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Explainer – A Guide to the COP26 Climate Change Summit

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

26th May 2021

COP26 is billed as one of the most notable summits since COP21, which produced the Paris Agreement in 2015. There are several key items on the agenda this year, including a review of each country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which takes place every five years. NDCs encourage countries to increase their contributions towards achieving net zero emissions as fast as possible.

COP26 had to be postponed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so expectations have ratcheted up for this year’s event. As Prime Minister, a lot of eyes will be on Boris Johnson to ensure that the UK’s ambitions and actions are in sync with the science for preventing a 1.5°C global rise in temperatures – a target set out in the Paris Agreement. Questions have been raised about the feasibility of this target on our current ‘business as usual’ trajectory, so a great deal of work lies ahead to bring global commitments in line with the science.

This post will explore common questions about COP26 and provide a general overview of what to expect from the summit. Another great resource worth exploring alongside this piece is Fiona Harvey’s COP26 explainer in The Guardian.

What is the ‘Conference of the Parties’?

The Conference of the Parties (commonly abbreviated to ‘COP’), typically takes place on an annual basis and bring together 197 countries and territories (referred to as the ‘Parties’) who’ve signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. COP’s purpose is to review and monitor the implementation of the Framework Convention’s goals, and oversee decision-making. The upcoming 26th Conference of the Parties is commonly known as COP26.

What is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)?

After being signed in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, the UNFCCC came into effect in March 1994. It’s the first formal global climate agreement and was signed by 197 countries. A framework typically acknowledges that a problem exists and brings countries together to tackle it, without binding them in strict obligations.

Over time, more precise amendments and protocols are added to the convention and these will include tougher ambitions for the parties to meet. For example, the Kyoto Protocol (COP3) and Paris Agreement (COP21) came about to supplement the UNFCCC. The COP summits provide an opportunity to review and monitor progress towards meeting the UNFCCC’s goals.

According to Science Direct, the main goal of the UNFCCC is to stabilise, “Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

When did COP begin?

The first COP took place in March 1995. It was held in Berlin, Germany.

How many COP summits have there been so far?

There have been 25 COPs to date. The November 2021 summit in Glasgow, will be the 26th COP.

The list of previous COP summits are as follows:

EventYearLocation
COP11995Berlin, Germany
COP21996Geneva, Switzerland
COP31997Kyoto, Japan
COP41998Buenos Aires, Argentina
COP51999Bonn, Germany
COP62000The Hague, Netherlands
COP72001Marrakesh, Morocco
COP82002Delhi, India
COP92003Milan, Italy
COP102004Buenos Aires, Argentina
COP112005Montreal, Canada
COP122006Nairobi, Kenya
COP132007Bali, Indonesia
COP142008Poznan, Poland
COP152009Copenhagen, Denmark
COP162010Cancun, Mexico
COP172011Durban, South Africa
COP182012Doha, Qatar
COP192013Warsaw, Poland
COP202014Lima, Peru
COP212015Paris, France
COP222016Marrakech, Morocco
COP232017Bonn, Germany
COP242018Katowice, Poland
COP252019Madrid, Spain

What have been the most significant COP summits to date?

The EESI has a useful breakdown of the first 19 COPs. Three notable COPs worth mentioning are:

  • COP3 in Kyoto, 1997. This is where the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, which set out that emissions of industrialised countries had to be monitored, and binding targets came into force. These targets covered the six main greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Emissions Trading and Joint Implementation (JI) were put forward as a way of achieving the targets.
  • COP15 in Copenhagen, 2009. This COP was notable for its failure. So much hope had rested on this summit, that it had been dubbed ‘Hopenhagen’. The Copenhagen Accord was agreed by leaders from Brazil, India, Indonesia, China, South Africa and the US, which recognised the need to limit a global temperature increase to 2°C. A funding pledge of $100 billion for developing countries was set out.
  • COP21 in Paris, 2015. A goal was agreed to avoid a 2°C rise in temperatures above pre-industrial levels, with parties being encouraged to limit the global temperature rise to below 1.5°C. Also included within the Paris Agreement is the necessity for countries to produce Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), about how they intend to limit and reduce their emissions to stay in line with the agreement.
Meeting Christiana Figueres (former UN Executive Secretary for Climate Change) and Tom Rivett-Carnac (Senior Political Strategist for the Paris Climate Agreement) at a Guardian Live event in March 2020

What does COP26 stand for?

COP26 is the 26th Conference of the Parties. For help decoding terminology, take a look at Fiona Harvey’s COP26 jargon buster in The Guardian.

Which country will COP26 be held in?

COP26 will take place in Scotland, in the host city of Glasgow.

When will COP26 take place?

The dates of the COP26 conference are from Monday 1st November to Friday 12 November 2021.

Where in Glasgow will COP26 take place?

The location for COP26 is the Scottish Event Campus (SEC). The venue includes a 3,000 seat auditorium and a 14,300 capacity events area.

Who is the COP26 president?

Alok Sharma is the COP26 President. Prior to holding this position, he was Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, in the UK. Other members of the COP26 leadership team include:

  • Nigel Topping – COP26 High Level Champion
  • Anne-Marie Trevelyan – UK International Champion on Adaptation and Resilience for COP26
  • Mark Carney – The Prime Minister’s Finance Adviser for COP26

Who is organising COP26?

The COP26 presidency is held by the UK, in partnership with Italy. The main event is being hosted by the UK in Glasgow.

Why is COP26 in partnership with Italy?

The UK and Italy submitted a joint bid for the presidency of COP26. Under the arrangement, the UK will host COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. Meanwhile Italy will host pre-COP events, such as Youth4Climate: Driving Ambition in September 2021, and the Pre-COP Summit which takes place in September and October 2021.

Who will attend COP26?

According to Friends of the Earth, around 30,000 delegates, including representatives and negotiators from the 197 countries, may attend COP26. However, COVID-19 could affect this number, as well as the format of the event itself. Fiona Harvey has produced a list of key figures attending COP26 for The Guardian.

In addition, two other groups will be in attendance:

  • Members of the global press
  • Representatives from organisations who have observer status (including NGOs and intergovernmental organizations)

Why is COP26 so important?

John Kerry, the US climate envoy, has described COP26 as, “The last best chance“, for avoiding runaway climate change. However, this is not the first time a COP summit has been described in this manner. In an interview with The Guardian in October 2021, with just three weeks until COP26, John Kerry felt that there would be some positive news at the conference and that it could be a big leap forward in the climate fight. Alok Sharma, the COP President, said that COP26 is, “The last hope of keeping 1.5C alive”.

COP26 will try to reach agreement on the ‘Paris Rulebook’. This playbook will lay out how the 2015 Paris Agreement will be implemented. In addition, COP26 aims to resolve outstanding issues from the previous COP25 conference which took place in Madrid in 2019, and will encompass all other essential negotiating points from the past two years.

The COP26 negotiations, will address key issues listed on the official website, some of which include:

  • Carbon markets
  • Transparency of reporting on action and support
  • Commitment timeframes for emission reductions
  • Adaptation action
  • Global climate finance goals post-2025
  • Looking at the latest science in regards to emission reduction targets

These are just some examples of what will be discussed at COP26, although there are more issues on the table.

What are the goals of COP26?

The official COP26 website lists four main objectives for the meeting:

  1. To put forward ambitious emissions reduction targets, in order to enable the world to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and ensure the 1.5°C target agreed in Paris, remains feasible. The Paris Agreement from COP21 requires countries to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) every five years. These NDCs are targets for reducing emissions. The end of the first five year cycle was 2020, but no COP took place last year because of the pandemic, so countries will be expected to have updated their NDCs prior to COP26 in Glasgow.
  2. Countries affected by the climate crisis, will be encouraged to restore and protect ecosystems. They will also be encouraged to build a range of features to help with adaption and reduce loss of property and livelihoods, including:
    1. Defences
    2. Warning systems
    3. Resilient infrastructure and agriculture
  3. Mobilising finance from developed countries to deliver on the promise of “at least $100billion per year by 2020”, to help developing countries.
  4. Working together to complete the Paris Rulebook and speeding up action to tackle the climate crisis.

Nature-based solutions (NBS) are rightly becoming an increasingly important topic, given the role that forests and natural ecosystems play in absorbing carbon dioxide. The ECIU states that these solutions will be discussed at COP26 to help implement the Paris Agreement’s goals.

What are the key dates for COP26?

The event will take place from 1 – 12 November 2021. According to the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), the schedule will be as follows:

  • The first week will involve technical negotiations conducted by officials from governments.
  • In the second week, Heads of State and senior level Ministerial meetings take place, and this is where the final decisions are reached.

Will COP26 be virtual or in person?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many events, including COP26, which was originally meant to be held in 2020. As things stand at the time of writing, the event will take place physically in Glasgow in November 2021.

According to the Guardian, Alok Sharma believes it’s essential for the event to take place in person, and is therefore implementing measures that include COVID-19 vaccines and testing, to ensure a safe COP can take place.

Depending on the pandemic situation, COP26 may take place in a much-reduced size. The final decision is likely to be taken closer to the time.

How to get involved with COP26

According to the official COP26 website, there are three categories of people who will be attending the conference:

  • Official representatives of the Parties
  • Media and press delegates
  • Observer organisation representatives

As a member of the public, you can try attend as a member of an observer organisation or as a volunteer for the event. The deadline for volunteer jobs at COP26 has now passed. Expressions of interest have also closed for people and organisations who wished to perform, host or exhibit at COP26.

Can I attend COP26?

COP26 attendees are comprised of the three groups mentioned above. If you don’t fall within these groups, it may not be possible to attend the event.

Will COP26 go ahead?

COP26 was originally meant to be held in November 2020, but had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, COP26 will be going ahead in November 2021. However, the COVID-19 situation is being closely monitored and it’s within the realms of possibility that some parts of the conference or pre-COP events may be held virtually for safety purposes.

Is COP26 moving to London?

COP26 is being held in Glasgow. There are no current plans to move the event to London.

Will climate protests take place in Glasgow?

Yes, it’s intended that climate protests will take place around COP26. Most notably the COP26 Coalition are planning demonstrations and events at COP26. Member organisations include 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Fridays for Future, CAFOD, Tearfund and many more.

Where will the next COP take place?

COP27 will take place in Africa. An African country will be selected during the COP26 conference in November 2021. Countries including Egypt and Ghana have expressed an interest in hosting COP27.

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Published inThe Climate Crisis