COP26: Our guide to the UN Climate Conference

COP26, or the 26th United Nations Climate Conference, is to be hosted in Glasgow between 31st October and 12th November 2021, a pivotal event in the calendar which brings tackling climate change back onto the agenda.

The United Nations Climate Conference was first held in Berlin in 1995, in an event known as COP 1. COP, which standards for the Conference of the Parties, is defined as the supreme governing body of an international convention (in this case, the UNFCCC or UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), with parties or countries each given a representative to attend the conference. Environmentalism dates back many years before 1995, but it was COP 1 which gave countries an opportunity to join forces to discuss environmental concerns like never before.

If you’ve ever heard of the Kyoto Protocol, you have the UNFCCC to thank for this. COP 3 was hosted in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, with ground-breaking negotiations resulting in the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by nations to make a start on trying to reduce carbon emissions individually. The United States famously served as something of a logjam to these efforts, when the Bush administration famously objected to the protocol back in 2001.

The UN Charter was passed unanimously and signed by all of the representatives. It came into force on October 24, 1945, when China, France, the USSR, the United Kingdom, the United States and a majority of the other signatories had filed their instruments of ratification. Photo Credit: UN/Rosenberg

Since those early days, the climate has already undergone changes associated directly with human activities. The only difference between now and 1995 is that we’re closer to reaching the tipping point at which a damaging rise in temperatures gets baked into the cake as it were, which could impact the lives of those alive today and those yet to be born in the coming century and beyond. Far from being an event for people in suits to decide the world’s fate behind closed doors, this annual event is responsible for producing tangible results when it comes to tackling climate change.

A team effort

Following the First World War, a coalition of countries sought to ensure world peace through the creation of the League of Nations. A noble but ultimately flawed idea, the League of Nations reflected the ambition for countries to join in a common cause, in this case, to ensure another world war would never happen again. The League’s ambition was only matched by its failure to make all nations feel like they were truly among equals. Within a matter of years, resentments grew, leading to a return of imperialism and the rise of fascism and totalitarian movements in major countries. Before long, the world was once again at war and when it was over, countries came together, bruised but resolved to achieve the ambition of long-lasting peace and prosperity.

It is very clear that young people are worried about the future and they are angry… They have every right to be angry because world leaders collectively over time have failed to deliver.

– Alok Sharma, President COP26, Glasgow

The United Nations is often seen as something of a successor to the League of Nations, having outlasted it to reach its 75th birthday this year. The last world war ended the year before the UN was established, and the UNFCCC is one of the more modern adaptations to the UN, as part of its overarching movement towards not just preserving peace between nations but securing the future of the planet itself. Since the UN’s creation, the world population has grown from over two billion in the 1940s to 7.8 billion in 2021.

Population growth since 1995 alone is something to behold – the world population effectively added an additional two billion over 26 years, something few could have imagined would happen in the dark days following the Second World War.

A booming world population has seen more people than ever occupy the planet at any one time in Earth’s entire history. It has its advantages and its drawbacks, such as increased demand for resources and the need for smart solutions to house, feed and ensure all 7.8 billion of us enjoy an acceptable standard of living. As well as producing the Kyoto Protocol, something which didn’t enjoy full participation from all parties, COP21 in 2015 entered the history books, as participants left it with a fresh resolve to avert disaster. Hosted in Paris, France, COP21 negotiations produced the Paris Agreement, allowing signatories to bind their nations to specific targets aimed at reducing emissions and keeping global temperatures from rising by a specific amount.

We’ll always have Paris

The Paris Agreement is another pivotal moment in the push towards a greener world, and we have referred to it a number of times across the past year. Its impact on the world is profound, as it lays out perhaps one of the clearest cases for the world shifting gears towards a low-carbon future by 2050, with plenty of the necessary scientific information to tell us why. Agreed on by 196 countries at COP21, the Paris Agreement was officially opened for signature in April 2016, with the explicit aim of keeping global temperatures from rising by no more than two degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels.

If possible, signatories are strongly encouraged to reduce emissions as much as possible to keep temperatures from rising any higher than 1.5 degrees celsius. While that might sound like a subtle difference to us, a minor tweak on a thermostat, any rate of increase can have significant impacts on the health of the planet. These targets are important, as a two-degree scenario is likely to mean freshwater levels in the Mediterranean would plummet by 17 per cent. Sea levels would be expected to rise 50cm by 2100 as compared to levels in 2000, while 98 per cent of the world’s coral would be at risk of extinction through mass bleaching events by 2050.

Any higher than two degrees, in other words, and coral reefs could quite possibly go extinct altogether within many of our lifetimes. Keeping the rise limited to 1.5 degrees still involves some damage, albeit to a lesser degree. For example, that sea level rise is limited to 40cm instead by 2100, and 90 per cent of the world’s coral is at risk of mass bleaching too. Unfortunately, under both 1.5 and two degree temperature rise scenarios, crop yields of wheat and maize are expected to decline in tropical regions relative to 1986-2005 production levels, which will put pressure on food supplies and raise the risk of hunger and higher food inflation.

As you can see, the Paris Agreement means business, but as with the Kyoto Protocol, the US has flip-flopped on whether it intends to keep up its part of the agreement since it was first agreed. President Obama signed the US up to the Paris Agreement in 2016, before President Trump decided to withdraw from it at the earliest opportunity in his presidency. This came before President Biden opted to return to it once again after being inaugurated as President in 2021. The world has been watching the US and its intentions on the Paris Agreement closely, as the country is currently the second-largest emitter of carbon emissions globally.

Countries contribute towards the Paris Agreement’s targets through their own Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). According to the UK government, the UK’s own NDC commits the country to reducing carbon emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 as compared to 1990 levels. The United States NDC submitted in April 2021, in comparison, intends to cut emissions by 50-52 per cent by 2030, compared to emissions levels in 2005. Without the Paris Agreement, or COP21, it’s unclear whether such specific commitments would have been made by either country in the first place. COP21’s legacy continues to be felt, despite the political turbulence felt in countries such as the US, and gives a clear blueprint for how other countries can proceed in helping reduce emissions.

COP25 and COP26

The most recent UN Climate Change Conference and the last to be held before COVID-19, COP25, was held in Madrid, Spain, and wasn’t without its problems. Originally to be held in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro opted to pull out of hosting the event a year before it was to be held, citing economic problems within the country. The baton was passed to Chile, which also felt forced to pull out of hosting in turn due to civil unrest and security concerns. Spain was invited to become the eventual host, and COP25 finally settled on a host country for good.

At COP25, the Paris Agreement was front and centre, but reportedly yielded less of the ground-breaking changes through negotiation as COP21 did four years before in Paris. Last time, negotiations were more aligned with resolving aspects of the post-COP21 order, specifically related to emissions trading between countries.

As parties convened for COP25, it was revealed that oxygen levels were decreasing in the world’s oceans, Greenland’s ice sheets were estimated to be melting seven times faster than forecasted back in the 1990s.To pile on the pressure, parties and the world learned that 25 per cent of the world’s population is at risk of suffering from water supply constraints. The issue stems from rising demand for freshwater, combined with low supplies caused by global heating in specific places.

COP26 was originally pencilled in to be held in Glasgow in November 2020, but as much of the world was in the grips of COVID-19 by then, the event was postponed by a year. Now, COP26 is to be held between 31st October and 12th November, hosted at the SEC Centre in Glasgow. Alok Sharma MP was tasked as the President of the conference back in February 2020, back when he was assigned the Cabinet brief as Business, Energy and Industrial Secretary. However, Mr Sharma has since been moved to the Cabinet Office and his role in Cabinet replaced to give him sufficient time to prepare the event in his role as President.

COP26’s longer-than-usual preparation period, as well as the disruption caused by COVID-19, has led to higher expectations of a breakthrough compared to COP25. Surely after an extra year of planning, COP26 has to result in more fruitful negotiations than its predecessor, critics might say. Concerns have been raised about precisely how much can be achieved in those few short days in Glasgow, especially following reports that a few high-profile world leaders plan to snub the event altogether. China’s President Xi Jinping has declined an invitation to attend in person, having not left the People’s Republic of China since the onset of COVID-19.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is also expected to have declined attending in person, meaning the leaders of the world’s first and fourth largest emitters of CO2 will not be present at the table for those important in-person negotiations. As with all forms of diplomacy, that human presence is often essential to ensure the passage of international agreements, and the decision to go digital and conduct such proceedings over video link could reduce the scope for what’s on the table.

Queen Elizabeth II herself was reported to have voiced concerns about COP26, being caught on a microphone admitting that “It’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t do.” To get attendees into the swing of things, the UK has acknowledged its responsibility as host to COP26, by choosing to unveil new plans aimed at accelerating the push towards net-zero carbon emissions. We already know the UK is moving towards banning the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2030, which is boosting demand within the EV sector. The UK is also attempting to transition away from gas-powered boilers for domestic heating in favour of heat pumps, but critics claim plans for £5,000 subsidies when getting them installed are insufficient to trigger than cascade of demand needed to make the industry self-sufficient yet.

A lasting impact

UN Climate Conferences have been great opportunities for world leaders to put their heads together and produce ingenious ways of committing to a lower-emissions future. Without the likes of COP3 or COP21, the likes of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement might have been lofty ambitions swirling around non-political circles. Tackling climate change requires more than political slogans, but concrete negotiations and agreements between nations such as those conducted at the various UN Climate Conferences convened since 1995.

We can no longer let the people in power decide what is politically possible. We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.

– Greta Thunberg, speaking at the the Youth4Climate Summit

The crucial obstacle to achieving low carbon emissions across the world is a lack of firm binding targets for countries such as the US and China, which both received assessments deeming their efforts ‘insufficient’ and ‘critically insufficient’ by the Climate Change Tracker. Countries such as the UK, by comparison, have been rated ‘almost sufficient’ in their efforts by Climate Change Tracker, with credit given to ambitious emissions targets by the 2030s. The UK is still advised to ramp up its plans over the coming years, or risk falling short of delivering its contribution towards that 1.5-degree scenario, but it is certainly deemed to be a global leader in delivering a low-carbon future.

China’s disappointing performance on emissions and targets since the start of the new millennium means the 2020s will be a critical time in averting the two-degree scenario. Based on the current trajectory with existing policies, China’s carbon emissions are not expected to peak until roughly 2025, remaining more or less flat by 2030. Such a domestic pathway would push the world closer towards a three-degree warming instead. Such warmer temperatures could devastate China directly, placing pressure on President Xi to come to the table (albeit virtually) with some more constructive ideas of his own to propose to COP26.

Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmentalist, made headlines in September this year, scorning politicians for taking a vacuous approach to the climate crisis, reciting standard words of theirs, followed by the words “blah blah blah”, reflecting the impatience of the younger generation at present. The UN Climate Conference has been a powerful platform for proposing great ideas for countries to follow, but more recent conferences have been perceived as weaker on tangible results. While the UK is deemed a leader in lowering emissions as it seeks to build back greener while hosting COP26, countries can’t just work in isolation on this problem.

The UK is already impressing its peers as it prepares to invite the world to Glasgow, but unless the elephant in the room is acknowledged (that large emitters need to start pulling their weight), UK gains will be offset by losses elsewhere. COP26 will be judged as a success if it can produce a new Paris Agreement for our times, or build on previous negotiations, rectifying issues and producing firm commitments. It means making sure targets aren’t just optional loose threads going nowhere but binding ropes which pull the COP26 attendees together in the right direction as they go into the next conference and beyond.

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