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Explainer: what is Cop26?

The UN climate conference will take place in Glasgow next week. Here's everything you need to know.


This is an article from the fourth issue of the New Economics Zine. You can read the full issue here.

The UN climate change conference, Cop26, takes place in Glasgow over the next couple of weeks. Running from 31 October to 12 November, the conference will be the first major UN climate summit since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015. There’s never been a Cop in the UK before, and this is a particularly important one.

Yet it’s hard for outsiders, and even most people attending, to understand exactly what happens at a Cop (short for conference of the parties’). And Cop26 will be particularly puzzling.

The best way of understanding it is to think of three concentric circles. At the core is the conference of the parties’ itself. This is the annual meeting of all the countries which are signatories (‘parties’) of the international treaty known as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). There are 196 of them, plus the EU. At the conference the parties negotiate the international rules for tackling the climate crisis.

In most years the Cop consists of technical negotiations of little interest to the ordinary citizen. But occasionally a whole new international agreement is signed, like the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2015). This year the Cop won’t do that, but it will see governments making new climate commitments under the Paris Agreement.

In most years the Cop consists of technical negotiations of little interest to the ordinary citizen. But occasionally a whole new international agreement is signed”

But a Cop is also more than this,. In the middle circle a Cop is a global conference for every kind of organisation and business with an interest in the climate crisis. These don’t attend the official conference, though some particularly nerdy activists are allowed in to observe the plenary sessions. Rather, they come to hold fringe meetings, sell their wares and network. With this year’s pandemic-related international travel restrictions, there will be fewer attendees than normal, but several thousand are still expected.

And around the outside of these two events sit the public and the demonstrators, who aren’t allowed inside the security cordon but seek to make their presence felt on the streets and in the media, and thereby influence what happens inside.

In the first week of a Cop the official conference is generally quite dull, so most attention is taken up by the fringe meetings and demonstrations. But in the second week – when government ministers take over the negotiations from diplomats and civil servants – it gets a bit spicier.

This year’s Cop will be particularly spicy, because under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement (a legally binding international treaty) this is the moment countries must make new and stronger commitments to climate action. The Paris Agreement requires this strengthening every five years (it’s six years in practice because Cop26 was postponed from 2020 due to Covid).

And with the climate crisis now occurring before our eyes, the need to take stronger action has never been more urgent. Countries need to cut their emissions faster. And the rich ones need to provide more money to help the poorer ones adapt.

But the puzzling thing about Cop26 is that countries won’t actually be making their commitments in Glasgow. Under the Paris Agreement each country decides what it will do for itself. And almost all countries make their announcements (‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ or NDCs) well in advance. Most of the largest countries have already done so, including the EU, US, UK and Brazil. China and India have got around to it yet but are also likely to announce their NDCs before the conference itself.

But the puzzling thing about Cop26 is that countries won’t actually be making their commitments in Glasgow.”

So what is there to actually negotiate about? The answer is not much. There are more rules to agree, particularly how far rich countries and companies can buy’ other countries’ emissions reductions in the so-called carbon market’. But compared to the core issue of country commitments, these rules are largely a sideshow.

And yet we can still expect fireworks, because we already know that country commitments are not enough. Even before they are all in, it is clear that adding together all the countries’ pledges will not cut emissions enough to meet the Paris aspiration of holding global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial times, or even the weaker goal of 2C. And the financial promises may not achieve even what was agreed in Paris ($100bn a year from wealthy countries to support poorer countries), let alone strengthen it.

This is what we might call the Great Glasgow Paradox. Even before the conference starts, it looks as if it’s going to fail on the two biggest issues. But the negotiating agenda will not actually be about those failures at all.

So what will happen? Three things seem likely. First, the poorest and most vulnerable countries will kick up a hell of a fuss. Cops are unusual among international gatherings because – as the victims’ of climate change – poor countries carry considerable clout. And they will exercise it. Expect them to use the conference floor to denounce the inadequacy of the commitments made by larger and richer countries. They may even walk out in protest: it has been done before.

Second, as the host nation, the UK government will try to get specific commitments agreed in the conference communique. They are pushing hard on getting countries to agree to end the financing and building of coal-fired power stations, phase out petrol and diesel vehicles faster, slow deforestation, and mobilise private finance. They want to show that emissions will therefore be cut further than national pledges might suggest.

Third, world leaders will turn up. Boris Johnson will chair a summit for prime ministers and presidents at the opening of the conference. This is where it will get really interesting. Leaders don’t normally go to Cops: it’s usually left to climate and environment ministers. But this being a big one, President Biden has said he will attend, and that makes it likely the rest of the world’s leaders will too. And then anything could happen. Last time leaders showed up at a Cop, in Paris in 2015, it helped create the momentum for a deal. But the time before, in Copenhagen in 2009, it left the conference in chaos and acrimony.

What will happen this time? Will harmony break out? Can leaders grasp victory from the jaws of defeat? We don’t know. And right now, nor do they. That’s what makes Cop26 so uncertain, and so important.

Michael Jacobs is professor of political economy at the University of Sheffield, and was climate adviser to the former prime minister Gordon Brown.

Image: iStock

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