With just four weeks to go, you’ve probably been seeing plenty of media references to COP26? So, what exactly is COP and why should we care?
What is COP?
COP stands for ‘Conference of Parties’. The COP is an annual United Nations (UN) conference where the nations of the world come together to discuss climate change. This year will be the 26th annual summit. COP26 was originally scheduled for 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic. The talks will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, between 31 October and 12 November 2021.
Representatives from governments gather at the official conference. Also present are people from the NGO sector, businesses, faith groups, scientists, Indigenous Peoples’ delegations and media outlets from around the world. Over the course of 2 weeks, participants attend sessions and seminars to discuss topics related to the climate crisis. These will include reducing carbon emissions, adaptation and climate finance.
The most notable talks happened in Paris in 2015. In a historic agreement, 195 countries signed an agreement. They pledged to reduce emissions and aim to limit global heating by a maximum of 1.5°C. The agreement, now known as the ‘Paris Agreement’ included several pledges including:
> Stop the world’s average temperature rising more than two degrees, or ideally 1.5ºC
> Respond to the impacts of climate change through adaptation
> Make plans to deal with loss and damage from climate disasters
> Wealthier nations to provide assistance to help poor and more vulnerable countries deal with climate change
The Paris Agreement is frequently referenced by scientists and activists when critiquing government decisions. The goal is to ensure they align with their commitment to limit warming to below 1.5ºC.
Why does it matter?
The science is clear and the evidence is stacking up – climate change is here. We have witnessed a summer of turmoil as extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods and fires ripped across the globe. On a more optimistic note, scientists emphasise that we do still have time to avoid the worst effects if we work together. One of the most powerful statements during the latest IPCC report press release was “Climate change is here, now. But we are also here, now. We must act”. This will require a global effort. Conferences like COP, though flawed, are an important opportunity to get world leaders in the same room to figure out the game plan.
The goals for COP26 as outlined by the conference are:
> Secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach – this will include the phase-out of coal and curtailing deforestation
> Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats – priorities in this area include; protect and restore ecosystems and create resilient infrastructure and
> Mobilise finance – developed countries should “make good on their promise to mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2020.”
> Work together to deliver
It’s important to note that this year’s talks will be taking place in the UK. The UK’s role in the climate crisis is significant. The world will be looking to the government to show strong leadership and set ambitious targets to combat climate change. The World Resources Institute lists the UK as the fifth-worst emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, measured by their cumulative emissions between 1850 and 2007. While the country ranks further down the list in terms of current emissions, its historic contributions cannot simply be put to one side.
The role of the UK
The UK government likes to position itself as progressive and ‘green’. While it’s true that there has been some progress, the UK is often called out for its hypocrisy and for simply not doing enough.
Despite declaring a climate emergency and announcing plans to reach net-zero, the UK government continues to invest in the fossil fuel industry both domestically and abroad. A group of activists have filed a legal case against the government for providing billions of taxpayers money to the fossil fuel industry. There are ongoing campaigns against proposed new fossil fuel projects. #StopCambo is a campaign opposing a new oil field in Scotland. There has just been a public enquiry regarding a proposed new coal mine in England.
The UK lags behind its European neighbours in many respects, which many predicted is only going to get worse as a result of Brexit. Only 13% of the UK’s total land area has tree cover, compared to a European Union (EU) average of 35%. Bee-harming, know as neonics, were banned in the EU but the UK has temporarily allowed them on sugar beet.
UK consumers use more plastic than almost any other nation and the waste is being dumped on countries in the global south. So while the UK may sometimes appear to be talking the talk, they are most definitely not walking the walk. And now, the eyes of the world will be fixed upon them as hosts of COP26.
Criticism of the conference
In theory, representatives from all nations should be on equal footing at COP. The purpose of the talks is to provide a platform for perspectives from all stakeholders to be heard in order to create fair and just solutions. As with any institution, there have been criticisms as to whether this is the case in practice.
Where are all the women?
Back in 2020, 400 women, including actress Emma Watson and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, signed an open letter to the UK government. The letter called for more women in “decision-making roles” at a global climate summit. The organisation ‘SheChangesClimate‘ was set up to address this inequality. Their demand is “a 50:50 balance of women in all their diversity at the top of this and all future COPs.”
Women disproportionately suffer the effects of the climate crisis. An analysis of 130 peer-reviewed studies was carried out to provide much-needed evidence to highlight the inequality. The studies showed that women are more affected by climate-related food instability. They are also more likely to suffer from mental illness or partner violence following extreme weather events.
As Kim Van Daalen, a PhD student in global public health at the University of Cambridge, pointed out “it has more to do with societal roles rather than physiological differences. I tend to say climate change is exacerbating existing inequalities, be that gender or other inequalities.”
Gender inequality goes beyond the binary
Of course, calling for 50:50 representation of men and women at the COP summit relies on the antiquated idea that there are just two genders. Van Daalen notes that there is a serious lack of research on the effects of climate change on other gender identifies such as non-binary and transgender. She said, “For non-binary people, there’s literally no data on that – that I am aware of – and I think that’s quite problematic.”
More studies are emerging which help us understand the ways that climate change affects gender and sexual minorities. Several months ago, a series of workshops in Indonesia and the Philippines entitled “Platforms for the Inclusion of Non-normative Genders and Sexualities in Climate Change Adaptation Policy and Action” were organised. Nicole Anschell explains that gender and sexual minorities often experience exclusion, isolation, and restricted social networks. This can easily lead to not receiving enough information about climate change and therefore be unable to prepare and respond. Workshop participants also shared that gender and sexual minorities frequently rely on unreliable informal work. Buskers and sex workers, who spend most of their time outside. This can make them particularly vulnerable to health problems resulting from extreme weather conditions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added complications. There have been wide disparities in the vaccine rollout around the world and with travel restrictions remaining in place, making arrangements for delegates from around the world has been anything but simple. Lack of information about accessing vaccines and prohibitive hotel quarantine requirements were of particular concern, especially from the Global South.
The Climate Action Network, a global network of more than 1,500 civil society organisations in over 130 countries, led calls to postpone the talks until the government can ensure that the talks won’t be a “rich nations stitch-up”. Since the days of colonialism, there has been a power imbalance between the Global North and the Global South. It is crucial that wealthier, more powerful nations are present and commit to doing their fair share. Equally, it is vital that nations who are disproportionately affected by climate change are present and are part of the decision making process.
In response, President for COP26, Alok Sharma, stated that it was imperative that this years’ talks went ahead. “COP26 has already been postponed by one year, and we are all too aware climate change has not taken time off. The recent IPCC report underlines why COP26 must go ahead this November to allow world leaders to come together and set out decisive commitments to tackle climate change”. Sharma added that the government would provide vaccinations for delegates and cover the costs of hotel quarantine for those travelling from red list countries.
Even without the pandemic as a consideration, many have pointed out the lack of representation of black and brown people. Activist Vanessa Nakate, who was infamously cropped out of a photo with a group of her (white) peers, has called for better representation this time around. “When you look at the number of white activists and activists from countries like mine, or activists from, you know, Africa, there is always an imbalance. There is an under-representation of those from the Global South and we see more activists from the Global North. And yet every activist has a story to tell and every story has a solution to give and every solution has a life to change.”
You didn’t just erase a photo
You erased a continent
But I am stronger than ever pic.twitter.com/J34WMXvPAo
— Vanessa Nakate (@vanessa_vash) January 24, 2020
Let’s revisit the Paris Agreement
In 2015, when the Paris Agreement was drawn up, the nations planned to review their progress in five years. That was originally planned for 2020, which was postponed, so this is the year they will check in to see how they are doing. Spoiler: not well.
The report outlined how CO2 emissions peaked in 2019, followed by a drop of 5.6% in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. However, emissions are now rising again as the planet returns to business as usual.
An UN-backed report, released earlier this year shared an alarming message – we are not meeting our climate targets. Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of UN Climate Change, stated “we are very far away from a pathway that will meet the Paris agreement goal. We are collectively walking into a minefield blindfolded. The next step could be disaster.”
Of the 197 signatories, only 75 submitted their national action plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in time for the assessment. Of those who did meet the deadline, pledges were not increased in the update and some even updated with less ambitious targets than in 2015.
Leveraging the moment
While the talks themselves have their critics, the gathering of the world’s governments and media is a vital moment in our fight to halt climate breakdown. COP is more than just the talks inside of the conference. NGOs, activist groups and Indigenous groups alike will use this momentous occasion to gather and build the global movement to protect people and the planet.
Mary Robinson, former UN climate envoy and former president of Ireland spoke of the need to go into COP26 with a hopeful attitude “The NDCs will be disappointing, given the urgency and given the climate impacts. It is disappointing that leaders have not been able to step up enough. But the momentum will be there, and that’s very important. I am determined to be hopeful.”
In the wake of the latest IPCC report, coverage of climate change is increasing. Therefore, COP26 will provide another ‘moment’ to keep climate issues top of mind for the public. This focus will leave people wanting solutions, of which there are many.
What can we do?
COP26 will help the framework, rules and finance for international co-operation. But, the hardest work is what comes after the talks – where we buckle down and work to transform the broken and unjust systems that got us here.
We’ve compiled list of ways to participate during COP26:
> Write to your representative and tell them you want them to take urgent and direct action to reach targets set out in the Paris Agreement
> Use your influence as an employee to talk to your employer. Push them to make more ambitious actions to reduce carbon emissions and create a sustainable business model
> Harness your power as a consumer to call out businesses that are greenwashing
> Attend virtual and in-person events
> Diversify your media consumption and make sure you are hearing from Indigenous voices
> Take part in Global Day of Action on Saturday 6 November
IMAGE: from Creative Review | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: One of the signature COP 26 images – the word “The Climate Has No Borders” appear in bold font in green and white text. Under the text is an artists impression of a section of earth, with swirling blue, white and green mapping out continents and oceans.
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