COP26, which is taking place in Glasgow, is the latest in a series of meetings through which the world’s governments attempt to deal with climate change.
COP stands for “Conference of the Parties”: these 197 parties are the United Nations member countries, plus a few small non-UN member countries and the European Union, all of which support the Framework Convention on Climate Change. This was set up in 1992 to organize a global response to what most people then called the “greenhouse effect.” It’s COP26 simply because this is the 26th meeting.
The location of COP meetings changes each time. The last meeting was in Madrid in 2019. There was no COP in 2020 because of Covid-19. The most important COP so far was the 2015 meeting in Paris, which agreed to “limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees,” over pre-industrial levels.
It’s possible to set a target like this because scientific research has recognized a close relationship between the amount of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere and its average temperature.
In order to achieve the target of “well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably 1.5 degrees,” the Paris Agreement committed to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate-neutral world by mid-century.”
The main task for COP26 is to follow through on this commitment and produce realistic plans to reduce global carbon emissions to levels that hold 21st-century global warming as close to 1.5 degrees as possible.
As you can imagine, getting 197 different countries, all with their own circumstances and interests, to agree to such plans isn’t exactly straightforward: After all, it took 23 years to get to the Paris Agreement. Most famously, Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement when president, although it returned after Joe Biden’s election. So there is some uncertainty about how successful COP26 will be.
The main method for reducing emissions is the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) of each country: These are individual countries’ climate action plans. For example, the UK’s most recent NDC commits it to reducing emissions by at least 68% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.
The main problem facing COP26 is that the combined NDCs of all the parties aren’t enough to meet the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement. If you combine all the current plans and promises contained in the NDCs, they would lead to a global temperature increase of 2.4 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, and if you look at actual emissions now, they would lead to a global temperature increase of 2.9 degrees by 2100.
So there is a need for much-improved NDCs, plus effective ways to ensure that countries actually cut all the emissions they pledged to. One of the most important ways is for wealthy countries to provide financial support to enable less wealthy countries to cut emissions, which was an important part of the Paris Agreement but hasn’t been fully acted on yet.
Why this matters
COP26 matters because the window is quickly closing on the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree target: If emissions don’t fall very rapidly, very soon, too much carbon will have been added to the atmosphere to keep the temperature from rising higher.
Current emissions need to be halved by 2030 to have about a 50:50 chance of keeping to 1.5 degrees. The longer the world delays before cutting emissions, either the harsher the cuts will need to be to meet the target, or the target will be missed altogether.
The Paris Agreement matters because a 1.5-degree world is safer than a 2-degree world. For example, the proportion of the global population exposed to severe heat at least once every five years is almost three times as high at 2 degrees compared with 1.5 degrees. The reduction in corn (maize) harvests in the tropical regions is more than twice as great at 2 degrees, and coral reefs would be largely eliminated.
If COP26 isn’t successful, it doesn’t mean that we’re doomed. But it would make it harder to avoid the worst effects of climate change, such as droughts, heatwaves, floods and rising seas. It’s perhaps best to see COP26 as part of the long-term project to keep Earth as safe and habitable as possible for all its people, and the more successful it is, the easier that will be.