Over 200 countries with their own agendas. Complex political and scientific factors. One common goal of tackling catastrophic damage to our planet. And time is running out.
What is COP?
On 28th March 1995 in Berlin, Michael Zammit Cutajar stood before representatives from 128 countries, thanked the German government and people for their generosity as hosts, and welcomed them to the first Conference of the Parties.
Over the next 11 days, representatives from around the world discussed strategies for how to “avoid dangerous climate change”–a commitment every country on the planet was treaty-bound to honour following the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) first international environmental treaty.
At the heart of the annual conferences is also the issue of fairness. At COP1, it was recognised that industrialised countries had a greater burden of responsibility to tackle the climate crisis than less industrially developed countries. Equity forms a guiding principle for the conferences: “the parties should protect the climate system in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”
This year’s conference, COP26 (delayed by a year due to Covid), is taking place in Glasgow.
When is it?
Officially opening on Sunday 31st October, the Conference is scheduled to finish on Friday 12th November, however it is likely that talks will extend into Saturday and Sunday.
The first few days of the conference will see over 120 world leaders gather to discuss climate policies, before they pass the reins to their climate representatives for the complex, arduous and sometimes emotional negotiations.
Some key leaders are going to be absent, including China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
Why do we still need COP meetings?
Most leaders and scientists around the world have recognised that although the Paris Agreement of 2015 was a significant landmark in the climate struggle, it still falls short of the changes needed. Countries agreed on non-binding national targets to reduce emissions by 2030, but even if fulfilled would still result in 3C of warming – which would be disastrous.
As part of this commitment, countries also agreed to review their national targets every five years (and hopefully bolster them).
Scientists estimate that emissions must be reduced by 50% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels in order to have a chance at keeping global warming within the 1.5C threshold.
What are the goals of COP26?
- Secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5C within reach. This is the part where countries have to offer up their homework to be marked–everyone has been asked to come to the conference with ambitious new 2030 targets for emissions reductions. Key actions are to reduce coal use, stop deforestation, switch to electric vehicles and invest in renewables.
- Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats. This goal is to protect and regenerate our natural world, as well as investing in infrastructure and systems that will mitigate the unavoidable impacts of climate change.
- Mobilise finance. The UNFCCC wants developed countries to mobilise at least $100bn climate finance per year. And more is needed–public and private sectors need to combine forces in order to free up funds sufficient to tackle the global crisis.
- Work together. COP26 is aiming to finalise the Paris Agreement rules and accelerate action to curb climate change – both complex tasks that are reliant on countries pooling resources and uniting behind a common goal.
COP meetings have long-faced criticism over accessibility. Some nations have struggled to attend for geographic and financial reasons. Activists have questioned whether poorer nations could be priced out of the conversation–even though they’re often the least responsible for and most affected by climate change.
Treaties have also been criticised for not being enforced strongly enough. The Paris Agreement, for example, obligates signatories to submit targets, but there is no legally-binding term about what those targets are.
Recently, a leaked document showed nations including Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia had attempted to change aspects of a UN Climate Report through lobbying.
Greta Thunberg, among others, has criticised the conferences for failing to translate talk into action: “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear … Words that sound great but so far have not led to action.”
But she has also recognised the importance of events like COP–even if they do have limitations: “Of course we need constructive dialogue … We can still turn this around. It is entirely possible.”
Why is this COP so important?
No longer a distant future concern, the crisis has begun to hit home harder–especially in developed countries (while less industrially developed countries have already been experiencing the effects of climate change).
Scientists have been piling the pressure on for a while now, but we are finally at an extremely significant tipping point: if action is not taken in the next seven years, there is no guarantee that we will avoid a catastrophic meltdown to our climate.
2030 is the key date for reducing emissions by 50%, and subsequently 2050 is the goal to become carbon net zero.
These are ambitious targets. There are many factors. Negotiations in Glasgow will be tiring, complex and difficult. But there is no plan B; COP26 represents an opportunity for the world to unite behind the biggest challenge humanity has ever collectively faced–and we cannot afford to fail.