Everything You Need to Know About COP26
Nov 15 2021
After a one-year hiatus due to the coronavirus, COP26 was finally able to take place this month. Delegates and heads of state from 197 countries around the world converged on Glasgow from the 31st of October to the 12th of November. Their mission? To come together to agree on concrete proposals for limiting global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C compared to pre-Industrial Revolution levels.
Now that the dust has settled on the event, we have a chance to look back over COP26 and scrutinize the deal that was put forward by the host nation Great Britain and signed by all 197 attending nations. What were the key issues prior to the event and were they appropriately addressed? How will the environment be affected by the resolutions made in Scotland? And can it be called an unqualified success? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more.
What is COP26?
The Glasgow summit was the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP26 for short. These Climate Change Conferences have taken place annually since 1995, when the inaugural COP1 was held in Berlin. They were conceived as an opportunity for countries to cooperate on addressing the increasingly urgent issue of climate change.
The Kyoto Protocol, first adopted in 1997, has been a key focus of COP discussions ever since. This Protocol is an international treaty which encourages individual governments to commit to legally binding obligations to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases within their borders. COP26 was hailed as being the most significant edition of the conference since the Paris Summit in 2015, since it offered the first opportunity for nations to revisit the commitments made at that event.
COP26 was originally scheduled to take place last year. However, the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic meant that bringing together tens of thousands of politicians and policymakers from all over the globe would not have been a sensible or safe move. At the same time, it was deemed that hosting a virtual conference would not have the same impact as an in-person one, hence the delay.
Why was Glasgow chosen as the venue?
The leadership of COP events has switched between members of the UNFCCC on an alternating basis. This year, it was the turn of the UK to host COP26, with Italy acting as joint leaders. The latter’s role was mostly restricted to preparation for the conference, including an event specifically aimed at young people named Youth4Climate 2020: Driving Ambition which took place in Milan the month prior.
Glasgow was selected as the host city for COP26 ahead of other British metropoles for a number of reasons. It was the first city on the planet to sign up to the Global Destination Sustainability Index in 2016 and today, it occupies an impressive fourth position in the Index, beaten only by the Scandinavian cities of Gothenburg, Copenhagen and Aarhus. It has also announced its intention to become the first city in the UK to become carbon neutral, targeting a date of 2030 to do so.
Although not the capital of Scotland, Glasgow is the nation’s largest city – but that doesn’t mean it’s an urban jungle. In fact, it has the nickname of the “Dear Green Place” due to the impressive number (more than 100) of parks within its city centre. It is planning to bring 150 electric buses into operation by the end of next year, and prior to COP26, councils in Glasgow and the surrounding area pledged to plant 18 million trees by 2031.
How did the event stay eco-friendly?
As well as selecting an environmentally impressive city as the destination for COP21, its organisers also attempted to make it as green as possible in a number of other ways. A fleet of electric vehicles (EVs) and eco buses were brought to the city in order to allow delegates to get from their accommodation to the venue, as well as circumnavigate the Blue Zone, in as environmentally friendly a way as possible.
Meanwhile, the food and drink served at COP26 was specifically selected to keep its environmental impact to a minimum. 95% of the options on menu were sourced locally in the UK, with as much as 80% farmed or cultivated in Scotland itself. Dishes on menus were also coordinated to contain the same ingredients, so that lax demand for one item could be offset by greater demand for another, thereby minimising food waste. Single-use cups and other items were not used at the event, either.
Nonetheless, there were still opponents of the event who believed it did not go far enough in its organisation or operation. For example, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was criticized for setting a bad example when he flew between Glasgow and London multiple times during the event, instead of taking the more sustainable option of the train. Sponsorship at the event was also attacked for foregrounding certain companies responsible for significant emissions.
Who was in attendance?
COP26 was attended by around 30,000 delegates from 197 countries across the globe. Besides Johnson and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, these included notable figures such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s ruling duo Mario Draghi and Roberto Cingolani, as well as US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian premier Scott Morrison and Felix Tshisekedi, who is both the President of the DRC and the Chair of the African Union.
However, those who did not attend the event were perhaps even more conspicuous by their absence. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Chinese President Xi Jinping were the biggest names who chose not to travel to Glasgow, despite the fact that their countries are among the biggest polluters on the planet. This fact meant that many observers had written COP26 off as being toothless before the summit even began.
What were the major issues on the table?
There were a host of issues to discuss at COP26. Given that fossil fuels are one of the leading contributors to global warming and climate change, these were certainly one of the headline topics of conversation. Coal, in particular, found itself in the crosshairs, as those countries which rely on the polluting energy source for a disproportionate amount of power were encouraged to phase it out.
Elsewhere, climate financing was another huge bone of contention. Given that most developed nations have built their infrastructures and established their financial security by mining, exporting and combusting fossil fuels, developing nations argue that they are owed a debt if they are to be expected to eschew oil, coal and gas in favour of more eco-friendly power sources. Six years ago, rich nations agreed to deliver $100 billion per year to their poorer counterparts to smooth the transition to greener infrastructure, though that money has yet to materialize.
Finding a way to engineer a workable carbon credit system was also high on the list of priorities. Carbon trading is a slightly controversial concept which involves those countries who exceed their obligations selling credits for carbon emissions to more polluting ones, thereby decreasing overall global emissions. However, it has been extremely difficult to settle upon a solution which guarantees no arrangement will be exploited by both countries claiming the gains as theirs.
What proposals were put forward at COP26?
The conference enjoyed an early win on just its second day, when Johnson unveiled a landmark deforestation deal which pledged to reverse the damaging practice by 2030. Importantly, Bolsonaro was among over 100 signatories to the proposal, which is highly significant given that his government has been responsible for record-breaking levels of decimation of the Amazon Rainforest in recent years.
Coal was also targeted early on in COP26, as more than 40 nations put pen to paper on a proposal to phase out coal-fired power plants altogether. No more investment will go towards new plants by signatories, while developed nations will decommission existing facilities during the next decade and developing nations will shut them down the decade after. Chile, Poland and Vietnam, all of whom rely on coal for a substantial chunk of their energy, made headlines by signing up to the deal, but sadly Australia, China and the USA did not.
Other countries were encouraged to transition away from fossil fuels in the wider Glasgow Climate Pact. However, in order to get the final drafts over the line, those drawing up the deal were forced to water down its wording in some areas. “Phase out” was changed to “phase down”, while the inclusion of the word “inefficient” also gave governments some leeway with regard to their obligations.
Was COP26 a success or a failure?
It’s undeniable that new ground was broken at COP26. Getting all attending countries to agree to a phasedown of fossil fuels – and explicitly mentioning coal in the text – was a world first for COP conferences. The other deals on deforestation and coal are also encouraging and represent tangible progress in the fight against climate change.
However, the amendment of the wording in the final proposals is unfortunate in that it does not commit countries to binding targets. Critics of the outcome of COP26 will say that there is still far too much work to be done and that concrete action was not agreed upon in a number of key areas, including climate financing and carbon credit trading.
Plus, the fact that scientific modelling indicates that global warming will still result in temperature increases of 1.8°C if all current pledges are adhered to that while COP26 might not have been an out-and-out failure, it’s not a success, either. The world will now look to COP27, which is scheduled to take place in Egypt next November.
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