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Tim Flannery on what unfolded at COP-26, and his hopes for the future.

Is there still hope for the planet after COP26?



The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow was seen as the world’s ‘last best chance’ to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and avoid catastrophic climate change. 

On that measure it failed. The pledges made will instead see temperatures rise by nearly 2 degrees. 

Tim Flannery, one of Australia’s most well known environmentalists, had a front row seat at the negotiations and to what he describes as Australia’s ‘embarrassing’ contribution. 

Today, Tim Flannery on what unfolded at COP-26, and his hopes for the future.

Guest: Environmental scientist and contributor to The Saturday Paper, Tim Flannery.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:

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

 

The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow was seen as the world’s ‘last best chance’ to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees - and avoid catastrophic climate change. 

 

On that measure - it failed. The pledges made will instead see temperatures rise by nearly 2 degrees. 

 

But world leaders have agreed to meet again next year - to revisit their targets, and hopefully extract bigger promises from countries like Australia. 

 

Tim Flannery, one of Australia’s most well known environmentalists, had a front row seat at the negotiations, and to what he describes as Australia’s ‘embarrassing’ contribution. 

 

Today, Tim Flannery on what unfolded at COP-26, and his hopes for the future. 

 

It’s Monday November 22. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

Archival tape -- Phone rings 

 

RUBY:
Tim, hello, it's Ruby. How are you? 

 

TIM:
Hello, Ruby. How are you?

 

RUBY:
I'm good. Welcome back. Have you just landed? 

 

TIM:
I have. You're just late last night, so. 

 

RUBY:
And how was it? 

 

TIM:
It was amazing. It was really you feel I felt like I was at a very historic event, you know. 

 

RUBY:
Mm-Hmm. And so could we begin by talking about Australia's presence at COP26? How would you describe what it was like, on the ground?  

 

TIM:
Well, look, the Australian Pavilion this year was remarkably like a cafe. 

 

There was the best coffee in the entire complex was to be had gratis. The Australian Pavilion. So we had people popping in from far and wide. 

 

The Prime Minister and the Minister, Angus Taylor, were notable by their absence, much of the time I never met them there and I was there quite often.  

 

The pavilion was notable for the absence, really of any, you know, physical Indigenous presence. There was a couple of videos rolled out, but there were no indigenous people there, brought over by the government, which was rather surprising. 

 

Ummm, Fossil fuels - lots and lots of interest in that, but not much in the energy transition or anything else. So it was it was an interesting spot to be. 

  

RUBY:
Right so Australia’s continued commitment to fossil fuels - just how out of place was that at the summit? We must have been one of the only countries taking that position. 

 

TIM:
Yeah look Saudi Arabia even was toeing the line. And certainly, the UAE and other fossil fuel heavy area was totally converted to to rapid action on climate change. They realise there's no future in fossil fuels.  

 

Archival tape -- Mariam bint Mohammed Saaed Hareb Al Mheiri (UAE):
“So the UAE is keen to leverage nature based solutions to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.”

 

TIM:
Australia was the absolute standout. We were the only developed country, only country I saw whose pavilion was festooned with fossil fuel advertising. So I don't know. We were way out of step.

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison at COP:
“Our economy has grown by 45 per cent, proving that economic growth and jobs is not at odds with emissions reduction. 

 

The Australian way is to bet on them and we think that's a good bet. Thank you.” 

 

TIM:
And the mood of this cop was one of urgency determination and to see that this had to be done. 

 

Archival tape -- Boris Johnson:
“We need to be more ambitious and we need more credible plans for implementation.

We have to bridge the gap between where we are and where we need to be if we’re gonna cut emissions in half before 2030, and we need to pull out all the stops.” 

 

TIM:
I think that was, you know, that was the main. The main thing that's changed. The mood in the room has changed quite dramatically. People are taking the science seriously. You know, things are changing at every level. The only thing that wasn't changing was Australia, 

 

Archival tape -- Boris Johnson:
“And it's very frustrating to see countries that have spent six years conspicuously patting themselves on the back for signing that promissory note in Paris quietly edging towards default.” 

 

RUBY:
And Tim, how would you characterise the attitude that other nations had towards Australia's position on climate this year, given the targets that we brought to the table - What kind of backlash did we experience from world leaders? What were people saying to you? 

 

TIM:
Well, look, that's a really interesting question, because in the past Australia has had a bit of cover. There's been other nations that have more to act as fast, including places like India and so forth. And so Australia has had a bit of cover and it's been able to get away with with some things that it simply couldn't get away with this year.

 

Archival tape -- COP26 live (Sky):
“Australia has cut against the grain that COP26 saying that it intends to continue selling coal, despite pledges from more than 40 countries here in Glasgow to reduce their dependence on it.” 

 

TIM:
You know, I tend to think of Australia as sort of the mad uncle at the Christmas dinner, you know, not really welcomed but tolerated in previous COPs.

 

This COP, everyone ganged up and decided to do something about it because the position was simply getting intolerable. Australia was so far out of step with any other developed country. There was zero patience with us. 

 

Archival tape -- COP26 live (Sky):
“I will be looking out for China speaking out about, this Saudi Arabia too Australia, Australia, those big, big polluters..”

 

TIM:
And I felt quite deeply embarrassed actually as an Australian being there just knowing how much we could have done and to see the the anger with some other developed nation representatives

 

Archival tape -- President of Palau:
“Leaders of the G20. We are drowning and our only hope is that life ring you are holding.”

 

TIM:
This sort of despair amongst Pacific Islands people, you know, saying, why are you doing this to us? Why are you seem determined to see our nation sink below the sea?   

 

Archival tape -- President of Palau:
“You might as well bomb our islands rather than suffer.” 

 

TIM:
So, you know, it was it was not a pretty, not a pretty sight at this COP for Australia. 

 

RUBY:
Right so Australia, and a handful of other countries, remained unwilling to budge in terms of their support for fossil fuels, then, on the very last day of the summit, we saw things get worse - the president of COP26, Alok Sharma, almost broke down in tears. So… what happened?

 

Archival tape -- Alok Sharma:
“May I just say to all delegates, I apologise for the way this process has unfolded and I'm deeply sorry.” 

 

TIM:
Look, I think they were tears of frustration and they were very genuine. 

 

Archival tape -- Alok Sharma:
“Also understand the deep disappointment. But I think, as you have noted, it's also vital that we protect this package.” 

 

TIM:
What had occurred was, you know, the UK presidency wanted to make this the meeting that would deliver the Earth safely from, you know, from catastrophic climate change, and that meant gathering enough commitments to reach a maximum heating of the planet of just 1.5 degrees 1.5 degrees. 

 

Archival tape -- Swiss delegate:
“On behalf of the EIG, we would like to express our profound disappointment that the language that we have agreed on on coal and fossil fuel subsidies has been further watered down.” 

 

TIM:
Now they didn't get there in the end. They got to about pledges that were sufficient to to see us heat to 1.8 degrees. 

 

Archival tape -- Marshall Islands delegate:
“This commitment on coal had been a bright spot in this package. It was one of the things we were hoping to carry out of here and back home with pride. And it hurts deeply to see that bright spot dimmed.” 

 

TIM:
And that was where the frustration lay. You know, Alok Sharma knew very clearly that the fate of entire nations was in his hands to deliver this, this target. He didn't do it, but what he did do was leave the door open for nations to return next year to renew their pledges and tighten down on those pledges to reach 1.5 degrees. 

 

Archival tape -- Alok Sharma:
“We’re going to have the next one cop, 27, in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, and I think the fact that we've got the code language in means that at future cops, we can push further on that particular issue.” 

 

TIM:
In Egypt next year at COP27 I hope that we'll finally get those pledges in place and then all horses will be there and will all be in the same race, will be racing to the finish line to get this job done. 

 

RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment

 

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RUBY:
Tim, what does the end result at COP-26 mean, both for the world in terms of preventing runaway climate change, but also for Australia's environmental and economic future? What are the consequences that are going to come out of this? 

 

TIM:
Well, look, if the pledges are honoured, we'll go a very long way as a result of this cop towards stabilising Earth's climate. We won't go as far as we need to go a very long way. To me, the most interesting thing about the cop was the the general mood of the cop and the engagement of the public.

 

Archival tape -- Glasgow protests:
“What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!”

 

TIM:
We should never underestimate how inspiring it is for young people to see a group of humans get together to decide to change the Earth's energy system in a relatively short period of time. 

 

Archival tape -- Glasgow protests:
“The people united, we’ll never be defeated!” 

 

TIM:
And I think we'll look back on COP26 as a sort of an exemplar that young people will hold up as they each day choose to change the world in ways they want to see in coming years. And to those people also demonstrating young people saw demonstrating on the streets. I know that within 20 or 30 years, they'll be the ones in negotiating work that will be the ones in power. 

 

So I was deeply inspired by it, and I must say I came away feeling great hope for the world that we're finally developed a model to negotiate some of the big things that we want to need to negotiate to give everyone a better future. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. It's interesting hearing you phrase it that way, because that's not the message that a lot of people have come out of COP 26 saying a lot of people have described it as a failure. People like Gretta Thungberg. And when you look at the fact that 1.5 seems to be pretty much not alive anymore, I wonder why you kind of have that view. 

 

TIM:
Well, 1.5 is alive. It is where we've got the chance next year to do those final few tenths of a percent to get us there. 

 

RUBY:
But the pledges though - would say temperatures peak at one point eighty one point nine. 

 

TIM:
That's right. So we've got to get three tenths of a degree more to be at 1.5, and we can do that. So it is still alive, 1.5 is still alive. We can do it. It's going to take renewed pledges next year. 

 

Look, you know, there are always people who carpet anything and who see to fault when things. And clearly there was a lot at the cop that didn't happen. 

 

It could have happened better, you know? But this is all an incremental process. And if you stand back and look at the whole thing in its entirety, you'll see an inspiring picture, I believe. 

 

The only people are not moving the federal government. 

 

RUBY:
Yeah. What do you think that the federal government took away from COP 26? Because I think Queensland Senator Matt Canavan said that Glasgow was a win for coal. 

 

Archival tape -- Matt Canavan:
“The agreement did not say that coal needs to be phased down or taken out, that's a big green light for us to build more coal mine supply.”   

 

RUBY:
So what does that tell us about the way that they think that it went and what Australia’s response will be domestically to COP 26?

 

TIM:
Matt Canavan wasn't there. OK, so he's an outside commentator trying to put his own spin on it. 

 

What I saw was, you know, a scarcity of our political leaders. They didn't want to be there as far as I could see, particularly at the Australian Pavilion. Maybe. I mean, they were they perhaps I was just unlucky and didn't meet them. But my sense of it was that they were embarrassed because for the first time, the mood of the room was against them. There was always some way to hide in earlier COPS. This one, it wasn't. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. And you mentioned that there is this agreement to meet again in 2022. I believe in Egypt, and the aim of that is to tighten those pledges and get further action. And I just wonder how you see that because I think the way that COP26 was being talked about was this is our last best chance. And I just wonder how many last, best chances you get at this. How how many goes do you get before it's too late? 

 

TIM:
Well, you know, there will be a moment when it will be too late. 

 

And that's the moment when we are committed to to one and a half degrees with no way back will more than one and a half degrees with no way back. 

 

We're not quite there yet, but we have very little time to act. 

 

So, you know, we'll get we'll get a chance at COP27 next year in Egypt. 

 

If you think about climate as the long game, you know, it's taken us 200 years to get into this position. 

 

It's going to take us a while to get out of it.  

 

This this year was absolutely critical, and it achieved a very great thing in terms of getting sufficient pledges to see us peak at below two degrees. 

 

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

 

TIM:
It's a pleasure. Thank you. Bye. 

 

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RUBY:
Also in the news today…

 

Four children have died and another four people are in hospital after a housefire in south-west Melbourne early Sunday morning.

The cause of the fire is unknown, with emergency services describing the scene as “distressing”.

Police are investigating the blaze.

 

And a new video that appears to show missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai [Shwah] has been released by Chinese state-run media, but the Women’s Tennis Association  says it is “insufficient” proof she is freel and well. 

 

Peng is a former doubles world number one and has not been seen or heard from publicly since she accused China’s former vice premier of coercing her into sex.

A number of high profile tennis stars including Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal have expressed concern for her safety.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am

Guest

Tim Flannery is an author, chief councillor of the Climate Council, and distinguished visiting fellow at the Australian Museum.