What is COP26 – and why is it a big deal?

This November the UK hosts an international conference on climate change. In a world battered by a pandemic and at an ecological tipping point, here's why it's in everyone's interests for it to go well.
Photograph by James P. Blair, National Geographic Image Collection
By Simon Ingram
Published 8 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST, Updated 1 Nov 2021, 15:05 GMT


Catchy name. What does it mean?

COP stands for ‘Conference of Parties’ – the latter referring to the 197 member nations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Since the first in Berlin in 1995, 2021 sees the 26th such gathering.

This year it is being hosted by the United Kingdom, and is taking place in Glasgow’s Scottish Events Campus (SEC) between 31st October and 12th November. The conference is in partnership with Italy, where several events – such as Youth4Climate and PreCOP26 – were held in Milan in early October.

Though the COP is an annual event, COP26 is the first such gathering to be held since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. This gives the conference added occasion, both from the point of view of learnings from this unprecedented period and a re-sharpening of climate goals following COP25, which was held in Madrid in December 2019.

How did COP25 go?

The consensus was, not brilliantly. The 25th Conference of Parties, which was hosted by the Chilean government and conducted in Madrid in December 2019, ended inconclusively. Resolutions were passed around cutting greenhouse gases and aid for poor countries already feeling the effects of climate change. But after negotiations – marked by frustrated climate activists – ran over into a two-day extension, the issue of carbon markets remained in disagreement, and was deferred to the Glasgow summit. As such, many reports around the conference labelled it a failure, some scathingly so.

Delegates watch the closing plenary of COP25 in Madrid on 15th December 2019. Hosted by Chile, ...

Delegates watch the closing plenary of COP25 in Madrid on 15th December 2019. Hosted by Chile, the conference was extended due to protracted negotiations which ultimately were unresolved. 

Photograph by UNFCC

So – apart from, apparently, carbon markets – what will be discussed at COP26?

The UNFCCC has identified four broad goals in its manifesto for COP26. These are:

- Secure global net zero by mid-century, and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
- Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
- Mobilise finance
- Work together to deliver

The first focuses on measures such as the phasing out of coal and the reduction of deforestation, for instance, that will reduce carbon output to 'net zero' relative to 1990 output – and allow the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming relative to pre-industrial levels to be achieved. The idea of a collective accord to limit global warming to a target was itself laid out at COP21 in 2015; the location of that year’s conference giving its name to what is now known as the Paris Agreement.

The second acknowledges that communities within delegate countries – both human settlements and surrounding environments – will continue to feel the effects of climate change regardless, and must be supported in their efforts to protect against, and reverse, these damages. The third focuses on the money needed to achieve these goals. And the last – potentially the trickiest of all – emphasises the need for true global co-operation to make any of it possible.     

Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, forged at COP21 in 2015 and signed in 2016, nations agreed to work together to deliver a series of measures to limit the rise in global temperature. These include greater adoption of renewable energy, the restoration of biodiverse habitats and reducing carbon-heavy industry and transport. 

Photograph by NASA

Why tricky? Doesn’t everyone want to save the planet?

While the aim is accord, countries also need to consider how global decisions affect their individual circumstances – for a raft of reasons. And with nearly 200 countries required to sign off on every decision and a total of 2,217 organisations attending, the COP has always been a monumental, but fragile, machine. This means unity can be toweringly positive – the forging of the Paris Agreement, say. But there is also potential for talks to be dogged by bureaucracy, and exacerbated by political about-faces, as seen when the Trump administration began the process to withdraw the US – the world’s second biggest carbon emitter – from the Paris Agreement in 2017.

As with any such colossus seeking consensus, individual points of disagreement can soak up valuable bandwidth. Take carbon markets, the issue that derailed COP25, for instance. This idea hinges around countries that have reached their emissions targets being able to purchase license to emit additional carbon from those who are under-polluting, as a kind of an additional credit. It’s a polarising issue. Some see the carbon market framework as an incentive for countries to adopt greener energy to avoid busting their threshold; others see a poor system full of loopholes as one that can easily be manipulated; opposers see the whole idea as a false solution tantamount to ’ecological capitalisation.’

It’s also an issue that has lingered from previous COP meetings, and has highlighted not only diplomatic hurdles between nations, but has drawn criticism that a such a complex issue with intangible benefits has absorbed considerable precious delegate time. Whether or not the same will happen at COP26 remains to be seen. There is likely to be other issues to discuss, given that a month after COP25 concluded, a problem few saw coming began to creep into the headlines.

“Since the last COP in 2019, nearly five million people have died as the result of a suspected zoonotic disease jumping species.”

How much is coronavirus likely to dominate?

‘Most experts believe COP26 has a unique urgency.’ This sentence on the conference’s website underlines that Britain’s presidency of COP26 comes both at what many see as a critical climate tipping point, and after an unprecedented 18 months in modern history. (Related: For young people, two defining events: coronavirus, and climate change.)

Since the last COP in 2019, nearly five million people have died as the result of a suspected zoonotic disease jumping species. While this might seem to the casual observer unrelated to talking points around environmental issues, scientists agree the likelihood of such spillover events increases wherever humans interact with reservoirs for such viruses – whatever the ultimate trigger. Which means logging, mining, bushmeat procurement and other habitat encroachments puts us at further risk of swinging the next pandemic into motion. (Read: on the hunt for the next deadly virus.)

Inevitably, much of the preparatory action for COP26 – and the context of the financial deliverables that will inform its discussions – has been reconfigured in the face of a pandemic that has become the most economically damaging event since the Second World War.  

Even the logistics of the conference, which was postponed from 2020 due to the pandemic, have attracted flack concerning the ability of delegates and NGOs from the ‘global south’ nations to attend due to prohibitive travel restrictions. Many of these nations include those hit hardest by climate change.

Left: In August 2021 over 500 wildfires broke out across Greece, including this one near Athens, which burned for days before it was brought under control. Greece saw the highest temperature ever recorded this year, with 46.3 C measured on 3 August. Right: An ice fisherman checks the thickness of the ice at Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland. The Greenland ice sheet has seen destabilisation in recent years, with melting measured as being at its fastest rate for 12,000 years. An entire melt of the cap would result in global sea levels rising by 7 metres.

Photograph by Anasmeister On Unsplash left Aningaaq Rosing Carlsen, Visit Greenland right

What the pandemic arguably has done, however, is given a renewed clarity of purpose for what the conference is designed to achieve – and a precedent for how quickly the world can circle the wagons in the face of a different, and at least superficially more pressing, danger.

“The pandemic has highlighted that the old normal was deeply fragile and dangerous,” states the UN’s Independent Expert Group on Climate Finance in a December 2020 report. “Should the world fail to act now, the harm caused by climate change and biodiversity loss will be much greater and longer-lasting than the damage inflicted by COVID-19.”

Added to this canvas is a year of wildfires, flooding, accelerated melting of ice sheets, locust plagues, record temperatures and key biodiversity targets missed by the world. All of which make the notion that this is a critical moment of action harder and harder for any nation to ignore.   

Thousands took to the streets of Westminster on September 20, 2019 as part of the Global Climate Strike. 

Photograph by Simon Ingram, National Geographic

There is positivity in the backdrop to COP26, too: Joe Biden’s re-joining of the Paris Agreement in his first day in office as U.S. president was a clear statement at odds with his predecessor’s withdrawal. Then there are proactive initiatives such as The Earthshot Prize, global growth of renewable energy output, an increase in ethical investment responsibility by some of the world’s biggest financial institutions, and moves to protect more of the world's surface – such as the UK’s decision in November 2020 to protect 2.7 million global miles of ocean, with support in part from National Geographic's Pristine Seas initiative. All positive signs that ambitious intention is slowly becoming decisive action.      

So COP26 is a big deal. What’s Britain’s responsibility?

Rather like the adjudicator in a courtroom, much of the smooth-running of COP26’s negotiations rests on the ability of the president nation to be diplomatic and focussed on managing the matters on the table. Previous failures of COP events have been blamed on the host governments, just as successes have seen them praised.

Boris Johnson, in his launch speech in February, highlighted his ambitions for Britain to be a world leader in renewable energy, electric transport adoption and carbon capture technology – and reiterating the UK’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050. This step, made in June 2019 and making the UK the first of the G7 nations to do so, attracted its doubters. But it was also recognised both as a moral position given the UK’s role in the industrial revolution – and a critical statement of intent if encouraging other nations to follow suit was on the cards.

Which, at COP26 in November, is exactly the position the UK will be in.

National Geographic is committed to encouraging positive action at an individual level to help curb climate change. In the run-up to COP26, discover more ways we all can live lighter on the planet here.


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