What is COP26? What is at stake in Glasgow?

About 20,000 heads of state, diplomats and activists are expected to meet in person
Last Updated 21 October 2021, 20:29 IST

A United Nations global warming conference beginning this month in Glasgow is considered a crucial moment for efforts to address the threat of climate change.

About 20,000 heads of state, diplomats and activists are expected to meet in person starting Oct. 31 to set new targets for cutting emissions from burning coal, oil and gas that are heating the planet. The conference is held annually but this year is critical because scientists say nations must make an immediate, sharp pivot away from fossil fuels if they hope to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

The goal is to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with levels before the Industrial Revolution. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the dangers of global warmings — such as deadly heatwaves, water shortages, crop failures and ecosystem collapse — grow immensely.

But China, Australia, Russia and India have yet to make new pledges to cut their pollution, and it’s not clear that they will before the summit. Meanwhile, only a few wealthy countries have allocated money to help poor and vulnerable nations cope with the impacts of climate disasters that they have done little to cause.

Those two factors make the likelihood of success at the conference, known as COP26, uncertain.

What is COP26?

COP stands for “Conference of the Parties.” In diplomatic parlance, the parties refer to 197 nations that agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at a meeting in 1992. That year the United States and some other countries ratified the treaty to combat “dangerous human interference with the climate system” and stabilize levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

This is the 26th time countries have gathered under the convention — hence, COP26. So, what happened in the previous 25 years?

The first COP was held in Berlin in 1995 after a critical mass of nations ratified the climate convention. It was a milestone and set the stage for the Kyoto Protocol two years later, which required wealthy, industrialized nations to curb emissions.

That accord had its problems. Among them, the United States under former President George W Bush rejected it, citing the fact that it did not require China, India and other major emerging economies to reduce their greenhouse gases.

Fast forward to 2015. After more than two decades of disputes over which nations bear the most responsibility for tackling climate change, leaders of nearly 200 countries signed the Paris Agreement. That deal was considered groundbreaking. For the first time, rich and poor countries agreed to act, albeit at different paces, to tackle climate change.

The United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement under former President Donald J Trump but rejoined under President Biden.

While leaders made big promises in Paris, countries have not done enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, which brings us to COP26 in Glasgow, where the pressure is on for leaders to be more ambitious.

Where is COP26?

The meetings will be held at the Scottish Event Campus, Glasgow’s largest exhibition centre. In addition to the more than 20,000 people expected to attend the formal talks and side events, large marches are expected around the city. Saturday, Nov. 6 has been designated the Global Day for Climate Justice and advocacy groups are expecting about 100,000 protesters.

About 10,000 officers a day are planning to patrol the event, and Scottish law enforcement officials have promised that their approach will be “welcoming, friendly and proportionate.”

Who will attend?

President Biden said recently that he will “be there with bells on.” He is among about 100 heads of state who have said they will attend, including Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, and Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland. Among those who so far have not RSVP’d in the affirmative: President Xi Jinping of China, the world’s largest emitter.

Thousands of diplomats from nearly 200 countries will conduct the nuts and bolts of the negotiations, while business leaders, academic experts and activists, including Greta Thunberg, plan to monitor the proceedings and in many cases will advocate the most ambitious outcome.

What will happen?

The UK and UN hosts have said they want to “keep hope alive” of constraining global temperature rise to under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Meeting that goal means all countries must commit to cutting emissions faster and deeper than they already are doing. There is also an expectation that wealthy countries will significantly boost financial support to help the most vulnerable nations adapt to the impacts of warming and build economies that don’t depend on fossil fuels.

What is at stake?

For every fraction of a degree of warming, scientists say, the world will see more intense heatwaves and drought, and more deadly floods and wildfires. Humans have already heated the planet by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit, since the 19th century.

Countries have less than 10 years to reduce emissions enough to keep the planet below 1.5 degrees of warming. So if leaders don’t commit to bold steps now, when so much global attention is focused on Glasgow, many fear the world will barrel toward dangerous levels of warming.

So far 17 countries and the European Union have made new pledges, including the United States. President Biden has said that America will cut emissions 50 to 52% below 2005 levels in the next decade. As of now, though, few policies are in place to make that happen.

Whether other countries come on board, and whether the United States can actually make good on its promise, will determine the trajectory of the planet.

The annual summit was delayed last year because of the pandemic. Despite calls from environmental organizations to delay again, organisers have been adamant about holding this year’s event in person. The British hosts have offered to help any delegates who need a Covid-19 vaccination obtain one, but they are not mandating that attendees be vaccinated. Instead, they will require that delegates show a negative coronavirus test every day in order to be admitted to the conference centre. Attendees from countries that Britain has placed on its “red list” because of high infection rates must quarantine upon arrival.

(Published 21 October 2021, 17:50 IST)

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