(Image: Private Media)

Cynics already anticipate that COP26 in Glasgow in November — the 26th annual UN climate summit — will be long on platitudes and short on action. Those cynics span the political spectrum, from the green left to the fossil right. But idealists point to COP21 in 2015 which produced the Paris Agreement in which countries outlined plans for emissions reductions that would limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

I’m from the “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” school of thought. On the plus side, the Paris Agreement created an impetus for international cooperation on meaningful emissions reductions, and provided a framework for accountability. That framework includes a commitment to update those plans every five years. COP26 (“Conference of the Parties”) is the first such update, complete with a one-year Tokyo 2020-style pandemic hiatus.

On the minus side even the COP26 website acknowledges that: “The commitments laid out in Paris did not come close to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, and the window for achieving this is closing.”

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This makes the next decade crucial.

Glasgow will provide useful insight into what the biggest emitters — like China and the United States — are willing to do. Or at least say they are willing to do.

Whatever one’s view about the value of these big international set pieces, what the world does in the years immediately after COP26 will probably make or break the international efforts to tackle human-induced climate change. And what is said at COP26 will give us a preview of the next decade.

And, if one can imagine it, Glasgow is an even bigger deal for Australia.

In the topsy-turvy world that has been our politics over the past decade and a half, we were one of the first countries to put a price on carbon, then removed it, and now have a government that has tied itself to the slogan “technology not taxes”. And we have a Labor opposition so burnt by its recent history that it can’t bring itself to talk about a price on carbon.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Glasgow. After the Trump administration backed out of the Paris Agreement, Europe decided it would contemplate a “border adjustment tax” on carbon. If implemented it would mean goods exported from countries without a price on carbon similar to Europe’s would have those goods taxed upon entry, levelling the playing field between European companies paying a carbon tax and companies from countries that don’t.

Europe’s big, but by itself that idea didn’t seem to be going anywhere fast. Then Joe Biden — running on a serious climate action and jobs agenda — was elected president of the US. A natural thing for the US to do is to also introduce a carbon border tax. That would put it and Europe on a level playing field.

It’s pretty easy to see how this unravels so that Japan, South Korea, and a host of other countries in Latin America and elsewhere end up following suit.

If most of our trading partners have a carbon border tax, Australia will either have to enact a price on carbon or have a price on carbon anyway — but only for our exporters.

The technical economic term for this is known as “being screwed”.

Worse still, Australia has little credibility on climate change with the international community. We have removed our internal price on carbon (don’t be hoodwinked that the so-called safeguard mechanism is the same thing). We have no serious commitment to reduce emissions other than through unspecified and largely unfunded future technological innovation. And only recently did we renounce dodgy accounting tricks as a means of reaching our Paris goals.

Australia has ground to make up in Glasgow, and needs to do it in each of the four core areas for discussion: securing net zero; adaptation; mobilising finance; “work together”.

In the weeks leading up to COP26 I will examine each of those four areas, what to look for at the summit, and what they might mean for Australia.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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