COP 26 Resource

Background Information

UNFCCC: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed at the Rio Earth Conference in 1992 when world leaders were aware that climate change was a threat, but did not yet commit to specific actions to address this threat. The signatories, the same countries which have convened at each UN climate conference since 1992, agreed to take non-specific climate action.

COP: the Conference of Parties consists of the 190+ countries which signed the UNFCCC in the early 90s. They are the decision-making body of the UNFCCC and convene each year at the UN climate conference – referred to as the COP. The title of each COP indicates the number of conferences since its creation, so in 2021 the UK will host COP26 – the 26th COP. Each year, a different country hosts the conference – known as the President of the COP – organizes the week-long summit and sets expectations for the other Parties ahead of the convention. Additionally, the location of the host country usually rotates through regions of the planet.

Paris Agreement: the most comprehensive international climate agreement in history. It was written in 2015 at COP21, and officially signed by world leaders from virtually every country in 2016. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit the increase of average global temperatures to under 2º C (and. hopefully under 1.5º C). The United States famously left the Paris Agreement under President Trump, but has rejoined under President Biden, making COP26 the first conference with the U.S. “back in the game.”

NDC: Nationally Determined Contributions are the specific pledges that countries make to contribute to the 1.5º C goal of the Paris Agreement. NDCs are legally binding under the rules/constraints of the Paris Agreement, and must be updated every 5 years. Since the 2020 COP was canceled, countries will announce their new NDCs at the upcoming COP26.

IPCC Reports: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases comprehensive assessment reports to compile the current scientific knowledge on climate change every 6-7 years. The Paris Agreement was written based on the knowledge in the 5th IPCC report. The 6th IPCC report will come out in 2022, and will likely have a huge influence on COP27. 

Why is COP important?

Like most other international summits, such as the G7, the COP is a big deal for the global community. At each COP, virtually every country in the world gets the chance to come together to engage in climate negotiations with the overarching goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2º Celsius (3.6º F), and ideally limiting warming to below 1.5º Celsius (2.7º F), as was agreed upon in the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015. The world currently stands at 1.1º Celsius (1.98º F) above pre-industrial temperatures with more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than any time in the past 4 million years (NOAA).

The COP is especially important for developing countries and small island nations, because they are at the most risk for the effects of climate change, and at COP, they get a chance to share their climate demands on equal standing with global superpowers. It is especially important that these countries have their voices heard because they have contributed the least to causing climate change but will suffer the most from it. Meanwhile, most global superpowers have contributed the most but will suffer the least.

Finally, climate change is, above all, a human rights issue. Climate change threatens human rights to “health, housing, food, and water” and disproportionately affects “women, children, older persons, indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, rural workers, persons with disabilities, and the poor” (UN Human Rights Office). Inaction is not a moral option.

What happened at the last COP?

The previous COP – COP25 – was held in Madrid in 2019. The President of the conference was actually Chile, but the physical location for the summit was moved to Madrid after concerns of civil unrest in Chile. While the conferences are usually annual, the next COP – COP26 – was postponed due to the pandemic and will take place in 2021. COP26 will be important because the Madrid COP was widely regarded as a disappointment by world leaders and activists alike. Negotiations between countries stretched into overtime, and yet world leaders still failed to agree on a universal “rulebook” for the Paris Agreement, in part thanks to countries like Australia, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil taking an obstructionist approach.

Additionally, many countries failed to increase the commitments outlined in their NDCs, and there was much unresolved debate over the use of weakly-enforced carbon markets as a tool to meet NDC goals. Carbon markets are like cap-and-trade programs, but instead of focusing on industries or corporations, carbon markets are on an international scale. To read more about carbon markets and the controversy surrounding them at COP25, check out this article from Time. Countries’ current NDCs still lead to a 3º C increase in average global temperatures double the ideal goal of the Paris Agreement. After these failed negotiations, the fate of the Paris Agreement – and our planet – hangs in the balance.

What to look for at COP26 this fall

After the unresolved ending to COP25 two years ago, all eyes will be on COP26 in Glasgow this November. COP26 marks the beginning of a new decade, a decade that is crucial to the future of our planet. 2030, the deadline for many countries to halve their carbon emissions as a halfway point to net zero in 2050, is looming closer and closer. At the 2021 G7 conference, world leaders reaffirmed the 2030 deadline to halve emissions, but did not agree to end coal burning or to any other concrete steps to reach their 2030 goal. Countries will need to up their ambitions at the COP; goals with no path to achieve them are as good as useless.

In addition to the overarching significance of 2021 as the start of a new decade, countries are also contractually obligated to update their NDCs this year. As part of the Paris Agreement, NDCs were originally supposed to be updated in 5-year intervals, but the pandemic has given countries an additional year to develop (hopefully) more ambitious climate commitments for 2021-2025.

The United Kingdom, the host country this year partnered with Italy, has laid out a set of expectations that they hope the Parties will meet at COP26. There are four categories for the improvements that the UK hopes to see. Improvement in mitigation would keep the target of limiting warming to 1.5º C within reach. Specifically, the UK is requesting that countries speed up the phase-out of coal, slow down deforestation, accelerate the switch to electric vehicles, and increase investment in renewable energy. Improvement in adaptation is especially important for countries in the Global South who are already feeling extreme effects of climate change. The UK is requesting that countries contribute more to plans and finance for disaster-readiness in developing countries, increase effort in protecting and restoring habitats, and for all countries to write an official Adaptation Communication detailing their plans. In the category of finance, the UK calls on developed countries to uphold their promise of mobilizing $100 billion in private and and public finance with an even split between adaptation and mitigation. Additionally, the nature of investing and finance needs to be revolutionized to take climate change into account for every decision made. Finally, the UK requests increased collaboration after the failures of COP25. Countries must find a solution to the carbon market issue that caused a stalemate, they must develop standards of increased transparency in terms of progress towards NDCs, and they must agree to up the ambitions of their governments’ commitments. 

These goals are ambitious, but they are both necessary and urgent. The world cannot afford to toss away another year due to failed negotiations or balking at increased commitments. Especially after a year lost to the pandemic, there is no time for hedging or broken promises. Using the UK’s goals as a guideline, it will be important to see if countries successfully rise to the challenge of keeping the 1.5º Celsius goal of the Paris Agreement within reach. 

See here for a 2 page pdf version of the COP26 resource