COP26 – what we know so far, and why it matters: Your UN News guide
In a world shaken by a pandemic, and a fast-closing window of opportunity to avoid climate catastrophe, the pivotal COP26 UN climate conference kicks off this Sunday in the Scottish city of Glasgow - the stakes could not be higher.
“Without decisive action, we are gambling away our last chance to – literally - turn the tide”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said ahead of the meeting. But why could it be our last chance?
Here’s some answers we’ve found to the most common questions you might have about what’s coming up.
Let’s start with the basics, what is COP26?
To keep it simple, COP26 is the biggest and most important climate-related conference on the planet.
In 1992, the UN organised a major event in Rio de Janeiro called the Earth Summit, in which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted.
In this treaty, nations agreed to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” to prevent dangerous interference from human activity on the climate system. Today, the treaty has 197 signatories.
Since 1994, when the treaty entered into force, every year the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits or “COPs”, which stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’.
This year should have been the 27th annual summit, but thanks to COVID-19, we’ve fallen a year behind due to last year’s postponement – hence, COP26.
So, what happens at COP26? Don’t we have enough meetings about climate change already?
Various “extensions” to the UNFCCC treaty have been negotiated during these COPs to establish legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries, and to define an enforcement mechanism.
These include the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which defined emission limits for developed nations to be achieved by 2012; and the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, in which all countries of the world agreed to step up efforts to try and limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, and boost climate action financing.
So, here’s where COP26 gets interesting: during the conference, among other issues, delegates will be aiming to finalise the ‘Paris Rulebook’, or the rules needed to implement the Agreement. This time they will need to agree on common timeframes for the frequency of revision and monitoring of their climate commitments.
Basically, Paris set the destination, limiting warming well below two degrees, (ideally 1.5) but Glasgow, is the last chance to make it a reality.
So, this brings us to our initial question: why is it the last chance?
Like a boa constrictor that slowly squeezes its prey to death, climate change has gone from being an uncomfortable low-level issue, to a life-threatening global emergency, in the past three decades.
Although there have been new and updated commitments made by countries ahead of COP26, the world remains on track for a dangerous global temperature rise of at least 2.7°C this century even if Paris goals are met.
The science is clear: a rise of temperatures of that magnitude by the end of the century could mean, among other things, a 62% increase in areas scorched by wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere during summer, the loss of habitat of a third of the mammals in the world, and more frequent four to 10 month-long droughts.
UN chief António Guterres bluntly calls it “climate catastrophe”, one that it is already being felt to a deadly degree in the most vulnerable parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa and Small Island States, lashed by rising sea levels.
Millions of people are already being displaced and killed by disasters exacerbated by climate change.
For Mr. Guterres, and the hundreds of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scenario of 1.5°C warming, is the “only liveable future for humanity”.
The clock is ticking, and to have a chance of limiting the rise, the world needs to halve greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.
This is a gigantic task that we only will be able to do if leaders attending COP26 come up with bold, time-bound and front-loaded plans to phase out coal and transform their economies to reach so called net zero emissions.
Hmm, but didn’t countries like China and the United States already commit to net zero?
The most recent UN Emissions Gap Report explains that a total of 49 countries plus the European Union have pledged a net zero target.
This covers over half of global domestic greenhouse gas emissions, over half of global GDP and a third of the global population. Eleven targets are enshrined in law, covering 12 per cent of global emissions.
Sounds great right? But there’s a catch: many of the commitments delay action until after 2030, raising doubts over whether these net zero pledges can actually be achieved. Also, many of these pledges are “vague” and inconsistent with the officially submitted national commitments, known as NDC’s.
This again explains why COP26 is so important: “The time has passed for diplomatic niceties...If governments - especially G20 governments - do not stand up and lead this effort, we are headed for terrible human suffering”, warned Guterres in the UN General Assembly this week.
So, what exactly is COP26 hoping to achieve (practically speaking)?
The official negotiations take place over two weeks. The first week includes technical negotiations by government officials, followed by high-level Ministerial and Heads of State meetings in the second week, when the final decisions will be made – or not.
There are four main points that will be discussed during the conference according to its host, the United Kingdom:
1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
To do this, countries need to accelerate the phase-out of coal, curb deforestation, speed up the switch to greener economies. Carbon market mechanisms will be also part of the negotiations.
2. Adapt more to protect communities and natural habitats
Since the climate is already changing countries already affected by climate change need to protect and restore ecosystems, as well as build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure.
3. Mobilise finance
At COP15, rich nations promised to channel $100 billion a year to less-wealthy nations by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature.
That promise was not kept, and COP26 will be crucial to secure the funds, with the help of international financial institutions, as well as set new climate finance targets to be achieved by 2025.
4. Work together to deliver
This means establishing collaborations between governments, businesses and civil society, and of course, finalising the Paris Rulebook to make the Agreement fully operational.
In addition to formal negotiations, COP26 is expected to establish new initiatives and coalitions for delivering climate action.
How, when and where?
The main event will be held at the Scottish Event Campus, from 31 October to 12 November, with the possibility of negotiations spilling over an extra day or two. So far, there are over 30.000 people registered to attend representing governments, businesses, NGOs, and civil society groups.
The 197 Parties to the UNFCCC treaty, often get in groups or “blocs” to negotiate together such as the G77 and China, the Africa Group, the Least Developed Countries, the Umbrella Forum, the Small Island Developing States, and the Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The negotiations also include observers, which have no formal part in them but make interventions and help maintain transparency. Observers include United Nations agencies, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, faith-based groups, and the press.
But besides the official negotiations, there will be a conference, a pavilion, and thousands of side events happening, divided over thematic days, on topics like finance, energy, youth and public empowerment, nature, adaptation, gender, science and innovation, transport, and cities.
The conference will happen across two zones – The Blue Zone (Scottish Events Campus), and the Green Zone located at the Glasgow Science Centre.
The Blue Zone is a UN-managed space where negotiations are hosted, and to enter all attendees must be credited by the UNFCCC Secretariat.
The Green Zone is managed by the UK Government and open to the public. It will include events, exhibitions, workshops and talks to promote dialogue, awareness, education and commitments on climate change.
Anyone famous attending?
Several heads of state and government including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden are expected to attend. Other famous faces in Glasgow will include Sir David Attenborough, the COP26 people’s advocate, activist Greta Thunberg, the famous Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams and singer-songwriter and UNEP ambassador Ellie Goulding. The Queen announced with regret, on Tuesday, that she would not be travelling to the event’s main reception after all.
The United Nations newest SDG ambassadors K-pop superstars BLACKPINK will be also joining the event. The Korean all-girl group released a video before their appearance, sharing a sneak peek of their heartfelt message to inspire climate action.
And with such a big conference, are there any special COVID-19 measures?
While COVID-19 continues to be a huge challenge across the world, tackling the climate crisis cannot wait according to the COP26 hosts.
In-person negotiations are preferred over online ones, to ensure inclusive participation by high and low-income countries as well as ensuring scrutiny and transparency.
Fully vaccination is encouraged for those attending the conference, and the United Kingdom ran a programme ahead of time, to deliver vaccines to participants living in countries unable to get one.
There will also be strict COVID-19 testing protocols in place, including daily testing for everyone entering the Blue Zone to ensure the health and wellbeing of all those involved and the surrounding community.
There are also COP-specific arrangements for the COVID Travel Regime people will encounter as they enter England and Scotland, with some countries requiring quarantine (which will be funded by the UK Government for attendees in difficult circumstances.