COP26 refers to the 26th Conference of the Parties, which commences in Glasgow on 31st October 2021. The two-week long conference will convene government leaders, climate activists, UN officials, private sector companies, NGOs and the world’s media to plot a path to achieving net-zero emissions and ultimately staving off the worst, most destructive impacts of climate change. The gathering has been described by the UN as “A pivotal moment in the fight against climate change…the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control.”
The 2021 summit, which was delayed a year due to COVID-19, has four key goals:
1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
Countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century
2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
The climate is already changing and it will continue to change even as we reduce emissions, with devastating effects.
3. Mobilise finance
To deliver on our first two goals, developed countries must make good on their promise to mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2020.
4. Work together to deliver
We can only rise to the challenges of the climate crisis by working together.
At COP 21 in Paris in 2015, the concept of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) was introduced as a way for each country to contribute towards keeping global warming at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement mandated that these NDCs would be submitted every five years, and are therefore due to be delivered again at or before the upcoming Glasgow summit. On October 25th, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) released an updated synthesis of the 165 NDCs that have been submitted thus far, with Patricia Espinosa, the agency’s Executive Secretary, noting that the report “unfortunately confirms…that we are nowhere near where science says we should be”.
As is often the case with a major global conference of this nature, what is achieved in the groundwork beforehand is as much of an indicator of the conference’s ultimate success, if not more so, than what happens during the event itself. There are already some significant suggestions that COP26 may not be the world-saving moment many wish it to be. The involvement of China is a major factor in this. As the world’s biggest emitter of carbon, the most dangerous and prevalent of greenhouse gases, China has a crucial role to play in negotiating a shared path towards reaching the 1.5° target, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping is highly unlikely to attend, making that prospect even more challenging.
Other notable absences include President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a key exporter of gas and oil, and many leaders of Pacific Island nations, many of whom are on the front line of climate change in their exposure to rising sea levels but will be unable to attend due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Without all of the relevant interests sitting around the negotiating table, the strength of the agreement is at risk.
In the face of these and many other obstacles, there is still hope that COP26 can see significant success. One key area where we could see a positive outcome is the campaign for climate justice, delivered via rich countries agreeing to contribute upwards of $100bn per year to developing countries to mitigate the impact of climate change and support their economic transition to a low carbon footing. This was originally promised in the Paris Agreement of 2015 to commence in 2020, however, the target is yet to be achieved. COP26 offers an opportunity for governments and campaigners alike to exert pressure on developed nations to live up to the promise of the Paris Agreement and deliver the funding in an accessible manner, through grants rather than further loan burdens.
Another avenue for COP26 success is to see a real acknowledgement from governments, businesses and civil society of the need to significantly reduce fossil fuel consumption, and evidence of how they will achieve this. There has been a promising sign of this in the run-up to Glasgow, with the pledge by 18 of the C40 group of Mayors, committing to ‘Divesting from Fossil Fuels, Investing in a Sustainable Future’. A group of over 70 faith institutions in the UK with assets under management of over £4bn have taken a similar step, recently announcing a coordinated commitment to divest from fossil fuels. Hopefully the spotlight of COP26 can inspire similar action worldwide.
It is a tall order to expect one conference to change the trajectory of human footprints on this planet, however it is now our best last chance. Ultimately, we are left to hope that world leaders heed Sir David Attenborough’s warning that “if we don’t act now, it’ll be too late”.