What does Cop26 stand for and why does it matter?

World leaders meeting to find strategy for implementing Paris Agreement goals before it’s too late

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 27 October 2021 08:29
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Cop26 will finally commence in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of October, a year on from its postponement because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hosted by the UK under the presidency of former business secretary Alok Sharma and in partnership with Italy, the summit at the city’s SEC Centre will bring together the biggest gathering of world leaders ever assembled on British soil over the course of its 12-day run from Sunday 31 October to Friday 12 November.

What is Cop26?

Cop stands for conference of the parties under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This year is the 26th iteration of the annual meeting.

The 197 signatories, or “parties”, to the UNFCCC will all be represented in Glasgow, along with tens of thousands of negotiators, government officials, businesses and activists, all hoping to make their voices heard and see a comprehensive plan drawn up to realise the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement and avert the global climate catastrophe our planet faces.

What is the UNFCCC?

The UNFCCC was first signed at the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by 154 nations and was intended as a treaty to rein in “dangerous human interference with the climate system”, primarily by stabilising the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, whose unchecked dispersion drives global heating.

The framework called for ongoing collaboration on scientific research and regular meetings, negotiations and policy agreements between world governments to ensure fragile ecosystems were not unduly damaged by climate change, that the global food supply remained unimpeded and that economic development was allowed to proceed sustainably.

What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The first significant agreement between parties to the treaty was the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in the Japanese city in December 1997 and set strict emission reduction targets on six gases for 37 industrialised nations and the European Union, but not the US or other major carbon-emitting superpowers like China and India.

Following ratification by Russia and Canada, the protocol came into effect in February 2005 and aimed to reduce harmful emissions in participating countries by five per cent from 1990 levels in phase one (2008-12) and by an ambitious 18 per cent in phase two (2013-20), an extension agreed in December 2012 and known as the Doha Amendment.

While events like the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the global financial crisis of 2007-08 did help to bring down rates of industrial pollution, a UN Environmental Programme report published at the end of phase one in 2012 found that emissions had nevertheless boomed by 32 per cent between 1990 and 2010 despite the recent efforts of the protocol’s participants, again underlining the scale of the task and the need to swap fossil fuel dependance for more renewable sources of energy before the damage becomes irreversible.

What is the Paris Agreement?

The more wide-ranging Paris Agreement, drafted in December 2015, signed in April 2016 and intended as a successor to Kyoto, applied to all 195 signatories and not just the more developed nations, obliging everyone to do their part to keep the global temperature rise well below 2C by the century’s end and for all nations to hit net-zero emissions by 2050.

This time the US was on board, until, that is, Donald Trump succeeded Barack Obama and withdrew from the agreement, only for the Republican to lose the White House after just one disastrous term and be replaced by Democrat Joe Biden, who swiftly rejoined on his first day in the Oval Office.

Countries signed up to the Paris accord are committed to nationally-determined contributions, individual emissions reductions targets tailored to their particular circumstances that are reviewed and reassessed every five years.

Why does Cop26 matter?

Cop26 is seeking to firm up those commitments made in the French capital and its specific stated concerns are: securing global net zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century and keeping Earth’s end-of-century temperature increase down to 1.5C; adapting to protect communities and natural habitats on the frontline of extreme weather events caused by global heating; ensuring the developed world drums up at least $100bn in climate finance every year; and agreeing conditions under which the world can work together to tackle the crisis as one.

“Around the world storms, floods and wildfires are intensifying,” the Cop26 website states, stressing the urgent need to act.

“Air pollution sadly affects the health of tens of millions of people and unpredictable weather causes untold damage to homes and livelihoods too.

“But while the impacts of climate change are devastating, advances in tackling it are leading to cleaner air, creating good jobs, restoring nature and at the same time unleashing economic growth.

“Despite the opportunities we are not acting fast enough. To grip this crisis, countries need to join forces urgently.”

Natural disasters have been all too evident across North American, Europe and Asia this summer, with periods of drought, intense heat, hurricanes and flash flooding all bringing destruction and devastation to communities not prepared to withstand them.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York in September, British prime minister Boris Johnson underlined the importance of the upcoming summit when he said: “Glasgow Cop26 is a turning point for the world. It’s the moment when we have to grow up and take our responsibilities.

“There are changes that we are going to have to make but people should be optimistic.”

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