An Introduction to COP26

By Ben Norris

What is COP26?

COP26, or the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, is a ‘Conference of the Parties’ – it represents a unilateral move by the world’s governments to take action on climate change. 

The 26th iteration had originally been due to take place in 2020, but was postponed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, it will run from October 31 to November 12, with an estimated 25,000 delegates expected to attend from 196 nations across the world.

A major legacy of 2015’s COP21 was the Paris Agreement: an international commitment to limiting global heating to below 2oC by 2100. 

Unfortunately, while the declaration of this agreement represented a vital step in providing a benchmark for international policymakers to aim for, so far the actual change enacted has been far from sufficient for this target to be met.

As the UK’s own website for COP26 declares, commitments laid out in Paris did not come close to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Countries are now being urged to revise their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to align with a 1.5oC target. 

What’s the significance of this target?

1.5oC as a target was the result of a study overseen by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC), which found a significant difference in the scale of devastation posed by a 1.5oC global temperature increase compared to a 2oC temperature increase.

However, this by no means suggests that an increase of 1.5oC is ‘good’; such an increase will still have severe ramifications for the planet’s ecosystems, including (but by no means limited to) the bleaching of coral reefs, rising sea levels and an increase in droughts, floods, fiercer storms and other forms of extreme weather. 

Every fraction of a degree of increase in temperature threatens more destruction and misery, which is part of what makes this issue so severe (to help qualify what this difference represents, check out this visualiser).

While our government has been slow to react to fears of environmental catastrophe, there has been growing attention in recent years to begin moving towards a decarbonised economy, although at present parliament are still dragging their heels on this. 

The UK’s COP page declares that the nation will end ‘direct government support for the fossil fuel energy sector overseas’, but gives no timeframe for when this will take place and doesn’t specify whether indirect support may still be given.

As part of this commitment, the government has announced a myriad of different targets, such as ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK by 2030, powering the UK grid with ‘clean energy’ by 2035 and aiming to create 440,000 green jobs by 2030. 

The changes in lifestyle and infrastructure that will be necessary to accommodate these goals will be felt and experienced through society. As a result, it is essential that we have an understanding of the challenges we face and the urgency behind these changes.

Challenges

Some of the big decisions anticipated at the COP in Glasgow include a review of policies and pledges made following the Paris accord in 2016 – current estimates have put the planet on track for an estimated 2.9oC increase in average global temperatures by 2100.

This grim prediction necessitates a host of new emissions cuts and reductions targets for 2030: these include commitments for phasing out coal, ending deforestation and investing in renewables. 

One example of the coordinated change required is in the transport sector: setting up the necessary infrastructure to power a nation-wide charging network to support electric vehicles (EVs), alongside reducing road traffic through public transport and active travel networks, will demand dedicated planning and consideration of the extra sources of energy required to power this network. 

At the same time, the onus is also on car manufacturers to improve battery range and speed up charging times for EVs. 

This bar chart represents mean annual changes in temperature from 1814 to 2020 in Oxford, UK.

Locally, the impacts of climate change could be felt most significantly by Gloucestershire’s flora and fauna. With much of the county’s wetland situated on the banks of the Severn – the UK’s largest river, with one of the biggest tidal ranges in the word – infrastructure and flood defences will need to be shored up ahead of an anticipated increase in extreme weather events and flooding.

The Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust has highlighted the importance of working on land in the county in partnership with other organisations to improve the natural storage of carbon. 

They identify methods for doing this through the creation of new wetlands and woodlands, as well as the maintenance and protection of existing natural areas across the county such as Stroud’s Golden Valley. 

Actions

Due to the breadth of topics discussed in the technical negotiations, COP26 has a vast array of potential actions and outcomes. At its core, however, COP26 is a critical moment to galvanise international action to keep 1.5oC within reach. 

This can be achieved through securing emissions reductions targets and policies from around the world, mobilizing resources for global climate action, and finalising key documents such as the Paris Rulebook, the agreement which enshrines global goals, national commitments and multilateral processes aimed at progressively strengthening the global effort against climate change 

The coordination of a unified international response is key; recent shortages in the supply of products to supermarkets and of petrol to fuel pumps both stand testament to the issues that can arise if leaders (specifically, our leaders) don’t properly cooperate and make contingency plans for the future.

Local government will have a set day at the summit for organisers to discuss the role of local authorities in tackling the climate crisis; local authorities oversee more of the day-to-day interactions and activities that can contribute to CO2 emissions (transport, waste collection and refuse). 

However, this should not suggest that the worst consequences of climate change can be avoided by public institutions slightly altering their day-to-day conduct: this is a holistic issue that needs to be tackled at every level by every individual and every collective. 

With society adjusting to the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, national and international focus has returned to the hot topic of 2019: making a difference to emissions to prevent unsustainable warming. 

This article is the first in a series that will run throughout the next three weeks in the run-up to and duration of the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Across these articles, we’ll discuss topics such as transport, retrofitting and waste, as well as some of the more ephemeral issues associated with the climate emergency such as eco-anxiety and compassion fatigue. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s