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The only things you need to pay attention to at COP26

Photography By Inga Gezalian, Damian Barczak
Published 27.10.21

We’re days away from the start of COP26, the most anticipated climate event for 2021.

There’s already been a lot of noise around this meeting of global leaders and what it means for the future of our planet. But not everyone is up to speed with the significance of COP26 and what we hope the event will actually achieve. So we’re going to lay it out for you. We’ll give you a quick rundown of the agenda and talk through the historical challenges of the event. Then we’ll dive into the meaty stuff and look at the key issues we hope to see addressed over the next two weeks.

OK, SO WHAT IS COP26?

For the uninitiated, COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It’s a bit of a mouthful but, basically, it’s an international treaty that sets rules and expectations to combat climate change. The purpose of the event, held this year in Glasgow and running for two weeks in November, is to help countries tackle huge, complex climate problems that aren’t able to be addressed by single nations.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT THIS YEAR’S CONFERENCE  

COP21 (the 2015 event) was probably the most significant to date. It produced the Paris Agreement, “a landmark international accord that was adopted by nearly every nation…to address climate change and its negative impact”. Since 2015, 197 countries have endorsed the Paris Agreement, which set a goal to limit warming to well below 2 degrees celsius. Ideally, global warming will be limited to 1.5 degrees celsius: the cut off to avoid catastrophic climate change. 

COP26 could be described as a recommitment to the Paris Agreement: countries need to show how those plans to limit warming are holding up. They also need to make new pledges and commitments for the future. One of COP26’s key objectives will be outlining a road map to see how (or if) countries can cut global emissions to net zero by 2050, to bring warming back to under 1.5 degrees celsius in the second half of the 21st century. To say there is a lot hinging on those commitments is an understatement. 

Nick Fewings

A BRIEF RUNDOWN OF WHAT TO EXPECT 

The first day will see a lot of governmental bigwigs get together to demonstrate their political commitment to slowing climate change. Following this are days of negotiations, events and exchanges to adopt positions, make new pledges and join new initiatives

In short, negotiators will help countries report and communicate their climate targets with each other and work out how to ensure this 1.5 degrees celsius thing is actually achieved. This means that countries need to come prepared with targets to communicate (this isn’t going to be an exam you cram for the night before). And again, it’s a key goal of COP26 to make sure the targets and plans discussed are moving towards reaching net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century. 

NO, COP26 WON’T BE WITHOUT CHALLENGES 

Contrary to a hopeful vision of COP26 being a big reunion party, where world leaders catch up like old friends and show off their positive achievements, historically, these conferences don’t always run smoothly. 

There was a lot of criticism around the outcome of COP25 and there’s been ongoing disappointment over the action taken following the Paris Agreement. In September 2021, the UN warned that countries’ revised targets were too weak and would leave the world on pace to warm 2.7 degrees by the end of the century. If you’re struggling to contextualise what that projected temperature rise will actually look like and mean, the Guardian’sglobal environment editor, Jonathan Watts, gave a great rundown to Nosheen Iqbal on a recent episode of Today in Focus (which you can listen to here). 

Of course, the estimates that suggest current action could lead to warming of nearly 3 degrees celsius have left people feeling cynical and a bit downtrodden about COP26 and the prospect of what it will actually achieve. According to the Conversation,many insiders believe that COP26 won’t reach its goal of having strong enough commitments from countries to cut global greenhouse emissions 45 per cent by 2030. If we miss that mark, we can pretty much kiss goodbye net zero by 2050 and a world that keeps warming under 1.5 degrees celsius. 

Jeremy Perkins

THERE’S STILL A CASE FOR OPTIMISM AT COP26

We’re not ready to abandon all hope just yet. Our inner optimist still believes that we could walk away from COP26 with some real, and very positive, plans to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. 

So, what exactly will those commitments and targets look like? At RIISE, there are a few key issues (discussed below) that we want to see action on. We’ll be tracking their progress over the next few weeks, so keep an eye out for our ongoing coverage to see how the world is addressing the most pressing climate change issues. And, importantly, if the plans made at COP26 will do enough to move the dial in the right direction. 

“Keeping 1.5 alive” 

Alok Sharma, the COP26 president, has used this phrase often in speeches about the upcoming meetings. Essentially, everything that happens over those two weeks will hark back to this figure and the sentiment behind the slogan. We need to secure global net zero by mid-century to keep 1.5 degrees within reach. (Upwards of that figure equals bad news.) Routes being pursued to keep 1.5 alive include phasing out coal; cutting methane; setting a path away from fossil fuels for transport; and getting businesses, financial institutions and sub-national governments to set out plans to cut emissions in line with 1.5 degrees. 

Adequate support for developing nations 

Climate change isn’t a single country’s issue to deal with. It falls on every nation to take action – but it doesn’t fall equally. People in poorer, developing countries will bear the largest burden from climate change, yet they have contributed the least to it. One of the aims of COP26 is to increase climate finance to help those countries transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change. The 2009 goal for wealthy countries to contribute $100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to help developing nations has not been reached. So, we definitely want to see those financial commitments revised at COP26. 

Sorry ScoMo, but coal has got to go 

COP26 needs to put some hard plans in place to phase out the use of coal, as it is essential to staying within 1.5 degrees celsius. China, the world’s biggest coal consumer, has already made moves in this direction, announcing that it will stop financing new coal-fired power plants overseas. While this is positive, China is still considered one of the major producers and consumers of coal, alongside Indonesia, India, Mexico and Australia. 

A strong focus on nature-based solutions 

While COP26 will look to cut the use of coal and further reduce methane emissions (a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), we also want to see some solutions thrown in the mix. Nature-based solutions look at things like preserving and restoring existing forests, peatlands, wetlands and other natural carbon sinks. The environmentally inclined will already know why carbon sinks are something to write home about: they absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release. There are also calls to grow more trees but this solution should be approached with caution: there is not enough room to grow all the trees some have suggested and this alone should not be seen as a way to continue the use of fossil fuels. Preservation and restoration first. And while we’re at it, let’s see plans to put an end to the destruction of the Amazon too (looking at you, Bolsonaro). 

An answer to the age-old question of carbon trading 

Carbon trading schemes are a deep rabbit hole to go down – but we really hope countries dive into it at COP26. Carbon trading schemes essentially commodify greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol, countries made commitments to limit or reduce emissions – allowed emissions were divided into assigned units. Emissions trading allows countries with units to spare to sell excess capacity to countries that are over their targets. (This is a good explainer if you want to learn more about how carbon markets work.) 

As the Guardian points out, “the system has been open to abuse in some cases and is inadequate in any case in a world where all countries, developed and developing, must cut their carbon as fast as possible”. Though carbon trading was included in the Paris Agreement, conflicts over its implementation remain unresolved. So here’s hoping COP26 can reach a viable global outcome. 

Mathia PR Reding

Nations in the spotlight 

It’s not yet known whether the president of the world’s biggest emitter, China, will attend Glasgow – and Xi Jinping is yet to produce a new NDC. (NDCs are nationally determined contributions that basically embody the efforts by each country to reduce national emissions.) Likewise, other major fossil fuel producers like Saudi Arabia and Russia have also refused to strengthen their commitments, and we’re still not sure whether India, the second-largest consumer, producer and importer of coal globally, will commit to net zero at COP26. 

Then of course there’s Australia, another major fossil fuel producer whose prime minister, Scott Morrison, only just released the government’s plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Before you breathe a sigh of relief, Morrison’s plans have some glaring holes in them. As reported by the Guardian, almost a third of the planned cuts rely on unspecified “technology breakthroughs” and “global trends” while a further 20 per cent will be achieved through offsets. Let us be very clear about where the bullshit lies here: Morrison’s plan involves unnamed technologies and technology that doesn’t exist yet. Further to that, the technology we do know of includes one of the reddest flags of all: carbon capture and storage (CCS). The inclusion of CCS points to a lack of commitment to divest from the use of fossil fuels. Before you ask, yes, Australians are well and truly over this. 

This is all a lot to digest – and COP26 hasn’t even started yet. While it will be easy to get lost in the spin and headlines over the next few weeks, just remember these key issues. They’re where the action will really happen. And if you do get distracted and overwhelmed by this year’s conference, we’ll be back in a few weeks to recap the event and measure where that dial is at. 

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