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COP26 - the lowdown

COP26 - the lowdown

It’s been in the news and everyone’s talking about it but do you actually know what it is? Fear not, here’s object’s low-down on COP26:

What on earth is it?

COP26 took place from the 1st of November to the 12th in Glasgow. It was the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change and brought together 197 countries. COP stands for Conference of the Parties and it’s an event where heads of state, politicians, diplomats, journalists and activists meet to discuss and present their plans to reduce carbon emissions.

Why does it even matter?

The past decade was the hottest on record - fact. In the last 12 months, we have seen record temperatures in the US, Canada and Antarctica, unprecedented wildfires in Turkey, Greece, Italy, the US and Australia, and extreme flooding across Europe, Africa and China. It is now an “established fact” that such extreme weather events are the result of human activity. 

This year’s COP26 is six years on from the landmark Paris Agreement (agreed at COP21), which aimed to limit the average global temperature rise since the pre-industrial level to 1.5 degrees. A total of 197 countries signed up to the Paris Agreement, and now world leaders have met again in what many see as the world’s last hope for meeting the Paris Agreement goals.

This year’s conference felt particularly significant, as last year’s summit was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which exposed just how unequal current approaches to global catastrophes are. After the 2021 IPCC report, scientists warned that critical decisions have to be made ASAP in order for us to avoid the worst-case climate crisis scenario, because quite simply, we're running out of time. 

What needed to happen at COP26?

COP26 was the final opportunity for political leaders to deliver - to raise their ambition for climate action, provide the money needed to make the transition to net-zero, and put their commitments into law –  because without such binding commitments, our chances of a future in which our planet doesn’t warm beyond 1.5 degrees are zero. 

Who was there?

Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon, Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Tayyip Erdoğan, Moon Jae-in, Nana Akufo-Addo, Muhammadu Buhari and many other world leaders were there. It wasn’t just political figures that attended the event, Sir David Attenborough and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg went too. Some highly anticipated names, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, the world’s biggest greenhouse gases emitter, and Vladimir Putin were no shows though.

Does anything actually get done at COPs?

Most criticism of these conferences is that they’re all talk and no walk, and are just an excuse for the global elites to gather together as a PR exercise. Yet, COP summits have been responsible for the formation of two important climate agreements in the past: the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and the Paris Agreement of 2015 (the legally binding international treaty on climate change to limit the global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius). 

What happened this year?

An agreement has been reached - the Glasgow Climate Pact - and it asks countries to republish their climate action plans, with more ambitious emissions reduction targets for 2030, by the end of next year.

The text emphasises the need for developed countries to increase the money they give to those countries already suffering the effects of climate change, beyond the current $100bn target.

Unsurprisingly, some leaders and campaigners have already said the measures in it do not go far enough though. 

Countries, including Norway and Costa Rica, have expressed opposition to the softening of the conference call to end fossil fuel subsidies in the latest draft statement. They say the text on eliminating the use of coal is weak and commits countries only to "phasedown" of "unabated" coal - in other words, coal-burning which is carried out without some form of carbon capture and storage. The previous draft had said "phase-out" but that was changed after a last minute intervention by India and China.

Campaigners and civil society groups staged a walkout at the COP26 venue, condemning the legitimacy and lack of ambition of the 12-day conference. They put forward a People’s Declaration, outlining 10 demands, from global north countries paying their climate debt, to global targets on adaptation and loss and damage. 

And finally, Australia has won the “colossal fossil” award at COP for its “appalling performance” at the climate talks, in a ceremony run by activists from Climate Action Network (CAN). They said the country’s approach had been, like the Australian outback, “a barren wasteland”. The US was second for a lot of “hot air” and blocking progress, and the UK was third for presiding over a “shambolic” COP26 summit.

There has been a flurry of fairly promising new announcements though, here are some of them:

  • The US and China pledging to boost climate co-operation over the next decade. The joint declaration says both sides will "recall their firm commitment to work together" to achieve the 1.5C temperature goal set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. As the world's two biggest CO2 emitters, an agreement between the US and China is seen as critical in keeping the 1.5C temperature rise threshold within reach. China has previously been reluctant to tackle its domestic coal emissions in the short term - so this statement is seen as recognition of the need for urgent action. 
  • Leaders from more than 100 world countries, representing about 85% of the world's forests, promised to stop deforestation by 2030. Similar previous initiatives haven't stopped deforestation, but this one's better funded. However, it's unclear how the pledge will be policed or monitored. And Indonesia, one of the main signatories, later said the plan was 'unfair'.
  • A scheme to cut 30% of current methane emissions by 2030 has been agreed by more than 100 countries. The big emitters China, Russia and India haven't joined - but it's hoped they will later.
  • More than 40 countries - which include major coal-users like Poland, Vietnam and Chile - agreed to shift away from coal. Some of the world's most coal-dependent countries, including Australia, India, China and the US, haven't signed up. And the agreement doesn't cover other fossil fuels such as oil or gas.
  • 450 financial organisations, who between them control $130tn, agreed to back 'clean' technology, such as renewable energy, and direct finance away from fossil fuel-burning industries. There is no set definition yet as to what net zero targets actually are. Also, some environmental organisations have said that without a greater commitment to ending fossil-fuel finance, this initiative may amount to little more than a PR exercise. 

What you can do

Climate change will significantly affect all of us but it disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable people in the least developed countries. That’s why it’s so important that we join with them to call for strong and urgent action to address the needs of those struggling. 

But you don’t have to have attended the conference to make a difference. There are small steps we can all take:

1. Share the voices of people on the front line of climate change

The stories and articles we share with friends and family via email or social media make a difference. If you see an interesting social media post about climate change or green solutions, share it so folks in your network see it too. Also help spread the word about the impact of the climate crisis on those hardest hit.


2. Find out what your country has already committed to

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are actions that countries around the world have pledged to take to address climate change. Finding out the NDCs that your country has committed to is an important first step in understanding how you can support positive COP26 outcomes and hold those in power to account for honouring their commitments. You can look up your country’s NDC on the UNFCC registry.

3. Inspire the next generation of change makers

Engage children in real world issues, including climate change - ask them to brainstorm solutions to current problems and suggest ways they can make a difference.

4. Encourage your employer or university to join the Race to Zero

Race To Zero is a global initiative, backed by science-based targets, to commit businesses, cities, regions, investors and universities to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 at the very latest. 


5. Reduce your own carbon impact 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of a challenge with the magnitude of the climate emergency but little steps can create bigger change.

6. Encourage your council to plant some trees

Trees benefit ecosystems and society by absorbing carbon, supporting biodiversity and providing protection from floods. Speak to your local authority about the Treescapes Fund. If they haven’t already applied for the grant, encourage them to do so.

7. Keep up-to-date with the latest COP26 news


Activists wanted to postpone this year's conference
, due to inaccessibility issues at this year’s event. Not only have Covid-19 travel regulations made it impossible for some countries’ delegates to travel to the UK, but the extortionate cost of accommodation has simply priced many of them out. Some activists on the ground fear that COP26 will be one of the least diverse yet. Make sure you know what’s going on.

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