December 2, 2021

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COP26 Summit 2021: What is the UN climate change conference and why does it matter?

COP26 Summit 2021: What is the UN climate change conference and why does it matter?
Thousands of delegates have descended on Glasgow from all over the world to discuss climate change at the Cop26 summit, with the hope of implementing wide-ranging policies to limit global warming.  Cop26 - which stands for the Conference of the Parties - is a meeting of countries to discuss progress towards the goals enshrined in…

Thousands of delegates have descended on Glasgow from all over the world to discuss climate change at the Cop26 summit, with the hope of implementing wide-ranging policies to limit global warming. 

Cop26 – which stands for the Conference of the Parties – is a meeting of countries to discuss progress towards the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement of limiting warming to 2C and “pursuing efforts” to keep it below 1.5C.

Every country has agreed to submit a “nationally determined contribution”, which is a document setting out their policies and plans to limit carbon emissions and temperature rises. 

As well as the internal plans based on each country’s economy and natural resources, there are also efforts to improve the financial help offered from richer countries to poorer ones, particularly those likely to be badly affected by rising sea levels, desertification and more extreme weather. 

There has seemingly already been a “breakthrough” at this year’s meeting as leaders made a major commitment to end deforestation by 2030.

Joe Biden, Xi Jinping and Jair Bolsonaro, respectively the presidents of the US, China and Brazil, are among those signing the pledge, which will apply to 85 per cent of the forests on the planet, and comes with £14 billion of public and private funding. 

Environment Secretary George Eustice has since hailed the agreement as game-changing. 

What are COPs?

The meetings have their origin in the 1992 Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro. 

At that event 154 countries agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty which established the need for regular meetings, the protection of food supplies and help for the natural environment to adapt to the effects of climate change. 

The first official Cop conference was held in 1995 in Berlin, Germany. Since then they have been held every year with the exception of 2020, when the event was pushed back to 2021 due to coronavirus. 

The conferences are convened to discuss progress in tackling climate change and initially discussed the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 and came into effect in 2005. 

The protocol committed countries to keeping greenhouse gas emissions to “a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

That agreement ran until 2016, when it was superseded by the Paris Agreement. 

This year’s Cop26 is discussing progress in meeting those goals, in particular the agreement to introduce policy changes to to limit global warming to less than 2C this century, while “pursuing efforts” to limit temperature rises to 1.5C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

For each event there is a Cop26 “president”, which this time is the UK’s Alok Sharma. 

The presidency has set out its goals for the summit, which include reaching net zero by 2050 and to “keep 1.5 degrees within reach”. 

It also suggests plans to help countries adapt to the effects of climate change, including funds and support to make sure food production can continue and there are flood defences and weather warning systems where needed. 

The Government has a slogan it is repeating which details its preferred approach to achieve this – “coal, cars, cash and trees”.

In simple terms this means cutting out coal-fired power, restricting deforestation, switching to electric cars and getting richer countries to contribute $100bn in funding each year to help poorer nations deal with the effects of climate change. 

How does it work?

Before the conference, each country submitted a plan, known as a “nationally determined contribution”, which outlines their goals and policies. 

For example, it might contain a commitment to reach net zero emissions by a certain date, as well as targets for emissions reductions from specific sectors, like road transport or home heating. 

It should also contain details of the policies the country will introduce to achieve those goals, such as better waste management or measures to encourage green transport. 

The summit itself lasts just under two weeks, from October 31 to November 12, beginning with a two-day world leaders event on November 1 and 2. 

After that are different themes for different days, including cities and buildings, the natural world, finance and economics and energy. 

By the end of the conference, organisers will be hoping for more ambitious promises and more robust policies, especially from the more polluting countries which have been less forthcoming with their plans, such as China and Australia.

Why does it matter?

The goal of the Paris agreement, to limit warming to 1.5C if possible, is slipping away, scientists have warned. 

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a report that the 1.5C threshold was on course to be breached within two decades.

On its current path, the world is on track to hit 2C of warming between 2041 and 2060 and reach about 3C by the end of the century, though if countries follow through on their pledges to cut emissions this could become lower. 

While limiting warming to the 1.5C level would not completely avoid the effects of climate change, such as more extreme weather events, sea level rises and harm to wildlife, each additional bit of warming makes things worse, the report’s authors said. 

Many campaigners and scientists are hoping that this event might be an opportunity to persuade countries to make their plans more ambitious, keeping the goal in sight. 

But others are more sceptical – influential young climate activist Greta Thunberg has said people should take the initiative to push for emissions reductions without waiting for world leaders to agree at summits. 

Campaign group Extinction Rebellion have been protesting in Scotland, arguing that the Cop process has so far failed to solve the climate crisis and that world leaders collude too closely with polluting companies.

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