Five Important Questions About COP26 Answered

Representatives from nearly 200 nations are expected to meet and report on climate change promises made in the Paris Agreement

An colorful mural that reads "our climate in changing" with two people painting
Artists paint a mural near the Scottish Events Centre, which will be hosting the Climate Summit starting October 31 in Glasgow, Scotland.  Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

This Sunday, more than 20,000 political leaders, organizations and activists will gather at the world’s largest climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, with one shared goal: to address the growing threat of climate change. The annual meeting, COP26, falls in a narrow window of opportunity when nations need to collectively ratchet up targets to avoid severe climate catastrophe in the not-distant future.

At this year’s meeting, nearly 200 nations will report on how they are—or aren’t—fulfilling promises made at the 2015 climate summit in Paris, which aimed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. Even if countries stick to goals set in the Paris Agreement, scientists say current policies aren’t enough to spare vulnerable nations from the impacts of the changing climate.

Here’s what you need to know as politicians prepare to report on their progress and set new goals.

What is COP26? 

The Conference of the Parties, or “COP,” is the main decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an agreement originally made by 197 countries to slow the pace of climate change. Since the first summit in Berlin in 1995, delegates have met for two weeks each November—with the exception of last year’s postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic—to hash out specific climate pledges. This year’s summit is the 26th hence the name COP26.

At previous meetings, government leaders have put forth agreements and pledges that have been met with varied success. The 2015 agreement made in Paris called on all parties in the conference to reduce greenhouse gas production and increase renewable types of energy like wind, solar and wave power.

Rather than a single rule being imposed on all parties, individual countries pledge and work to meet their own goals, many of which are shared with other nations. “Every country is called upon to make a contribution,” says John Furlow, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University’s Climate School. “It's a voluntary contribution. There's meant to be a system of transparency—the idea being that if we can see what China and Germany and Japan are doing, the United States will want to do as well as they are and vice versa.”

Who will be there?

The conference will bring together some of the most powerful political leaders in the world, including United States President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Pope Francis and more than 100 other heads of state. COP26 also has a public-facing side of the event, including exhibitions and events showcasing climate solutions and emerging technologies.

Academics, indigenous leaders and climate activists like Greta Thunberg of Sweden and Sir David Attenborough of England will also be in attendance. The event, which is held at Glasgow’s Scottish Event Campus, anticipates thousands of protestors. Some delegates haven’t committed to attending COP26 yet, most notably President Xi Jinping of China, a nation that is the currently world’s top greenhouse gas emitter.

Leaders from lower-income and small island nations feeling the brunt of climate change may be missing from conversations, too, says Harriet Bulkeley, a geographer at Durham University. “We know that a lot of people won't be able to attend, who should be there,” she says. “It's often going to be some of the most marginalized voices for whom this kind of journey in these current conditions is just unfeasible either logistically, politically or financially.”

Why is this summit so important?

It’s been five years since countries made pledges in Paris, and they’re expected to report and declare even more ambitious goals at this year’s meeting. The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in August warns that human activities have unequivocally heated the planet and that climate change is fueling extreme weather events, flooding and the rapid loss of species. New commitments made at COP26 could include adding more electric cars on the road, curtailing deforestation and moving away from fossil-fuel-based heating.

One initiative being launched at COP26 is the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to curb the emissions of the potent greenhouse gas by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030. So far, a total of 24 countries including the U.S. are on board. Another pledge from countries like the U.S. and Australia aims to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050, a stringent goal some say is needed to slow the rapid pace of warming. Ultimately, that means phasing out things like coal and gas and switching to renewable sources like wind and solar. Any emissions from gasoline-powered cars, for example, would have to be offset by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Despite the roughly three-month span in which the United States wasn’t a member of the Paris Agreement, President Biden says the country is still on track to meet goals set in 2015. Major emitters like China, Saudi Arabia and Russia have yet to put forth pledges, and whether they’ll do so before the summit begins at the end of the week is not clear.

How are top emitting countries stepping up?

At the 2009 conference in Copenhagen, delegates set a goal of providing $100 billion each year to support lower-income nations’ transition away from fossil fuels starting this year, but funding appears to be falling short. And some experts are skeptical that $100 billion is enough to finance the transition.

Added pressure is being put on the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters to make the most ambitious promises. The G20, an intergovernmental group of the world’s biggest economies, collectively accounts for around 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Lower-income counties tend to have economies built around climate-sensitive goods, like agriculture and other natural resources and are often hit worse by climate disasters. “I can imagine there's a real sense of helplessness in a small country or low emissions country that is feeling the impacts of the changes that are happening,” says Furlow, “but has to depend on others to reduce emissions to solve the problem.”

What is the summit supposed to accomplish?

At the COP21 summit, nations agreed to a collective commitment to limit global temperate rise by the end of the 21st century to 2 degrees Celsius and pursue efforts to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius—the threshold scientists say is necessary for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. The planet is already more than one degree Celsius warmer than before the industrial age, and a jump from 1.5 to 2 degrees could lead to two extra inches of sea-level rise, putting around ten million people at risk of coastal flooding. “Even something that is as seemingly small as a half of a degree really does matter,” says Brendan Guy, climate strategist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In September of this year, a report from the United Nations warned that countries’ Paris targets were too weak, leaving the planet on pace to warm by almost 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. If all COP member states can cut global emissions to net zero by 2050, that could keep warming under 1.5 Celsius. “We have made progress over the last dozen years or so but it's clearly not enough,” says Guy. “The mounting impacts of climate change have shown us that we don't have time to be tepid or for any half measures. Now is the time to really be bold.”

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