What is COP26 and why is it important?

The 2021 UN climate change conference (COP26) is a crucial moment for efforts to address the climate crisis. What are the summit aims and what would a ‘good outcome’ look like?

Explainer Updated 29 September 2021 Published 23 September 2021 3 minute READ

What is a COP?

The word ‘COP’ stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’. In the climate change sphere, ‘the Parties’ are the governments which have signed the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC). The COP brings these signatory governments together once a year to discuss how to jointly address climate change.

The conferences are attended by world leaders, ministers, and negotiators but also by representatives from civil society, business, international organizations, and the media.

The COP is hosted by a different country each year and the first such meeting – ‘COP1’ – took place in Berlin, Germany in 1995.

What is COP26?

COP26 is the 26th climate change COP and is hosted by the UK in partnership with Italy. COP26 was originally scheduled to take place in November 2020 in Glasgow in the UK but was postponed by one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now due to take place 31 October-12 November 2021.

Many civil society organizations are calling for a further postponement of the meeting.

The UK is seeking to host a physical event and is providing vaccines to delegations who would otherwise not have access to them.

Substantial challenges do however remain to ensure inclusivity, and many civil society organizations are calling for a further postponement of the meeting.

The ‘pre-COP’ (a preparatory meeting) takes place in Milan, Italy, on 30 September-2 October.

What is the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is an international treaty signed by almost all countries in the world at COP21 in Paris in 2015.

Its aims are to keep the rise in the global average temperature to ‘well below’ 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, ideally 1.5 degrees; strengthen the ability to adapt to climate change and build resilience; and align all finance flows with ‘a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development’.

The Paris Agreement has a ‘bottom-up’ approach where countries themselves decide by how much they will reduce their emissions by a certain year. They communicate these targets to the UNFCCC in the form of ‘nationally determined contributions’, or ‘NDCs’.

What does COP26 aim to achieve and why is it important?

COP26 is a critical summit for global climate action. To have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, global emissions must halve by 2030 and reach ‘net-zero’ by 2050.

The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report underscores it is still possible to achieve the 1.5-degree-target but only if unprecedented action is taken now.

The NDCs submitted in 2015 were collectively not ambitious enough to limit global warming to ‘well below’ 2 degrees, never mind 1.5 degrees. The signatories of the Paris Agreement are, however, expected to submit new – and more ambitious – NDCs every five years, known as the ‘ratchet mechanism’.

COP26 is the first test of this ambition-raising function. One of the main ‘benchmarks for success’ in Glasgow is that as many governments as possible submit new NDCs and, when put together, these are ambitious enough to put the world on track for ‘well below’ 2 degrees, preferably 1.5.

The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is substantial: every increment of a degree translates into increased risks.

The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is substantial: every increment of a degree translates into increased risks for people, communities, and ecosystems. The UK’s overarching aim for the Glasgow summit is to ‘keep 1.5 degrees alive’.

A successful outcome in Glasgow also requires developed countries to honour a promise they made back in 2009 of mobilizing $100 billion per year by 2020 to support climate action in developing countries. The official figures for 2020 will not be available until 2022, but it is clear the goal was not met last year.

Recent announcements, including President Joe Biden’s pledge to double US climate finance, have brought developed countries closer to honouring the pledge, but more will need to be done to restore credibility and strengthen trust between developing and developed nations.  

Strengthening the ability to adapt to climate change impacts is another important element of COP26, as is the question of how to deal with economic and non-economic harms caused by climate change impacts which cannot be avoided through adaptation or mitigation, known as ‘loss and damage’.

Discussions on these issues often focus on mobilizing finance but it is also important that parties make progress on other issues such as further operationalizing the Paris Agreement’s ‘global goal on adaptation’ which, at present, is vaguely formulated.

At COP26, parties also need to try and finalize the Paris Agreement’s ‘implementation guide’ – the Paris Rulebook. Agreeing on what rules should govern international carbon markets – the ‘Article 6 negotiations’ – is expected to be particularly difficult.

Which countries have submitted new NDCs?

As of September 2021, 86 countries and the EU27 have submitted new or updated NDCs to the UNFCCC.

A few governments, like China and Japan, have pledged new 2030 targets but are yet to submit them officially.

 Some of the new NDCs are in the upper limits of what many had expected.

The UK has, for instance, pledged to reduce emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, and 78 per cent by 2035. The European Union (EU) is aiming for a reduction of at least 55 per cent by 2030 relative to 1990 levels, and the US target is ‘a reduction of 50-52 per cent’ compared to 2005 levels.

However, the NDC updates only narrow the gap to 1.5 degrees by 15 per cent at most. 

Around 70 countries are yet to communicate new or updates targets. And several – Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland and Vietnam – have submitted without raising ambition.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson keeps talking about ‘coal, cash, cars, and trees’. What does he mean?

In a statement following the release of the IPCC’s most recent report, the UK prime minister called on all countries to commit to achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century and on the G20 countries in particular to come forward with bold 2030 NDCs.

He also emphasized the UK is calling on all countries to make ‘big commitments’ in four areas:

  • Coal: developed countries should have ‘kick[ed] the habit of coal’ completely by the end of this decade, and developing countries need to have done so by 2040.
  • Cars: governments should abandon the use of internal combustion engines and transition to electric vehicles.
  • Cash: developed countries need to honour the $100 billion climate finance pledge.
  • Trees: governments need to protect nature and, to use the UK prime minister’s words, ‘end the massacre of the forests’.