What Is COP26 And Why Should You Care About It?

Intergovernmental conferences have a bad reputation for generating empty rhetoric and little action. However, it’s clear that the time for hollow words is over. Image credit: MAURO UJETTO/Shutterstock.com

The time has finally arrived: the COP26 Climate Conference kicks off today in Glasgow, Scotland. While there have been plenty of conferences, agreements, and promises regarding the planet’s climate crisis in recent years, this meeting really is a big one. You’ll no doubt be flooded with headlines and news alerts about COP26 in the next two weeks, so here’s a jargon-less round-up of what you really need to know and why you should care about this.

What Is COP26?

COP26 stands for the 26th "Conference of the Parties." Running between October 31 and November 12, 2021, at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, the conference will see the gathering of representatives from all the countries signed on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and those who ratified the Paris Climate Agreement. COP26 was meant to run last year, but it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Representatives, leaders, and government heads from around the world are meeting to discuss and negotiate how to fulfill the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement and mitigate the climate crisis to prevent a disastrous future. In short, the fate of the planet is literally under discussion right now.

Who's Not Going to COP26?

So far, over 25,000 people have registered to attend representing governments, businesses, NGOs, media organizations, and civil society groups.

Many — but not all — of the world’s heads of state will be traveling to Glasgow too. Among those not attending includes China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladamir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Mexico's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa. Some of these world leaders have said they’re not traveling due to COVID-19 concerns but considering that many represent some of the world's biggest carbon emitters, their absence has caused some criticism.

The Paris Climate Agreement 

In 2015, at the COP21 meeting held in Paris, 91 countries plus the European Union joined the Paris Climate Agreement with the aim of limiting average global temperature rises to well below 2°C (3.6°F)  above pre-industrial levels and preferably under 1.5°C (2.7 °F). It was a landmark agreement, marking a significant milestone to unite all nations under a common cause to seriously address climate change. 

As part of the agreement, parties agreed to meet every five years to assess the collective progress and negotiate how they can fairly meet these long-term goals. This is a large part of what will be discussed at COP26 this coming fortnight. 

The Paris Agreement also pledged $100 billion a year to help support developing countries to combat climate change. The negotiations at COP26 will also take climate injustice into account, ensuring that developed nations that have historically produced the most greenhouse gases will contribute the most to fixing the problem and developing nations are not shortchanged.  

What’s The Big Deal About 1.5°C? 

All of the science within these UN conferences and negotiations come directly from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an intergovernmental body that’s responsible for providing the latest agreed understanding of climate change data for countries to rely on. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, for instance, heavily informed the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015. 

The world as a whole has warmed by around 1.2°C since the pre-industrial era. In 2017, we saw the IPCC special report on the impact of global warming reaching 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This concluded that the goal to keep global warming below 2°C was not strict enough and would still lead to catastrophic, irreversible damage to our ecosystems. Instead, the report argued we must strive to limit climate change to as close to 1.5°C as possible. While 1.5°C global warming will still see impacts of climate change, it’s significantly more desirable than 2°C. 

Why Is COP26 So Important?

This climate conference is being touted as one of the last chances we have to seriously curtail climate change, primarily because the window is closing on the Paris Agreement's 1.5℃ target. According to the latest IPCC report published in August, we can expect to reach or exceed 1.5°C within the next 20 years if we don't act quickly. If we want to stand any chance of meeting this target, the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent in the next eight years.

The world is currently a long way off from limiting temperature rises to those agreed in Paris in 2015. A UN report released last month found that current commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions put the planet on track for a “catastrophic” average 2.7°C (4.8°F) temperature rise. 

Many countries have already made big commitments. As of today, a total of 49 countries plus the European Union have pledged a net-zero target. However, many of these pledges set a target for net-zero by 2050, delaying action until after 2030. This could be too little, too late. 

Furthermore, many of these pledges are vague and countries have not outlined how they will meet the targets. Some countries’ pledges are also not in line with the officially submitted national commitments, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), that were agreed on after the Paris Agreement. 

All of this needs to be ironed out — and the clock is ticking. Intergovernmental conferences have a bad reputation for generating empty rhetoric and little action. As Greta Thunberg said in the run-up to COP26: “Green economy blah blah blah. Net-zero by 2050 blah blah blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words.”

It’s clear that the time for hollow words is over and actions need to speak louder. 

“The time has passed for diplomatic niceties...If governments — especially G20 governments — do not stand up and lead this effort, we are headed for terrible human suffering”, said Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN.

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