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What is COP26? What Can We Expect from the UN Climate Change Conference in 2021?

Oct 30, 2021 10:12 AM 5 min read

Since 1995, the leaders of most countries have descended annually on a predetermined location to debate climate policies and make pledges towards climate action.

These climate change conferences - held under the aegis of the UN - are referred to as the Conference of Parties (COP). This year’s gathering will be COP26, since it will be the 26th such meeting, and will be held in Glasgow from October 31st to November 12th.

The What’s What of Climate Action

Here’s a brief FYI:

  • The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the multinational agreement that was signed during the Rio "Earth Summit" in 1992.
  • The COP is the UNFCCC's supreme decision-making body, which meets annually to assess progress in dealing with the climate crisis.
  • The Paris Agreement, which was signed during COP21, is the treaty that aims to keep global heating “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”. Signed in 2015, it replaced the Kyoto Protocol.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a UN body that is the nodal agency for climate science. It provides scientific information and "assessment reports" on the causes and ongoing implications of man-made climate change.


What is COP?

The "Parties" in COP stands for the 197 signatories to the UNFCCC. These conferences remain the biggest - and thus most consequential - forums to enact proactive change, although they are also criticised as being guilty of lofty platitudes and unmet promises.

The first COP (COP1) set the Berlin Mandate. COP3 negotiated the Kyoto Protocol. COP7 (Marrakech) set operational rules for global emissions trading. COP13 adopted the Bali Road Map. COP16 (Cancún) moved towards the creation of the Green Climate Fund. COP17 (Durban) launched the process of building a legally-binding mechanism that could succeed the Kyoto Protocol. And COP21 saw the emergence of the Paris Agreement.

COP26, which will begin tomorrow, was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK - the host country - and the UN have said the drive to "keep hope alive" for the Paris Agreement underpins the historical significance of the upcoming conference.

Speaking of which...


What is the Paris Agreement?

The Kyoto Protocol was the most comprehensive international plan to tackle the climate crisis until 2015, but it failed to make critical progress mainly thanks to the US, which failed to ratify the accord over reservations that it placed too much of the onus for climate action on rich countries like itself.

The Paris Agreement sought to champion climate action in a slightly different way - by calling on countries to set their own individual non-binding targets aka Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to cut greenhouse gas emissions or curb the growth of the same. The goal is to limit global heating to below 2°C, and pursue efforts to limit this further to below 1.5°C.

The Paris Agreement was a watershed and landmark moment, but it had its share of drawbacks. The main one being that by letting countries set their own targets, it was diluting responsibility. Moreover, the US did another u-turn when it withdrew from the accord under the Trump administration (it has now rejoined under Joe Biden).

Partly to give the deal more teeth, negotiators added a “ratchet mechanism” wherein countries would have to make fresh commitments of “increasingly ambitious climate action” every five years.

It has now been five years since Paris. Ergo the air of heightened expectations.


What’s on the Agenda at Glasgow 2021?

About 25,000 people, including the leaders of 190 countries, are expected to attend the conference. As are 100,000 protestors, with November 6th designated as the Global Day for Climate Justice.

UK PM Boris Johnson has described the aims for COP26 to be “coal, cars, cash and trees”. Specifically:

  1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5°C within reach
  2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
  3. Mobilise climate finance
  4. Finalise the Paris Rulebook (the detailed rules that make the Paris Agreement operational)

So far, 17 countries and the European Union have made new pledges, but they fall short. The US is scrambling to reaffirm its climate commitments after four years of outright climate science denial. The White House has said it will cut emissions 50-52% below 2005-levels over the next decade and has affirmed new domestic policies to facilitate an energy transition from coal to renewables. Australia unveiled a “zany” roadmap to net zero. China, the world’s worst polluter, has so far only regurgitated previous commitments.


India and COP

In the run-up to the conference, stakeholders have called on India to commit to a net zero target. The US, EU, China, Saudi Arabia and UK have already announced carbon neutrality timelines.

However, New Delhi remains non-committal. It cites the problems with net zero goals - that they don’t always actually entail gross emissions reductions and are often used as a delaying tactic by countries and companies. Furthermore, India is a heavily coal-reliant economy, something that is being tragically vindicated by the ongoing coal shortage crisis.

As for India’s climate commitments, however, the record is relatively good. It plans to reduce the emissions intensity of GDP by 33-35% by 2030 (from 2005-levels). The country also has a lofty target of building 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030 (although whether this reflects the facts on the ground is another story). And it is the only OECD country on track to meeting its 2015 Paris climate commitments.

FYI: COP8 was held in New Delhi (2002). It resulted in the Delhi Ministerial Declaration, which called for technology transfer by developed countries to limit the impact of the climate crisis on developing countries, and the New Delhi Work Programme on climate education.


Dreaming of Montreal

The planet continues to warm, with 1.5°C being regarded by climate scientists as the critical threshold for global heating. Every 0.5°C rise in global temperatures brings with it life-threatening heat waves, coastal flooding, water shortages, biodiversity losses, and extreme weather events.

One pertinent end-goal COP26 might want to champion is shifting the focus of the conversation by addressing the climate crisis not as a disaster awaiting us in the distant future - but as an event that is already here. You can see it in unseasonal cyclones in the Americas, scattered monsoons in India, thawing ice in the Arctic, shifting directions of ocean currents, accelerating frequency of droughts in the Middle East, and coral bleaching off the coast of Australia.

The difference between a liveable future and a dystopian one lies in immediate action. How effective can committed global policy be in enabling climate action? For answers, look at the Montreal Protocol and how the ozone layer is doing today.


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