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What should we make of COP26?

27 October 2021
Climate change at a crossroads at UN conference
What must world leaders do to secure the future of humanity? University of Sydney experts suggest the existential threat of climate change won't be solved by targets of 'net zero by 2050' - much more must be done.

World leaders and other delegates will gather in Glasgow from this week to discuss what must be done to mitigate climate change. This year's conference aims to 'secure global net-zero emissions by 2050' and 'limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels'. It marks five years since the Paris Agreement - when parties made initial climate targets.  

University of Sydney experts in science, engineering, health, economics, social policy, and law comment on the conference, where we stand with climate change generally, and pathways to meaningful mitigation of this looming crisis.

Technological and societal changes needed

A solar desalination plant run by Gelion batteries

A solar desalination plant run by Gelion batteries. Credit: Gelion Technologies.

The science of climate change is clear, but how do we implement the changes needed to curb it?

Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, Director, Laboratory of Advanced Catalysis for Sustainability and Founder and Principal Technology Advisor, Gelion Technologies, says renewables and a circular (zero or minimal waste) economy are key. On a more basic level, an important early step is protecting our soil, says Professor Alex McBratney from the Institute of Agriculture. This will secure our food and water supplies as atmospheric carbon increases.

On the other end of the technological spectrum, University of Sydney engineers are manufacturing futuristic solutions for our warming planet. “Universities have long been developing the research and expertise needed to tackle climate change, which can be scaled up with the right mix of funding and collaboration,” says Professor Willy Zwaenepoel, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering. One such innovation is hydrogen-fuelled aircraft – being developed by Associate Professor Dries Verstraete and colleagues in the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering.

Yet to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, societal – not just technological changes are needed, Professor Manfred Lenzen and Professor Phil McManus add. “We need to embrace fundamental transitions in the way we live and the amounts we consume,” Professor Lenzen says.

Human health will suffer

Bushfires in Tasmania

Bushfires below Stacks Bluff, Tasmania. Credit: Matt Palmer via Unsplash.

As the earth gets hotter, our health will suffer. “Without doubt, the leading climate change-related health hazard for Australians is the effect of extreme heat,” says Professor Ollie Jay from the Faculty of Medicine and Health. Professor Jay warns that the time to start preparing for this is now, as does Associate Professor Ying Zhang. As Co-Chair of the MJA-Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, she is concerned for Australians’ safety: “the federal government policies are world-lagging and inadequate to protect Australians’ health from climate change.”

Beyond the ‘blah blah blah’

Can we act when politics gets in the way? Professor Rosemary Lyster offers a cautious ‘yes’, arguing that we first need to overcome the ‘blah blah blah’ of bureaucratic and corporate speak on climate change. Professor Christopher Wright from Business School goes one step further than reiterating Greta Thunberg’s ‘blah, blah, blah’ insult, where she castigated world leaders for not walking the climate talk: he has studied Australian corporate and political messaging on climate change and found ‘predatory delay’. “Here, climate change is acknowledged as an important concern requiring future reductions in carbon emissions, but that ‘economic reality’ requires this be limited in the present,” he says.

So, can real political action on climate change be achieved? Professor Susan Park says governments may not have a choice: COP26 will likely compel it, due to global public pressure. Dr Amanda Tattersall agrees, adding that the campaign is no longer just about climate: “The momentum around COP26 is deeply connected to a diverse, multi-interest, multi-national set of connected social movements that are seeking to link climate demands to justice outcomes and ensure that there is a global, not simply Western response to the crisis.”

Once governments are forced to act – what should this entail? According to Professor Tim Stephens, legally binding emissions targets and an independent process for setting emissions budgets are critical. “That’s how other countries such as the UK have successfully cut their emissions, and Australia must follow or be left even further behind,” he says.  

A ‘tax then trade’ scheme of pricing carbon, rather than just a trading scheme, is more economically efficient. It is also more politically palatable...
Associate Professor Tiho Ancev

With adequate public budgets, especially in developing countries, private investment will flow more easily, Dr Kate Owens suggests. In Australia, such finance could be directed to a better carbon emissions reductions plan. The current Emissions Reduction Fund doesn’t work as it is effectively a subsidy to wealthy landowners, says Associate Professor Tiho Ancev. Dr Ancev, an economist, says placing a price on carbon is imperative: “recent University of Sydney modelling suggests a ‘tax then trade’ scheme of pricing carbon, rather than just a trading scheme, is more economically efficient. It is also more politically palatable than a tax-only scheme.”

Climate adaptation is another area that requires action in the form of funding. It dovetails with the notion of ‘climate justice’, says Professor of Environmental Politics, David Schlosberg. “What is the financial culpability of countries that continue to create climate risks that others need to adapt to?” he asks. “We talk about Australia’s weak emissions policy, but it has no substantive adaptation policy or plan either.”

Climate anxiety is real

A climate protest by students

Students at a climate protest in Australia, October 2021. Credit: School Strike 4 Climate, via Twitter. 

A failure to act could be catastrophic for the planet, people, and their mental health, research suggests. “The continued inaction, denial and delay by Australian governments is already causing severe distress among Australians,” says Dr Blanche Verlie, who notes that “poll after poll” shows most Australians support net zero emissions by 2050. “COP26 is an important opportunity for Scott Morrison to start the work of ending the many forms of harm that climate inaction causes.”

Young people are particularly at risk, Dr Erin Kelly explains: “There is growing concern about the impact of climate change on youth mental health, due to the increased likelihood of experiencing stressors related to climate change, in combination with their relative powerlessness.” A recent global study on climate change distress in 10,000 youth aged 16-25 found that more than 50 percent reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, guilty and worried about climate change, with almost half reporting that these feelings negatively affected their daily functioning.

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