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COP26: what it is and why it matters

The 26th COP, ‘Conference of Parties’, is happening in Glasgow later this year. It’s a global United Nations conference about climate change. And it’s the most important COP since the Paris Agreement in 2015. In this post, we look at what it is, why it matters and what’s likely to happen.

World leaders will come together to agree how to tackle climate change

COP26 will be held in Glasgow this November. The purpose of this year’s summit is to bring countries together to agree and accelerate action on the Paris Agreement. This legally-binding treaty was created in 2015, when nearly 200 countries agreed to take action to limit global warming to well below 2°C.

COP26 is important for two reasons. Firstly, it’s an opportunity to build greener, more sustainable economies after the devastating effects of coronavirus. The pandemic has shown us that a global problem needs global collaboration. And this is true for the climate crisis, which hasn’t gone anywhere. 

Secondly, it will be the first time nations come together to discuss the commitments they made in the Paris Agreement. Each country signed up to do the following by 2020: 

  1. Announce a set of specific climate actions, known as ‘Nationally Determined Contributions

  2. Reveal longer term plans to decarbonise their economy by 2050

  3. Set targets to give $100 billion a year to countries considered most vulnerable to climate change

COP26 was delayed by a year, which means the event will now happen after the 2020 deadline. So, an important part of the discussions will be what progress each country has made towards their commitments.

It’s a huge event with lots of people from around the world. And it’s in Glasgow.

Between 1-12 November, global leaders will get together at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, assuming lockdown restrictions are lifted by then. The negotiations take place in halls, meeting rooms and Party offices. And there will be three groups of ‘key players’ on the inside:

  1. The COP26 President. This year, Alok Sharma is president. He’ll work closely with the UNFCCC secretariat to set up and run the conference.

  2. Parties/blocks who will negotiate and make decisions. There are 197 parties (or nations) in the UNFCCC. They are member states of the UN, plus the EU. All members of the EU act as one delegation, and this year will be the first time the UK isn’t included. Parties can act together in ‘blocks’, some examples are:

    • Africa Group

    • AILAC, Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean

    • Arab Group

    • BASIC, Brazil, South Africa, India and China

    • CVF, Climate Vulnerable Forum

    • G77 plus China. A group of developing and middle income countries.

    • LDCs, Least Developed Countries

    • SIDS, Small Island Developing States

  3. Observers will have no formal role, but they can intervene in negotiations. The UN categorises observers as:

    • The United Nations System and its Specialized Agencies, like the World Health Organisation and UN Environment Programme

    • Intergovernmental organizations, like the International Energy Agency or Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

    • The UN ‘Major Groups’:

      1. Ageing people

      2. BINGOs (business and industry NGOs)

      3. ENGOs (environmental NGOs)

      4. Education and academia

      5. Farmers

      6. Indigenous peoples

      7. Local Authorities

      8. People with disabilities

      9. RINGOs (research community NGOs)

      10. TUNGOs (trade unions)

      11. Women

      12. YOUNGOs (youth)

      13. Volunteers

There are four big topics that will probably be discussed

We won’t know exactly what gets talked about until it happens. But commentators largely agree there are four key issues that need to be agreed. Some are difficult sticking points that weren’t resolved at the last COP in Madrid. They are:

  1. Carbon market mechanisms. This means allowing a country to buy ‘carbon credits’ from another country, so it can continue to emit CO2 within its borders. Carbon markets may also allow trading of ‘negative’ emissions, such as absorbing CO2 from the air through forestry. There are very different views on carbon markets, so this is expected to be a big topic of debate.

  2. Loss and damage caused by climate change are core concerns of the Paris Agreement. But, there’s no mechanism to fund responses when vulnerable countries experience loss and damage. This is a crucial part of climate action, but it’s resisted by some more wealthy nations.

  3. The $100 billion finance target agreed in the Paris Agreement means wealthy nations should already have plans to give $100 billion a year to vulnerable countries. Delaying COP26 past the 2020 deadline has made this an even more important part of the talks. New finance targets for 2025 will likely be discussed, too.

  4. Nature-based solutions. This means considering how nature, including forests and agriculture, can become a solution for absorbing CO2 and protecting against climate change. 

As well as these topics, many expect governments will talk about fast forwarding carbon-cutting commitments to 2030 from 2050.

Discussions this year will likely revisit topics that weren’t resolved at last year’s COP in Madrid. Photo credit: UNFCCC

It’s an important moment for the UK to show climate leadership

COP26 is expected to create new initiatives for delivering climate action globally. But this year is particularly important for the UK because it’s hosted in Glasgow. Usually, the host country nominates a president to take the lead in negotiating new climate commitments. Alok Sharma announced five priority areas last year, which are:

  1. Adaptation and resilience: helping people and the environment adapt and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

  2. Nature. Protecting natural habitats, and keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere with more nature-based solutions.

  3. Energy transition. Seizing the huge opportunities of cheaper renewables and storage, whilst moving away from fossil fuels.

  4. Clean transport. Accelerating the move to zero-carbon vehicles. 

  5. Finance. Unleashing finance to make the shift to a zero-carbon economy possible.

The coronavirus pandemic has given governments and businesses a new reason to invest in green infrastructure. At Bulb, our mission to lower bills and carbon emissions supports the UK’s plans to build a greener economy. We’re looking forward to seeing climate ambition ramp up in other ways this year, too. We’ve signed up for the C-19 Business Pledge and Nesi’s Plan A in Spain (and we’re in good company). We’ll share more about how we’re reducing our emissions globally ahead of COP26 on the blog.