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What is COP26, and why does it matter? A guide to the UN Climate Change Conference

We explore what this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, is all about, why it matters and whether it can make a difference.

What is COP26?

There can be no denying that human activities are changing the climate of our planet. Multiple studies have concluded that anthropogenic (human-made) climate change is the culprit behind the climate-warming trend observed over the past century. The UN Climate Change Conference, known this year as COP26, aims to assess the progress being made to combat climate change. 

Here, we take a closer look at COP26, why it matters, the progress made so far, and whether the conference can truly make a difference. We’ll also highlight some of our environment and sustainability courses that can help you learn more about some key environmental issues. 

What is COP26?

First, let’s look at what COP26 actually means. You’ve likely heard and seen the term in the media recently, as there’s a lot of buzz about the upcoming event. So, what is it? 

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference. Also known as the Conference of the Parties (hence the title of COP), the summit aims to address some of the vital issues surrounding climate change. 

You can explore some of the global issues during COP26 and be part of the call for collective action with our Learning for a Sustainable Future: Live at COP26 course. 

When is COP26, and what is the schedule?

World leaders will converge in Glasgow, Scotland between 31 October and 12 November. The event, which was postponed during 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will see countries plan and negotiate over some of the most pressing matters relating to the climate. 

As well as these negotiations, there will also be exhibitions and multiple events around the city of Glasgow. There are a few important negotiation sessions taking place, including:    

  • Twenty-sixth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26)
  • Sixteenth session of the Conference of the Parties – serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP16)
  • Third session of the Conference of the Parties – serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA3)

We’ll explore the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement in more detail further down. There will also be sessions and events dedicated to environmental issues linked to areas such as fashion, finance, education, and gender.


Who will attend? 

It’s expected that delegates and representatives from over 200 countries, businesses, organisations and faith groups will attend COP26. The main players will be representatives of The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which totals 197 countries. 

Some of the most high-profile world leaders include: 

  • President Joe Biden from the United States
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson from the UK 
  • Queen Elizabeth II from the UK 
  • President Emmanuel Macron from France
  • President Justin Trudeau from Canada 
  • Chancellor Angela Merkel from Germany  

There will be other well-known attendees, too, with the likes of climate activist Greta Thunberg and natural historian Sir David Attenborough planning on making an appearance. 

However, there are some notable absentees; President Xi Jinping from China and President Vladimir Putin from Russia won’t attend the conference. 

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and COP26

Above, we mentioned the UNFCCC – an international environmental treaty that was established to combat human impact on the Earth’s climate. The representatives from 165 countries signed the treaty at the ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, and legislation came into force in 1994. 

As explored in our open step on COP21 in 2015, those signing the treaty agreed to a framework for action. This was aimed at stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

Since its inception, the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) has convened annually to assess how countries are implementing the UNFCCC framework. World leaders and representatives meet at these events to discuss, negotiate, and introduce new laws. 

Why does the Conference of the Parties matter? 

So, why is COP26 important? The Glasgow climate conference has already been featured in the news for months ahead of its start. Many are claiming that COP26 will be the world’s best last chance to control climate change. 

We’ve already explored issues around climate change and sustainability in other posts. We’ve explained how greenhouse gas emissions have already damaged the Earth’s climate, and that if left unchecked, our activities will push climate change beyond its tipping point

And, while it is possible for individuals to reduce their carbon footprint, action needs to happen on a global scale. Policymakers, governments, and organisations must act to tackle climate change. We are beyond the point where we can simply make changes to reduce our impact; as a species, we’re going to have to actively correct our mistakes. 

COP26 presents a chance for world leaders to assess the current landscape, reflect on whether previous pledges have been met, and introduce new and decisive actions to reduce emissions and control climate change.  

Key moments so far 

Although the UN Climate Change Conference takes place annually (with the exception of 2020), there have been some notable milestones from previous COP events. We’ve mentioned two of these already; the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement: 

  • The Kyoto Protocol. The first agreement to come from the UNFCCC was the Kyoto Protocol. Although agreed upon in 1997 at COP3, it didn’t come into force until 2005, yet it set binding emission reduction targets for 36 industrialised countries and the European Union.
  • The Paris Agreement. At COP21 in 2015, representatives committed to limiting global temperature rises, limiting greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero between 2050 and 2100, and for wealthier countries to help poorer regions adapt to climate change and renewable energy. 

Although both of these agreements have had their flaws, it’s hoped that they can form the basis for tackling climate change going forward. Similarly, many people hope that the Glasgow climate conference of COP26 will produce even more robust global legislation. 

What are the COP26 themes? 

It’s worth taking a look at some of the themes and issues that will be discussed at COP26. These points are some of the most pressing ones related to climate change, and as well as the main negotiations, there are workshops and events related to these themes. 

Below, we’ve highlighted some of the interesting areas being covered in the COP26 schedule

Gender

The topic of gender may not be the first thing you think of when considering climate change. However, it’s one of the themes that is going to be fairly prominent across the events and workshops of COP26. 

As the UNFCCC explains on their website, women in poverty often face a greater risk and higher burden from the impacts of climate change. They’re also less likely to have equal participation in key decision-making processes and labour markets. 

There will be several events throughout COP26 that will discuss issues around gender and climate change.

Finance

Another key point of discussion is that of finance in relation to climate change. There will be workshops on issues such as financial systems for net-zero, responsible business conduct and climate action, and transformational economics. 

Finance ministers from across the world will also meet to discuss topics such as how to deliver finance for emerging and developing markets, as well as long-term climate finance. 

As we mentioned, a central aspect of the Paris Agreement was for wealthier nations to help poorer regions adapt to climate change and renewable energy. 

Fashion

One of the global climate action events from COP26 is the discussion of the UNFCCC fashion industry charter for climate action. This charter, signed at COP24 in 2018, aims to drive the fashion industry to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050.  

One of the targets of the charter is to reduce GHG emissions by 30% by 2030, as well as to set a pathway for decarbonisation in the industry. 

We explored some of the issues of sustainability in the fashion industry in a separate post, and you can learn more about the subject with our course on fashion and sustainability

Education

Part of the challenge of addressing climate change is in raising awareness of the problems and solutions. As well as a joint event with the education and environment ministers on climate action, there is also an event focused on girls education and climate adaptation action. 

Teaching the mechanisms and consequences of climate change can help to inspire the next generation of scientists, activists and policymakers to be a force for change in the future. 

Can the UN Climate Change Conference make a difference? 

Over the last 30 or so years, climate change has gone from a fringe issue to one of the most pressing concerns of our time. Despite pledges, commitments and legislation, it seems that all we hear about in the news is the latest climate disaster. So, can things like COP26 actually help? 

The need for action is clear. Global sea levels are rising, Arctic sea ice is declining, and we’re seeing a loss of biodiversity and impacts on human health

In the Paris Agreement, the nearly 200 countries who signed up committed to keep global warming below a 2C rise from pre-industrial levels. The aim is to limit this to 1.5C, and during COP26, countries will be asked about their plans to achieve this between now and 2030. 

Similarly, we can expect to see further steps that countries will take, as well as a formal declaration. A potential ‘Glasgow Accord’ could see commitments to reducing coal power, protecting vulnerable ecosystems, and adding more protection for those who are vulnerable to climate change. 

Whether or not current or future rules will be enough to avert a climate disaster remains to be seen. 

Criticisms of COP26 

Although, on paper, the UN Climate Change Conference seems to have made progress, the results so far have been mixed. What’s more, there are questions over whether COP26 will be effective. 

Recent reports have shown that climate financing is falling short of the $100 billion per year pledge made in recent years. Furthermore, plans to cut carbon are falling short of what’s needed to keep temperature rises under 1.5C, and greenhouse gas levels reached new highs in 2020. 

Similarly, leaked documents show that countries including Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia are trying to play down the need to move away from fossil fuels. Combine this with the notable absence of the leaders of China and Russia, and it’s easy to see why there are concerns about how effective it will be.  

Final thoughts

We are living through a critical period in history, where our actions as individuals and nations could well impact generations to come. How kindly our future societies will judge us is still within our hands, but we have to make events such as COP26 effective. 

The effects of climate change are here already and will only continue to worsen if we don’t make a concerted effort to save our planet. Policymakers and world leaders have a responsibility to take action, but we elect those leaders. Similarly, many of us are lucky enough to choose our choices and actions when it comes to living a sustainable and responsible life

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