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  1. The Explainer
22 October 2021updated 02 Nov 2021 10:26am

Why should I care about Cop26?

What you need to know about the UN climate summit starting on 31 October.

By Philippa Nuttall

As you probably already know, unless you’ve been living on Mars, Cop26, the international climate summit, opens in Glasgow on 31 October. Lasting two weeks, it is being billed as the biggest climate event since the Paris Agreement was drawn up in 2015. So what’s happening, who’s going and why should you care?

What is Cop26?

Every year for the past 26 years, there has been a conference of the parties (Cop) meeting to discuss climate action. (The “parties” are the countries that are part of the UN.) This routine was agreed under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and, until now, the highlight has been the Cop event in Paris six years ago, when world leaders agreed to try to stop global warming rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Cop26 should have happened last year, but it was cancelled because of the pandemic. 

Why 1.5 degrees Celsius? This doesn’t sound a lot?

Instead of thinking about the weather on your phone and the daily temperature fluctuations that leave you confused as to whether you need a jumper or a coat, think about what happens when your body temperature shoots up by a degree or two. A slight change and suddenly you are in your bed, feeling rotten and crotchety. 

The average surface temperature of the Earth has already increased by around 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial levels in the 1880s, but this warming is not uniform and some countries, such as Russia, are warming much faster than others. This rise is already having enormous consequences, most noticeably in an increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events.

And this is not just happening in low-lying, poorer countries, though they are generally the most affected. An estimated 70,000 people died in the heatwave in Europe in 2003, while over 240 people died in flooding in Belgium and Germany this summer. And research shows these events will become deadlier the more that temperatures rise. With current pledges, the projections are that we face 2 to 2.6 degrees of warming by the end of the century.

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What’s the solution?

Rapidly slashing greenhouse gas emissions. This is easier said than done. Modern industry and economies are hugely dependent on fossil fuels. We burn coal, oil and gas to produce everything we need; we fill up our cars with petrol and diesel; heat our homes with gas boilers; chop down forests to use as timber, and as biomass to replace coal, and to make space to grow soy to feed the world’s livestock population… The list goes on.

But, before you lose hope, change is happening. Cleaner sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, are now cheaper than fossil fuels in most of the world and increasing amounts of them are coming online. New technologies such as green hydrogen are appearing. Electric vehicles are gradually starting to replace internal combustion engine cars and vans. The need to reduce our meat consumption is getting increased recognition. And the financial industry is slowly turning the huge investment ship towards funds that have environmental and sustainability criteria. 

This is, however, all happening far too slowly. Emissions, after a quick Covid dip, are continuing to go up. There is no place for any tortoises in the race to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Science shows we have ten years to undertake the biggest managed social and economic shift in the history of the world in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

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So, will all of this will be sorted at Cop26?

Definitely not – and this was never the goal. But important progress can happen on a range of issues:

  1. Under the Paris Agreement, countries outlined how they planned to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Every five years, they are supposed to come forward with stricter goals that bring the world closer to the 1.5 degrees target. All nations should have done this before Cop26, but some – namely Australia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and, most notably, China – have yet to submit an updated plan. By the end of the two weeks of negotiations in Glasgow, all countries need to show they are serious about the 1.5 degrees target.
  2. At the Copenhagen Cop meeting in 2009, developed countries pledged to give $100bn a year by 2020 to poorer nations to help them take climate action, move away from fossil fuels, and adapt to the impacts of extreme weather. But this money has never fully materialised – rich governments paid about $80bn in 2019. The total amount now seems to be agreed, on paper at least, but the details of when $100bn will start being reached and whether developing countries will want extra money to make up for the previous shortfall will have to be discussed.
  3. The question of whether developed countries should pay for “loss and damage” to nations that have not become industrialised and are not responsible for climate change, but which are on the front lines of extreme weather events and rising sea levels.
  4. Carbon trading, whereby richer countries pay to offset a tonne of carbon elsewhere in the world and reduce the total amount of CO2 globally, will be up for discussion again.
  5. Many are hoping countries can look beyond carbon and give methane more attention. This overlooked greenhouse gas is more potent in terms of its potential to cause global warming than CO2, but its longevity in the atmosphere is significantly shorter, and much can be done quickly to slash methane emissions from oil and gas extraction and transportation.
  6. The need to better protect forests and make use of nature-based solutions to bring down emissions, such as allowing forests to regrow or restoring coastal wetlands, will also be on the table.

And these are just the main parts of the formal discussions. Around them, there will be debates on a plethora of other climate issues. 

Who will be attending?

The UK government in the form of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and lead Cop negotiator Alok Sharma will be the hosts to over 30,000 people in Glasgow, including world leaders, ministers and their entourages, scientists, NGOs, journalists and corporations. US president Joe Biden will be there; Australian climate agnostic Scott Morrison has finally said he will turn up; but two notable absentees will be Xi Jinping of China and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The Queen will also attend.

And should I care?

Yes. This affects your life, my life and the future of humanity. None of us can afford to let governments and industry off the hook.

Politicians and companies have known for decades that pumping vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will not end well. Science shows what we have to do. The vast majority of the technology to make this change already exists. And the world is not short of money. What is lacking is political will to make this happen.

We can all use our political power to push for change and to hold politicians to account if they fail, once again, to take the requisite climate action. As climate activists Coldplay once sang: “Nobody said it was easy.” But the potential benefits for society, the economy, nature and our own health and well-being are huge, while the potential impacts of keeping the status quo are disastrous.

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