COP26 is officially underway! There has been a huge amount in the news over the past few weeks about the conference and it can sometimes be hard to keep track of all the information and jargon. We have distilled some of the key concepts and a bit of the history of these conferences into the below Q&A, in the hope that this will be useful for people to follow the conference and understand what a 'good' outcome looks like.
What is COP26?
"COP" stands for Conference of the Parties and the "26" signifies that this is the 26th global climate conference of this nature to have occurred. This year it is being held in Glasgow.
So there have been 25 COPs before this one?
For almost every year in the past three decades there has been a global climate COP with the first being held in Berlin in 1995. However, the outcomes of the various conferences have been extremely mixed with a constant underlying theme of climate change scepticism and protectionism overriding any real meaningful commitments from nations (with the exception of the Paris Agreement, on which see below). However, COP26 has a different feel with nations realising that we have no runway left and that urgent action has to be taken now.
How many nations participate in these conferences?
Over 200 countries participate in these conferences, from the major polluters to some of the smallest island nations most at risk from the impacts of climate change. The conferences generally start with a meeting of world leaders, with the difficult negotiations left to ministers and senior officials after the world leaders have departed.
What happens at these conferences?
These conferences consist of formal and informal talks and negotiations between nations with a view to making financial and other commitments to tackling the climate crisis. The UK, the host of COP26, has set the following key outcomes for the negotiations: (1) reduce emissions, (2) strengthen adaptation and resilience to climate impacts, and (3) scale up finance and support.
What is the Paris Agreement?
Most people have heard of the Paris Agreement but fewer realise that this was the outcome of COP21 in 2015 and one of the greatest achievements of the COPs to date. Under the Paris Agreement, nations committed to:
"..holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels."
To meet the above goals, nations agreed on non-binding commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions (these targets are known as "nationally determined contributions"). Nations agreed in Paris that every 5 years they would come back with an updated plan to reflect their highest possible ambition at the time. COP26 represents this update (as COP26 was delayed by a year due to covid).
What does pre-industrial levels mean?
The phrase "pre-industrial levels" is clearly an important concept in understanding what the benchmark is in the fight against climate change. The Paris Agreement doesn't actually provide a definition of this concept. This is a little unhelpful but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified that the years 1850-1900 are generally used as the comparison period.
Why is the focus on 1.5C?
Climate scientists consider anything above 1.5C to be a tipping point in the fight against climate change. If we rise above 1.5C warming, the impact on the earth increases at a rate of knots. The impact of a rise from 1.5C to 2C over pre-industrial lives would make our planet uninhabitable for millions with extreme weather conditions (such as droughts and flooding) causing, for example, crop failures, mass migration and famine.
Where are we now in terms of temperature rise and when will we hit 1.5C?
The world has warmed by 1C since pre-industrial times and, on our current trajectory, we are likely to pass 1.5C between 2030 - 2050.
What does COP26 hope to achieve?
It is now widely accepted that the commitments made in the Paris Agreement will not be sufficient to keep the planet to 1.5C warming. The targets announced in Paris would result in warming well above 3C by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels. Nations need to go further, be bolder and agree to more stringent measures to keeping warming to 1.5C. The commitments and updated measure agreed in Glasgow will pave the way for the fight against climate change in the next 5 years.
What is a good outcome of COP26 and how do nations keep to 1.5C warming?
The IPCC has reported that emissions need to fall by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and then hit net zero by 2050, to have a chance of keeping to 1.5C warming. Net zero is when the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount we take out.
The negotiations and talks at COP26 will focus on commitments from nations to cut emissions and reach net zero as soon as possible. Many nations have committed in law to meeting net zero targets by 2050 (including the UK) and many further countries have this target in policy and under discussion. A good outcome from COP26 would be building out how countries will meet these targets and securing binding commitments.
OK, and what can we do as individuals?
Individual action is important. Individual action on a large scale can have an amazing impact. Plant trees, ride your bike, drink oat milk and learn how to make small changes in your everyday life to improve your impact on the planet. We can do this, together.