As the COP26 Climate Conference gets underway in Glasgow, Scotland, the question on everybody’s lips is what will this historic event achieve. With 400 private jets arriving in Glasgow airport over the weekend, reportedly emitting 13,000 tonnes of CO2, there are questions over whether this is a meaningful step in the right direction, or a performative event paying lip service to one of the great threats of our age.
COP26 is the 26th ‘Conference of the Parties’ summit, meaning it is the 26th major summit aimed at combating climate change that has been held by the United Nations. Although the event is being held by the UN, it has been billed as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s big shot at proving his climate credentials and showing a more diplomatic and statesmanlike image than his reputation carries.
Yet, before the conference had even begun, the event had made headlines for the wrong reasons. Wet and stormy weather over the weekend blocked off the two major rail arteries from London to Scotland, with both the Glasgow and Edinburgh lines being closed for much of the weekend. The irony of thousands cancelling trains to catch a flight north of the border – to a climate change conference – was not lost on those making the trip. It was a stark reminder of the huge improvements in infrastructure that are needed globally to reach the climate targets that were set at the last major Climate Conference, in Paris in 2015.
What is COP26?
COP26 is the 26th major summit hosted by the UN on the specific issue of climate change and will be attended by countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1994. You may be forgiven for not remembering the previous 25, but the Kyoto Protocol which was struck in 1997 (and came into force in 2005) was brokered at COP3 and was one of the first major international treaties on climate change.
The Kyoto Protocol has 192 signatory nations and was seen as a major step, but the continued threat of the changing climate and exponential growth in greenhouse gas emissions has demonstrated the need for deeper agreements.
The Paris Accords in 2015 – although not a COP conference – is the most significant global climate agreement thus far. However, few countries are hitting the targets they set – with the US even temporarily withdrawing under President Trump, before re-entering under Biden. COP26 has been billed as the opportunity to reaffirm these goals, but develop more specific targets and policy proposals on how these will be reached.
In 2019, Madrid hosted COP25, which left many issues unresolved, however did agree that countries would devise their plans for dealing with climate change. These plans were to be announced at COP26, making the Glasgow summit one of the most important conventions of its kind in history.
In the lead up to the conference, Boris Johnson announced several policies aimed to hit the UK’s target of net-zero by 2050, and the British Prime Minister is seen as one of the major players pushing for more concrete agreement from his counterparts.
What goals are they trying to achieve?
The basic goal of COP26 is to broker an agreement on how to achieve the goals laid out in the Paris Accords.
The Paris Accords state that nations must:
Reduce the number of harmful greenhouse gasses produced and increase renewable types of energy like wind, solar and wave power
Keep global temperature increase “well below” 2C (3.6F) and try to limit it to 1.5C
Review progress made on the agreement every five years
Spend $100 billion a year in climate finance to help poorer countries by 2020, with a commitment to further finance in the future.
These, although significant in 2015, were seen as overly vague, and countries are now being pressed into stating how they will achieve this. One of the goals is to set net-zero targets, with specific plans and policies on how nations will reach this point.
What is net-zero?
Net-zero is a target of completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by humans. This can be achieved by reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted, but also through technologies such as carbon capture, or reforestation, which can reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Who is attending?
With more than 10,000 delegates from throughout the world, the bigger question is who isn’t attending. Of course, most world leaders are attending (although there is a glaring exception to this), but so are former leaders, leading experts and other major stakeholders.
Former President Barack Obama is attending, as well as his former vice president, now president, Joe Biden. Then-Vice President Biden was seen as one of the major brokers of the Paris Accords, and after bringing America back into that agreement within his first days in the presidency, will be one of the major forces if an agreement is to be reached.
The event is also being attended by climate activists, such as Greta Thunberg; although not officially invited, she travelled to Glasgow by train. David Attenborough is also in attendance, with the broadcaster and campaigner giving one of the most passionate speeches of the opening day.
Business leaders are also in attendance. Amazon founder and outgoing-CEO Jeff Bezos met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the opening day, and former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney was also on the conference floor.
However, one notable absence is China’s President Xi Jinping. Despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling his Chinese counterpart last week, he was unable to convince Xi to attend. He instead issued a written statement. His absence is seen as one of the major flaws of the conference, with China the world’s largest CO2 producing nation, and reluctant to take significant action on reducing its footprint.
The Queen will also not be attending, having been advised to rest by Doctors. She did however issue a statement urging leaders to broker an agreement.
Will it achieve anything?
The early signs have not been good. With President Xi absent, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi only committing his country to a net-zero target of 2070, two of the three largest greenhouse gas-producing nations are falling short of what the conference was hoping to achieve.
However, the conference only began on 31st October and will run until the 12th November, leaving plenty of time for more concrete agreements to emerge.
One of the major benefits of the COP26 conference is that it is bringing together stakeholders from across different sectors, not just national leaders. This means that greater cooperation may be possible to achieve, with policy goals being developed alongside those who have the power to affect much of that change.
Whilst some major stakeholders are absent, and the irony of 400 private jets lining up outside Glasgow, defies the goals of the conference, it is a major opportunity for action. It is the largest conference ever hosted in the United Kingdom, and one of the largest gatherings of international stakeholders ever assembled.
Whether it comes up with a significant agreement or not, COP26 is demonstrating that the gravity of climate change is finally being taken seriously, and there is much hope yet.