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What is COP26 and why is it important?

Published on 9th February 2021

My name is Angela, and I am a final year Geography student at the University of Manchester. For 2 months this summer I completed an internship on the Civil Service SDIP (diversity internship) scheme. My placement took part in the Cabinet Offices dedicated COP26 unit, tasked with the organisation of the annual UN (UNFCCC) climate conference. Prior to this internship, most of these acronyms (COP, UNFCCC and many, more!) meant very little to me. Therefore, I hope to use my new-found knowledge and experience to explain; what COP is, the role of the UK in 2021 and the importance of COP26 for the climate movement looking forward.

What is COP? 

COP, which stands for Conference of the Parties is the name given to the annual UN climate conference. COP is a summit of all members of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC. The UNFCCC includes 197 members known as the 'parties' to the treaty. These 'parties' are mostly nation-states belonging to the UN but also contain bigger entities such as the EU. Since the inception of COP in 1995, parties from across the globe have met annually to discuss the prevention of 'dangerous' climate change.  Perhaps the most impactful COP in recent times was COP21, in which the 2015 Paris Agreement was born. This agreement has since been ratified by 189 parties, who set their own NDC (nationally determined contributions), which is a pledge to reduce emissions within their own country by 2050. 

The Paris Agreement was historic, in that it signified the largest collective effort of nations across the globe to lower emissions. These pledges to lower emissions were set in line with 1.5 degree warming target, (currently the scientifically accepted 'safe' target) by the end of the century. The agreement also recognised that this burden should not be shared equally, with the historically high polluting nations (such as the US and EU states) taking on the largest emission reduction targets. However, progress since the agreement has been slow, with emissions continuing to increase around 2% annually. Additionally, critics have stated that many of these 'nationally determined' targets were not ambitious enough, outlining that, even if these NDCs are adhered to, the world would be on track to warm around 3 degrees by 2100.

So why is COP26 important?

The Paris Agreement determines that these NDCs should be revised by members every five years. Hence, COP26 will mark the first revision of these targets since Paris. Furthermore, with approximately 30,000 delegates and thousands more media reporters in attendance, it will be the largest political event ever hosted in the UK. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, COP26 has been postponed, now taking place in November 2021. The UK and Italy share the COP presidency; however, the main event will be hosted in the SEC centre in Glasgow. 

The conference will consist of a 'Blue Zone' (conference rooms for official delegates) and a 'Green Zone' (civil society engagement and display stands).  

What is the role of the UK?

The country which is granted the annual presidency of COP has a large say in the agenda and ambition set for proceedings. For instance, the success of the Paris Agreement at COP21 has been attributed to the proactive diplomatic effort and ambition coordinated by the French government.

The UK has set the following as its core campaigns to push onto the agenda for COP26:

-    Inclusivity: The UK hopes to engage not only state delegates, but civil society (NGOs and activists), city and regional governments, as well as businesses within the COP talks. 
-    Adaptation and Resilience: Much of the political climate discourse centres on green economic transition (mitigation). However, COP26 aims to highlight the growing need to finance climate adaptation projects, particularly in the Global South.
-    Transport: Encouraging clean road transport and zero-emissions vehicles.
-    Nature-Based Solutions: Preserving land and natural resources as a way of reducing emissions and increasing biodiversity.
-    Climate Finance: Aiming to mobilise global finance towards 'greening' economies and adaptation (this also involves the work of Mark Carney - assessing and reporting climate-related financial risks).

The UK has made some ambitious targets, for instance on the 11th December 2020 the government announced its aim to stop overseas investment in fossil fuel projects, which has seen £21bn of tax-payer investment across the last 4 years.  Additionally, The UK has proposed a new NDC pledging to cut emissions 68% by 2030 and become net-zero by 2050, attempting to set a precedent for other countries to follow in November 2021. The plan to achieve this reduction has been laid out by the Prime Minister's Ten Point Plan which sets out a Green Industrial Revolution, aiming to create 25,000 new, Green Jobs in Britain by 2030.

However, despite these positive looking ambitions, the UK government has faced many criticisms in its handling of COP so far. For example, Claire O'Neill's dismissal as COP President in January 2020 (replaced by Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West), has been attributed to the government's disagreements over lack of ambition. The presidency has also received criticism over its absence of female leadership, ironic for a proposed 'inclusive' COP. Furthermore, reports claim that tensions between the UK and Scottish governments have often clouded procedure. 

Additionally, lack of progress from COP summits following Paris has also seen many activists lose faith in the UN process, with activist groups such as XR calling for 'system change' rather than endless (and seemingly inconclusive) discussion from world leaders, which make little substantial improvements. 

What can we be doing? 

Working as part of the COP26 unit this summer introduced me to some really inspiring civil servants who have been working tirelessly to make COP26 the most successful conference yet. However, it is ultimately in the hands of UK and global politicians as to the extent of their ambition when setting emissions targets and directing finance towards climate mitigation and adaptation in 2021. Therefore, I believe that it is crucial to educate people (young and old!) across the UK on the importance of this conference, so that sufficient pressure is placed upon MPs to make COP26 a political priority in the year ahead. If the UK public care about COP and pressure is raised in the media, then political ambition will (hopefully) follow.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated the media and our personal lives throughout 2020 and climate discourse has taken a back seat as a result. Although COP26 will not be the end to this global crisis, I believe that it is a good opportunity to push the climate agenda back into the fore and look towards building a more sustainable economic future out of this pandemic. 

COP26 Timeline in the run up to November 2021:

-    12th December: Climate Ambition Summit (Marking 5 years since Paris) 
-    30th September  2nd October: Pre- COP26 Summit (including Youth Engagement), Milan

Links to additional articles on COP: 


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