Climate change is the most important issue we’re facing today. We are already seeing its devastating consequences around the globe. It’s clear that urgent action needs to be taken, and COP26 is one of our last chances to secure a safe future for everyone on Earth. So, what’s it all about?
What is COP26?
COP26 stands for ‘conference of the parties’. COP was created in 1997 with the intention of meeting on an almost annual basis in response to the climate emergency. Meetings are attended by heads of state, their representatives, climate experts, and NGOs.
The 2015 Paris Agreement happened at COP25, establishing the 1.5C above pre-industrial level of temperature increase as the limit of safety. For COP26, countries must revise their NDCs in line with the 1.5C target.
For this conference, opening on the 31st October, 200 countries must present their plans to cut emissions by 2030. More than 120 world leaders and representatives will gather to negotiate.
Why does it matter?
The 2015 Paris Agreement declares that global temperatures must remain under 2C above pre-industrial levels. According to a report from the UN, if we continue our current trajectory, we are facing a temperature rise of at least 2.7C. Clearly, drastic change needs to happen.
More than 100 countries have promised to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but this isn’t enough to stave off climate disaster. Promises thus far have been vague and non-committal. Covid lockdowns saw a brief drop in emissions of about 5.4%, however the government’s promise to “build back better” has fallen short.
Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said: “We have eight years to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions: eight years to make the plans, put in place the policies, implement them and ultimately deliver the cuts.” We are seeing an implementation gap between countries’ promises, and the action we need to see. Change needs to happen, and the clock is ticking.
It’s all very bleak – is there still hope?
COP26 can be a source of optimism – it’s time for governments to address and act upon their promises, and COP26 will be an opportunity for them to do so.
The official COP26 website states its purpose as to “bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change”.
Current pledges would reduce carbon by only 7.5% by 2030. According to scientists, we need a 45% cut to limit the temperature rise to 1.5C. This looks bad, but findings from the IPCC report released earlier this year showed that there is still a chance to remain within this limit.
A key goal is to get fresh NDCs and to get more countries to sign up for a long-term net-zero goal. The UK government hopes to also focus on climate finance, on phasing out coal, and on nature-based solutions.
Countries with the lowest emissions are those greatest affected by the impact of climate change, largely in the global south. Developing countries were promised at the Copenhagen COP of 2009 that they would receive $100bn a year by 2020. The OECD found that only about $80bn was provided last year. From COP26 we hope to see stronger commitments from polluting countries to increase climate funding.
The conference will explore nature-based solutions such as the preservation and restoration of natural carbon sinks. However, growing trees won’t solve climate change alone – action is needed across all these categories.
The extreme weather over the summer shows us that we are already seeing the effects of climate change. COP26 must work to help countries restore their ecosystems, build defences and systems, and make infrastructure and agriculture more resilient to minimize damage.
The UN, UK and US have already admitted that COP26 won’t achieve everything hoped for. The NDCs are unlikely to be sufficient to meet the 1.5C goal. UK hosts hope to focus on “keeping 1.5C alive” and to keep progressing on emission cuts.
Climate change is the world’s most pressing problem, and COP26 will make clear the drastic change needed to meet the goals necessary for our survival. It’s important to remain optimistic – as Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
NDC: nationally determined contribution. National targets set by countries in order to meet the goals set out by the Paris Agreement.
Ratchet mechanism: As the NDCs set by the Paris agreement are inadequate, a ‘ratchet mechanism’ was built into the agreement by which countries must make new commitments every 5 years.
Net-zero: the balance required to stay within 1.5C. A state in which greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by removal out of the atmosphere.
Climate finance: the money provided to poorer countries from both public and private sources. To cut emissions and recover from extreme weather.
Carbon trading: if it is cheaper to cut carbon in a developing country, a richer government could pay for projects to reduce emissions and count this carbon loss towards their own target. Poorer countries would access finance for cutting emissions, and richer countries face less of an economic burden.
UNFCCC: the UN Framework Convention in climate change. Signed in 1992 and binds all the world’s nations to “avoid dangerous climate change”.
IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the world’s leading body of climate scientists. Released a significant report in August emphasising the need for urgent action.