have not been backed up by legally binding commitments. And big emitters like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia have now agreed to net zero emissions by 2060. And India has agreed to net zero by 2070.

 

Archival tape -- Narendra Modi:
“India will fulfill 50 percent of its energy requirement from renewable energy sources by 2030…”

 

JOELLE:
New coalitions have been announced for decarbonising sectors of the global economy, and these include phasing out of coal fired power, reducing methane emissions and ending deforestation by 2030. 

 

Archival tape -- Joe Biden:
“to halt forest loss, restore critical carbon sinks and improve land management.” 

 

JOELLE:
Now these are all really positive steps in the right direction. But unfortunately, I'm sorry to say that we're still way off target to keep the 1.5 degree goal alive. What that means is that we're committed to dangerous levels of climate change, which will have irreversible and intergenerational consequences for people and the planet. It's just really clear that we can't carry on as business as usual. 

 

RUBY:
Mm hmm. And so Joelle if the idea of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees seems less and less likely - can you tell me why it is that our targets seem to be slipping like this? What is the most important factor that is pushing us in this direction?

 

JOELLE:
Yeah, it's a great question. Well, I think addressing climate change can sometimes appear to be a really highly complicated debate. The truth is actually really very simple. 

 

We must leave fossil fuels in the ground to stabilise the Earth's climate. Even nations like the US, Germany and the UK who claim to be leading the transition to clean energy are still planning to develop new coal mines, oil fields and gas reserves. 

 

And while it's great that 40 nations have signed up to the phase out of coal fired power generation between 2030 and 2040, some of the world's biggest coal dependent economies, including Australia, China, India and the US are missing from the deal. 

 

Archival tape:
“We released data today showing that, as you note, the largest delegation, a COP26 billed as the last best chance to avert climate disaster, the largest delegation here is the fossil fuel lobby.”

 

JOELLE:
And just this week, the BBC reported that the fossil fuel industry is the largest delegation present at the COP26 summit. So more than any single country present at the meeting. 

 

Archival tape:
“We don't allow tobacco lobbyists into health conferences, so it begs the question why fossil fuel lobbyists are being allowed into the most important climate conference in a generation.” 

 

JOELLE:
So it seems to me that it's clear that our political leaders are protecting corporate interests that are willing to sacrifice our planetary life support system to keep the fossil fuel industry alive for another handful of decades. 

 

And to me, this is the biggest failure of COP26 that we missed our moment to really turn things around. 

 

RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment.

 

[Advertisement]

 

RUBY:
Joelle, the theme going in to Cop 26 was 1.5, stay alive, but when you look at what's actually happened at the summit, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees seems increasingly unattainable. That's largely because of the failure of countries, including Australia, to agree to phase out coal fired power generation. So, if not 1.5, what should we expect? How much are temperatures likely to rise?

 

JOELLE:
So right now, current policies will lead to around 2.6 to 2.7 degrees of global warming by the end of the century. And if nations fully implement their 2030 targets brought to the table at Glasgow, projected warming falls around 2.4 degrees by the end of the century, which is still a catastrophic overshooting of the Paris Agreement targets. 

 

So basically, there is still a large disconnect between the policy response and the scientific reality. We're still not doing enough. To keep the 1.5 degree target alive. We know that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 per cent between now and 2030, and current pledges are still not enough to achieve this. 

 

So world leaders are not responding to the situation with the urgency that it demands. They have failed to respond to this as a global crisis like the way we responded to the coronavirus pandemic. 

 

So I wouldn't say that the goal of stabilising warming to 1.5 degrees is completely dead, it's still geophysically feasible. But our political leaders need to urgently respond and treat this like the crisis that it is.

 

RUBY:
Mm OK. And so if we take that 2.4 degree rise by the end of the century, that projection, what are the consequences of that? What does 2.4 degrees mean for the globe, but also specifically for Australia? 

 

JOELLE:
I think it's fair to say that that level of warming would reconfigure life as we know it on the planet. For example, the latest IPCC assessment found that at sustained warming levels between two and three degrees, there's evidence to suggest that the grain landed in the West Antarctic ice sheets could be lost almost completely and irreversibly over thousands of years. If the Greenland ice sheet melts, there's the potential to increase sea level by about seven metres, with West Antarctica adding an additional four metres over coming centuries. These are some really, really big numbers that would reshape our world maps. 

 

So stabilising the Earth's temperature to 1.5 is literally the difference between life and death for millions of people that will be displaced from low lying coastal areas of the world. It's the stuff of nightmares. So 53 summer temperatures in places like Sydney and Melbourne. The intensification of heavy rainfall events and associated flooding. Longer and hotter bushfire seasons like the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires that we experienced in 2019/2020. And the list goes on and this is what the scientific committee is trying to avoid.

 

This is really what the IPCC report was all about, trying to warn the world that every fraction of a degree of warming really matters. So it's really no exaggeration to say that the people alive today will determine humanity's fate. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. And Joel, how do you think that we will look back on this moment in time? Because in some ways it seems like we're in a lull, a sickening lull, but a lull. There's no action being taken, but scientists are continuing to warn of what's to come. Those warnings aren't being heeded, but we still haven't really felt the full force of climate change yet, so we seem unable to sort of bend into the direction that we need to and our targets continue to blow out as a result. So when we think of COP26 in the future, we think of the year 2021. How do you think that we’ll reflect on what's happened? 

 

JOELLE:
I mean, for me, it's just speaking personally as an Australian citizen, not as an IPCC author or anything like that. I mean, I consider this refusal to immediately phase out the burning of fossil fuels, as a moral failure. And it's really, really heartbreaking. 

 

I mean, a country like ours should be doing a lot more than we are. So, I mean, for me, it's an ethical issue. 

 

And it's clear that many of our political leaders still haven't grasped the urgency of the problem that we face. They don't have the heart or the courage to be moved by the crisis we see unfolding all around us.

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Australia meets and beats our commitments.”

 

JOELLE:
And these are the people that we have voted for, people that we have put in charge of our future.

 

Archival tape -- Greta Thunberg:
“It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve the crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place.”

 

JOELLE:
And I think we will look back at this time as a fork in the road, a moment when we fail to take the best exit off the highway. 


Archival tape -- Protesters:
“Keep it in the ground, keep it in the ground!”

 

JOELLE:
I don't know how this is all going to end, but I think people are waking up right across the planet and are saying enough is enough. 

 

Archival tape -- Greta Thunberg:
“The leaders are not doing nothing. They are actively creating loopholes and shaping frameworks to benefit themselves”

 

JOELLE:
Leadership will have to come from the bottom up, as it most often does. 

 

Archival tape -- Greta Thunberg:
“Out here, we speak the truth.The people in power are obviously scared of the truth.They cannot ignore the scientific consensus and above all, they cannot ignore us. The people,” 

 

JOELLE:
And I think ultimately we all have the same choice to make to either step up and be part of the legacy that restores faith in humanity and puts us back on track to a sustainable future. Or we can choose to ignore the call of history.

 

It's as simple as that. 

 

RUBY:
Joelle, thank you so much for your time. 

 

Thanks.

 

[Advertisement]

 

RUBY:
Also in the news today…

 

As talks continued at COP26, the United States and China, the world's two largest emitters of carbon dioxide, have unveiled a deal to ramp up cooperation to tackle global warming.

 

The agreement will strengthen the countries’ emissions-cutting targets and develop national plans on methane, deforestation and phasing out coal.

 

***

 

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Anu Hasbold and Alex Gow.

 

Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

 

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 

 

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. And special thanks to Alex Gow for original compositions in this week's episodes. 


I’m Ruby Jones, see ya next week.

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