Blog Climate Change

COP26 and the Great Barrier Reef - maintaining hope

November 17, 2021

At the weekend, COP26 concluded following two weeks of controversies, incredible speeches and commitments from countries around the world to combat the climate crisis.

The outcomes from this important conference were mixed.

While significant progress was made, the summit did not go far enough in delivering the commitments needed to deliver a safe climate. Certainly there is still hope, but the Australian government and the world must rapidly work to limit warming to 1.5C – a crucial threshold for our Reef and coral reefs around the world.

We must now use this momentum and renewed sense of urgency to press our leaders to take the action needed.

Here we try to answer some important questions emanating from COP and what the current commitments mean for our precious Reef.

What is the Glasgow Climate Pact? 

The Glasgow Climate Pact is the global agreement coming out of COP26. It sets the global agenda to act on climate change in the next decade.

What were the main outcomes from COP26?

  • A global commitment to strengthen 2030 climate targets at next year’s COP meeting in Egypt.
  • For the first time at a COP conference, there was an explicit plan to ‘phase down’ coal power, which is responsible for 40% of annual CO2 emissions. Originally that was worded as a ‘Phase out,’ but India objected at the 11th hour and the phrase was softened.
  • A specific call to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.
  • A pledge for rich countries to significantly increase money to help poor countries cope with the effects of climate change and make the switch to clean energy.
  • Australia was not one of the 140 countries that lifted its 2030 target. Australia’s target of reducing emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels has remained unchanged since 2015.
  • Emission reduction commitments made at COP26 have been calculated to result in warming of 2.4C above pre-industrial levels, which could be catastrophic, especially for places like our Reef

What does all this mean for the Reef? 

Countries committed to upping their emissions reductions targets gives us some hope that meaningful action to protect the Great Barrier Reef is still just about possible. But the window is closing and time is running out. As Great Barrier Reef custodian, Australia especially needs to show strong leadership by committing to a more ambitious target of reducing emissions this decade.

The world and Australia needs to aim for no more than 1.5C of warming – scientists recognise this as a critical threshold for coral reefs. And the commitments from COP26 will lead to warming of 2.4C, analysts say. So we’re still way off the mark and we’re very concerned about this, not only for the vital ecosystems the Reef supports but also for all the Queenslanders in industries like tourism who rely on a healthy Reef for their livelihoods.

What should the Australian government be doing in terms of its policies and targets?

To the shame of Australians, COP26 further exposed Australia as a climate laggard. The policies and approach of our government drew international criticism. Like many of our allies already have – the US, the UK, Japan, the EU – Australia needs to be upping its commitment to reducing emissions by 2030 to keep the 1.5C temperature rise alive as a target. Despite signing onto the request to up its 2030 target for next year’s COP meeting in Egypt, just hours later, the Morrison government said its 2030 target was ‘fixed’ at the level then PM Tony Abbott set in 2015 – 26-28% admissions reduction on 2005 levels.

The Morrison government’s 2050 modelling released late last week was also very concerning. It made no mention of considering a scenario in which the world acted in line with a 1.5 goal, referring instead to 2C. Scientists say this level of warming could be disastrous for the Reef.

Why is 1.5 such an important threshold?

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a collection of leading scientific and policy experts from around the world – predicted that at 1.5C of warming, the world would lose around 75% of its coral reefs. At 2C of warming, that figure rises to 99%. If we want future generations to enjoy and benefit from the Reef as we have, this is an issue we need to deal with now.

Recent research by Professor Terry Hughes from James Cook University backs up this urgency. It found that only 2% of our Reef remains unbleached since 1998, and 80% of it has severely bleached since 2016.

Every fraction of a degree of warming will be crucial for the Reef in the next 10 years, it will shape its future. So we need to get on with taking the action it needs.

How do we phase down coal in Australian communities fairly – it’s such an important industry for our communities?

With federal government leadership, we can transition into a clean energy future that will safeguard and create jobs in regional areas, while slashing energy prices for consumers.

Australia’s transition to renewable energy is inevitable. Renewables are now cheaper than coal. The federal government should be coming up with a plan that helps these communities make the transition, or long term it could cost them their jobs and the Reef.

Ten years ago, fossil fuel industries employed more Australians. Now automation in those industries means the coal and gas industry employ less than 1% of Australians and more than 80% of profits go overseas.

There are more than 5,000 jobs in renewables in Queensland already and all States can develop a world-leading renewables industry right now. A report published in October by experts at ACF, WWF, ACTU and the Business Council of Australia found that an Australian renewable energy export industry could create almost 400k jobs and become more valuable to the Australian economy than current coal and gas exports. The report estimates that almost $90bn in new trade could be secured for Australia through investments in clean energy exports.

If 50% of Australia’s electricity was derived from renewable sources in Australia by 2030 it would create over 28,000 new jobs nationally.

Is AMCS disappointed with the last minute ‘phase down’ language change?

Of course. We need to transition out of coal as quickly as possible. The International Energy Agency says coal should be rapidly phased out if the world has a hope of staying within 1.5C of warming.

While this watering down of the language is disappointing considering that the burning of coal produces 46% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and accounts for 72% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the electricity sector, it is the first time a direct reference to getting rid of fossil fuels has been made in a COP declaration, which is significant.

Is the Australian government doing enough to ‘phase down’ coal?

No. Australia is considering 116 fossil fuel projects that could produce 5% of global emissions. If these projects are approved, it would result in a nearly 30% increase in emissions within Australia.  To truly ‘phase down’, all of these projects need to be rejected. This would help to improve Australia’s 2030 target and would be a move which shows this government is committed to saving the Reef.

How did Australia fall short at the COP?

Our government failed to sign a commitment to slash methane pollution – a really dangerous greenhouse gas. It failed to lift its 2030 climate reduction targets. It is continuing to back coal as other countries have committed to phasing it out. Our government even spruiked unproven fossil fuel technology as a solution – Carbon Capture and Storage, on the Australian stall in Glasgow. This has never been proven to work on an industrial scale as yet. Instead of pursuing this failed technology as a fix from the fossil fuel industry, we should focus on the  many technologies that have already been proven to work like developing renewable energy and storage solutions.

Will the wildlife of the Reef be left in a better or worse state by the COP outcome?

Anything which results in harm to the Reef will do the thousands of marine wildlife species that can be found there no favours at all. The COP outcome means there is still time to safeguard their Reef habitats but that window for action is closing. We are already seeing a myriad of impacts on iconic reef wildlife from global heating. For example, increasing temperatures as a result of climate change means more female green turtles are born, disturbing the neutral gender ratio.