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What is COP26, and can it save the world? The climate summit explained

It has been described as ‘make or break’ for the climate. But what is COP26, why does it matter, and what do organisers hope to achieve?

It has been described as ‘make or break’ for the climate. But what is COP26, why does it matter, and what do organisers hope to achieve?

What is COP26?

COP26 is the 26th global climate change summit organised by the UN, and a decisive moment in the race to reduce emissions.

COP (conference of the parties) events bring together most of the world’s nations to discuss the climate crisis and how to respond to it. The first event, COP1, was held in Berlin in 1991. Since then, climate change has gone from being a fringe concern to one of the dominant issues of the day.

This year’s event takes place in Glasgow. World leaders, alongside thousands of negotiators, government representatives, businesses and citizens, will meet in Scotland for 12 days of talks. There are also fringe events that the public can take part in.

When is COP26? 

COP26 begins on 31 October, and is due to finish on 12 November. However, COP meetings have been known to run over as negotiations drag on, so the event may not wrap up until a day or two later. 

The event was originally due to take place in 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. 

Why is COP26 so important?

COP26 comes just months after the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was published. It made for alarming reading, warning that a climate disaster would unfold without radical action to curb emissions. 

The summit in Glasgow has been described by some politicians as a “make or break” moment for the environment. John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said that it is the world’s “last best chance” to avert climate catastrophe.

What is COP26?

COP26 comes just months after the IPCC issued dire warnings for the climate. Image: NOAA

Campaigners hope that COP26 can build on the progress made at COP21, which was hosted by Paris in 2015. At the summit, world leaders agreed to try to prevent warming from reaching 2C compared with pre-industrial times, and ideally no higher than 1.5C. 

The Paris agreement was hailed as a landmark moment for the climate because, for the first time, it united nations behind a common goal to combat climate change. However, there remains a large gap between the goal agreed in Paris and policies to achieve it. Global carbon emissions are still rising rapidly, putting the world on course for far worse warming. COP26 is about trying to bring policies in line with the Paris agreement. 

Why does limiting temperature rises to 1.5C matter?

A 2018 report by the IPCC concluded that a global temperature rise of 2C would have a devastating impact on humanity. It warned that a third of the world’s population would be regularly exposed to severe heat, leading to health problems and malnutrition as people struggled to grow food.

Such a rise would also destroy ecosystems such as coral reefs and lead to rising sea levels, as glaciers and sea ice melted. Unless carbon emissions are cut drastically and fast, some scientists warn that humanity could exceed 2C of warming. 

What is COP26?

Nations will be encouraged to hasted the adoption of renewables at COP26. Image: Zbynek Burival

While a 1.5C increase would still be serious, the impacts will be far less extreme, and it is considered to be a safe upper limit for warming. Some scientists believe that the window for achieving 1.5C may have passed. If not, it’s rapidly closing.  

What are the goals of COP26? 

The main goal of COP26 will be securing an agreement from all nations to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Most countries have already pledged to do so, but China, the world’s largest emitter, set a later date of 2060. Australia doesn’t even have a net-zero target, neither does Russia. 

The summit will aim to boost ambition among reluctant nations, while also encouraging countries to slash emissions in the short term. The UK has already set a legally binding target of reducing emissions by 78 per cent by 2035. As host of the summit, it will lobby other nations to follow suit. 

Reforestation and other nature-based climate solutions will be championed at COP26. Image: Johannes Plenio

COP26 will put countries under pressure to accelerate the phase-out of coal, tackle deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and invest more in renewables. This will mean securing concessions from China, which is building more coal-fired power plants, and Australia, which is one of the world’s leading coal exporters, and is led by a prime minister who is a vocal supporter of the coal industry. 

The summit will also attempt to address the issue of climate finance. In 2009, the world’s wealthiest nations pledged £100bn annually by 2020 to help developing countries tackle climate change. The target was missed. COP26 will seek to shore up the funds. 

Nature-based solutions, such as restoring peatlands, forests and other carbon sinks, will also be a focus of the summit. Nations will be encouraged to direct more resources towards habitat restoration.

How will COP26 be organised? 

There will be two different zones: the blue zone and the green zone. The blue zone is where formal negotiations will take place between countries, the UN and other organisations. The green zone will host events that the general public can attend, including film screenings, talks, technical demonstrations and art installations.

Summit host, Glasgow, has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030. Image: Artur Kraft

Can I get tickets to Cop26?

Members of the public can register for tickets for green zone events online. Tickets are free of charge and a maximum of six can be booked. For those who can’t attend in person, most events will be streamed live via the COP26 YouTube channel.

Where is COP26 being held? 

The summit will be hosted at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow.

Main image: Markus Spiske

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