What is COP26, and why is it important?
If you’ve been keeping an eye on the news lately, you’d have seen a lot of talk about ‘COP26’.
The upcoming event – which kicks off at the end of this week – is causing a buzz in political, scientific, and public realms. But what is COP26 – and what’s so important about it?
In simplest terms, COP26 is the 26th United Nations climate change conference (formally known as ‘Conference of the Parties’). This year, it’s taking place in Glasgow, which is why it’s also referred to as the Glasgow Climate Summit.
More than 190 world leaders are expected to attend this summit, which runs from 31 October to 12 November.
COPs usually take place annually (excluding last year’s event, which was postponed due to COVID), but every few years, a COP meeting is considered more high profile than others. For example, at the 2015 COP in Paris, the Paris Climate Agreement was born: a legally binding international climate change treaty aiming to limit global warming to 1.5°C or, at most, 2°C, by the end of this century.
This year’s COP in Glasgow is set to be another significant meeting.
“One of the things that sets this COP apart is that there is a new narrative: net zero by 2050,” says Matthew England, a Scientia Professor from UNSW Sydney’s Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC).
“A lot of countries have committed to this already, and it’s set to be a big focus at this year’s COP.”
The term ‘net zero’, also called ‘carbon neutral’, essentially means the goal of producing less carbon than we take out of the atmosphere. It’s like evening out a set of scales: we are trying to bring balance to the currently uneven way we are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is one of the measures deemed necessary to meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s targets – it won’t fix the excess greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, but it will help stop the problem getting worse. Getting everyone to commit to net zero by 2050 is one of COP26’s official goals.
“I think this year is different because of the new net zero narrative, and because, basically, we're out of time,” says Prof. England.
“The latest IPCC report came out only a month or two ago, and this report card said it was a code red alert for humanity. How much more of a declaration do you need from the science community to understand the gravity of this situation?”
What scientists hope will happen at this year’s COP
Setting net zero targets is a good start, says Prof. England. But it needs to be backed with proper plans about how we will get there.
“Chasing net zero by 2050 means we'd need to be seeing some big changes in policy and in particular energy policy right now, because it's not just something you can wait till 2049 to solve,” says Prof. England. “The hard work should absolutely be in full swing now.
“I hope COP26 delivers a meaningful and feasible roadmap to net zero, with a big part of that being leaving fossil fuels in the ground.”
Prof. England says this is a key way to play our part – not just in Australia, but globally.
“It would be irresponsible to get ourselves to net zero in Australia but still ship our coal elsewhere for others to burn. Once fossil fuels get into the atmosphere as CO2, they stay there for thousands of years,” he says.
“Climate justice is also about exporting our best technologies to help get all of the developing nations on board without building a reliance on fossil fuels.”
UNSW Engineering Professor Greg Leslie, the Director of the Global Water Institute, says he hopes to see more global collaboration at this year’s COP.
“I want to see a greater commitment from developed nations to cooperate, particularly with developing nations, on issues such as the management of wastewater and nutrient run off that contribute 20 per cent of global methane emissions,” says Prof. Leslie.
Wealthier countries attending the summit will have a large role to play in this global cooperation. This is because some of the poorest countries are at the greatest risk from climate change – and they have done the least to cause it.
At 2009’s COP15 event in Copenhagen, developed nations agreed to raise $100 billion per year by 2020 to support developing countries. At COP26, these wealthy countries will need to deliver on their funding promise.
“The global commitment sends a message, particularly to the global south countries, that they're not going to be left behind,” says Prof. Leslie.
“The wealthier countries that have the capital to help really need to lead the way in setting up the system so that all countries can contribute.”
- UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): An international treaty agreed on in 1992 to combat dangerous human interference with the climate system.
- COP26: The 26th Conference of the Parties – that is, the signatories of the UNFCCC. COP is also known as the United Nations climate change conference.
- Paris Climate Agreement: An international agreement made in 2015 at COP21 in Paris to limit global warming to 1.5°C or, at most, 2°C, by the end of this century.
- Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC): The emissions reduction targets set by each country outlining how they will meet the Paris Climate Agreement. NDCs are updated every five years.
- Net zero: Achieving a balance of producing only as many greenhouse gases as we can take out of the atmosphere.
The International Universities Climate Alliance, established & led by UNSW Sydney, has a global program of virtual events and initiatives during COP26. See the full program.
COP26 will bring together leaders from nearly every country on Earth – politicians, scientists, activists, and celebrities. But the International Universities Climate Alliance want to know what you think about climate change in their 15-minute survey.
This story was written by Sherry Landlow and originally published on UNSW Newsroom.