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What is COP26? Here’s how global climate negotiations work and what’s expected from the Glasgow summit

What is COP26? Here’s how global climate negotiations work and what’s expected from the Glasgow summit
October 22, 2021 The Conversation

By Shelley Inglis, University of Dayton, The Conversation

 is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.


Over two weeks in November, world leaders and national negotiators will meet in Scotland to discuss what to do about climate change. It’s a complex process that can be hard to make sense of from the outside, but it’s how international law and institutions help solve problems that no single country can fix on its own.

I worked for the United Nations for several years as a law and policy adviser and have been involved in international negotiations. Here’s what’s happening behind closed doors and why people are concerned that COP26 might not meet its goals.

What is COP26?

In 1992, countries agreed to an international treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which set ground rules and expectations for global cooperation on combating climate change. It was the first time the majority of nations formally recognized the need to control greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming that drives climate change.

That treaty has since been updated, including in 2015 when nations signed the Paris climate agreement. That agreement set the goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F), and preferably to 1.5 C (2.7 F), to avoid catastrophic climate change.

COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC. The “parties” are the 196 countries that ratified the treaty plus the European Union. The United Kingdom, partnering with Italy, is hosting COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 through Nov. 12, 2021, after a one-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why are world leaders so focused on climate change?

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, released in August 2021, warns in its strongest terms yet that human activities have unequivocally warmed the planet, and that climate change is now widespread, rapid and intensifying.

The IPCC’s scientists explain how climate change has been fueling extreme weather events and flooding, severe heat waves and droughts, loss and extinction of species, and the melting of ice sheets and rising of sea levels. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity.”

Enough greenhouse gas emissions are already in the atmosphere, and they stay there long enough, that even under the most ambitious scenario of countries quickly reducing their emissions, the world will experience rising temperatures through at least mid-century.

However, there remains a narrow window of opportunity. If countries can cut global emissions to “net zero” by 2050, that could bring warming back to under 1.5 C in the second half of the 21st century. How to get closer to that course is what leaders and negotiators are discussing.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the latest climate science findings a ‘code red for humanity.’ UNFCCC

What happens at COP26?

During the first days of the conference, around 120 heads of state, like U.S. President Joe Biden, and their representatives will gather to demonstrate their political commitment to slowing climate change.

Once the heads of state depart, country delegations, often led by ministers of environment, engage in days of negotiations, events and exchanges to adopt their positions, make new pledges and join new initiatives. These interactions are based on months of prior discussions, policy papers and proposals prepared by groups of states, U.N. staff and other experts.

Nongovernmental organizations and business leaders also attend the conference, and COP26 has a public side with sessions focused on topics such as the impact of climate change on small island states, forests or agriculture, as well as exhibitions and other events.

The meeting ends with an outcome text that all countries agree to. Guterres publicly expressed disappointment with the COP25 outcome, and there are signs of trouble heading into COP26.

Celebrities like youth climate activist Greta Thunberg add public pressure on world leaders. UNFCCC

What is COP26 expected to accomplish?

Countries are required under the Paris Agreement to update their national climate action plans every five years, including at COP26. This year, they’re expected to have ambitious targets through 2030. These are known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs.

The Paris Agreement requires countries to report their NDCs, but it allows them leeway in determining how they reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The initial set of emission reduction targets in 2015 was far too weak to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

One key goal of COP26 is to ratchet up these targets to reach net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.

Another aim of COP26 is to increase climate finance to help poorer countries transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change. This is an important issue of justice for many developing countries whose people bear the largest burden from climate change but have contributed least to it. Wealthy countries promised in 2009 to contribute $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations, a goal that has not been reached. The U.S., U.K. and EU, among the largest historic greenhouse emitters, are increasing their financial commitments, and banks, businesses, insurers and private investors are being asked to do more.

Other objectives include phasing out coal use and generating solutions that preserve, restore or regenerate natural carbon sinks, such as forests.

Another challenge that has derailed past COPs is agreeing on implementing a carbon trading system outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Chinese street vendors sell vegetables outside a state-owned coal-fired power plant in 2017. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Are countries on track to meet the international climate goals?

The U.N. warned in September 2021 that countries’ revised targets were too weak and would leave the world on pace to warm 2.7 C (4.9 F) by the end of the century. However, governments are also facing another challenge this fall that could affect how they respond: Energy supply shortages have left Europe and China with price spikes for natural gas, coal and oil.

China – the world’s largest emitter – has not yet submitted its NDC. Major fossil fuel producers such as Saudi ArabiaRussia and Australia seem unwilling to strengthen their commitments. India – a critical player as the second-largest consumer, producer and importer of coal globally – has also not yet committed.

Other developing nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and Mexico are important. So is Brazil, which, under Javier Bolsonaro’s watch, has increased deforestation of the Amazon – the world’s largest rainforest and crucial for biodiversity and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

What happens if COP26 doesn’t meet its goals?

Many insiders believe that COP26 won’t reach its goal of having strong enough commitments from countries to cut global greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030. That means the world won’t be on a smooth course for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and the goal of keeping warming under 1.5 C.

But organizers maintain that keeping warming under 1.5 C is still possible. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been leading the U.S. negotiations, remains hopeful that enough countries will create momentum for others to strengthen their reduction targets by 2025.

The world is not on track to meet the Paris goal. Climate Action Tracker

The cost of failure is astronomical. Studies have shown that the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius can mean the submersion of small island states, the death of coral reefs, extreme heat waves, flooding and wildfires, and pervasive crop failure.

That translates into many premature deaths, more mass migration, major economic losses, large swaths of unlivable land and violent conflict over resources and food – what the U.N. secretary-general has called “a hellish future.”


Catch more news on Great Lakes Now:

COP26 Coverage: What do you want to know about the U.N. climate change conference?

U.N. Climate Conference: Michigan’s role at the U.N.’s COP26 and in the U.S.’s climate future


Featured image: U.N. climate summits bring together representatives of almost every country. UNFCCC

1 Comment

  1. Edward HC Graydon 4 weeks ago

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    Edward H.C Graydon
    6 hours ago
    I find myself aligning with the basic understanding that is held by Bill Gates? That government and politicians are in fact inept and incapable of dealing with the issues of climate change based on the fact that it is not a peronally held inner position within themselves or a concern that is held with inner altruism .And because inner altruism on the subject is not being held within politicians it is up to those like Bill Gates and others to set the standards regarding climate change and or others to talk about the subject .It is next to impossible to solve the problem while the word embraces materialism .And because of this the world is in need of a singular world government that limits individual consumption .

    Personally, I think the ideology of socialism for the sake of the environmentally fragile planet should be experimented on the North American society first as they lack inner control on the issue of materialism. While others in poorer countries starve.

    I am ok in principle with what the world elite are trying to achieve in regards too the planets woes with or without politicians who seem incapable of making hard choices. As I think regardless the rich are making the decision for them . « less
    0
    REPLY TO @EDWARD H.C GRAYDON:

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    Edward H.C Graydon
    5 hours ago
    Reply to @Edward H.C Graydon: But I also believe?

    On many ideological issues held by Bill Gates and climate change many are in fact aligned to my own frame of thinking but I think the alignment between Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos makes this probomatic to some degree as most of the worlds side effects based on consumption and materialism stem from his friends business Amazon the same identity that contributes to the global plastics and waste from materialism found in the worlds oceans. So I guess the question is ? Does Bill Gates recognize the issue his friends conglomerate has on the planet as a whole.And is his friendship with Jeff Bezos the meaning of hypocrisy on the subject as I really don’t know ,but I see some reason for concern. « less
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    REPLY TO @EDWARD H.C GRAYDON:

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