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Everything You Need To Know About The COP26 Climate Summit

Prime Minister Boris Johnson to host COP26 from Sunday evening

7 min read

The COP26 climate summit has been billed as the last chance for global leaders make vital changes to tackle climate change and rising temperatures.

Here's what you need to know before the event kicks off in Glasgow on Sunday.

What is COP26? 

COP26 is the United Nation’s climate change conference and stands for the “Conference of the Parties”. As the event’s name suggests, this is the 26th time countries have met.

It has been running since 1995 and is a chance for nations spanning the globe, both rich and poor, to discuss a challenge that effects every single nation: rising temperatures, more extreme weather and polluted air.

The 2020s have been described as the ‘last chance’ decade to make changes that will have a genunine impact of slowing climate change in future decades, putting extra pressure on this conference to deliver tangible solutions. 

Why is it so important? 

A landmark deal was struck at COP21 held in Paris in 2015, called the Paris Agreement. At that point 196 countries agreed to work to keep the world’s average temperature below a rise of 2C over pre-industrial levels, and preferably 1.5C. 

Each nation set out its own goals of how to reduce carbon emissions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions, and every five years these are due to be renewed, which is one of the central purposes of COP26. 

Despite the success of Paris, in the intervening years there has been deep concern that focus has been lost, so right now the stakes couldn’t be higher.

This week the UN warned that if countries continue on their current path, temperatures are on course to hit an average 2.7 C rise this century. This shows a lot more work needs to be done by individual countries to improve their emissions output. 

Who is attending, and who will be notably absent?

More than 120 countries are expected to send their leaders, including US President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Nations which do not send their leaders are likely to send delegates on their behalf instead.

But China and Russia, whose emissions are especially high, and are therefore vital stakeholders in conversations about climate change, are not sending their leaders. China is sending its climate envoy, however and Russia has said it will send other representatives, with Putin himself dialling into talks remotely. 

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is also not attending. He is another key figure who it was hoped would attend, notably because or Brazil's involvement with deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Iran is not attending. 

The Queen was due to attend but earlier this week announced she would be sitting it out on the advice of her doctors. 

There is some concern that the Queen's absence diminishes the event's ‘star power’ although several other members of the Royal family will be there in the first week, including environmental campaigner Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. 

Climate activist Greta Thunberg is also expected to attend. 

What does the UK want to get out of the summit? 

The UK is leading the charge on getting nations to stick to a commitment to contain the rise of global temperatures at 1.5C by stressing the need to half emissions by the end of this decade.

COP26 also represents an opportunity for the UK to put pressure on nations to pledge significant amounts of cash to help deliver on these commitments. 

Are there any pledges that have already been made? 

COP26 President Alok Sharma has spent the last year visiting countries around the world in order to persuade leaders of the importance of agreeing to ambitious emission reduction targets.

He is believed to have put in the groundwork for fruitful conversations to be had in Glasgow, and for targets to be set.

The UK government says it’s seen significant progress in the past year, with more than 80% of the global economy now covered by net zero commitments, up from 30% when the UK took over the COP presidency.

In the last few days Australia, Saudi Arabia and Russia came forwards with promises to eliminate their contribution to climate change.

How long will it go on for?

The event runs from Sunday 31 October until Friday 12 November, although in Paris, talks ran over into the final weekend and there is an expectation that this could happen again.

But it's the first two days of the conference, when all the world leaders are in town, that are expected to have the biggest impact. 

From the Wednesay onwards, nations' delegates will lead on negotiations. 

What else can we expect to see in Glasgow? 

As well as the main summit, there is a COP26 "Green Zone" programme, which includes talks from dozens of representatives from charities and civil society groups concerned with climate change.

Climate change demonstrations are also expected, with up to 100,000 people due to protest on in Glasgow on Saturday 6 November.

Environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion have already said their demonstrations will be disruptive. 

On Thursday, Scotland's First minister Nicola Sturgeon appealed to those intending to demonstrate to protest within the law. 

Then there’s the bins….

Glasgow is due to be hit with a bin strike over pay rates from 1 November, leading to concern that the city will soon be rubbish strewn.

Lurid predictions of bins overflowing with rats as a result of the rubbish build-up have flooded the Scottish media over the past week, which is hardly the image that Glasgow wanted to portray as it takes a staring role on the world stage. 

A strike over ScotRail transport worker pay that would have caused significant delays to rail services into the city has now been called off, so that's at least one thing local leaders can breathe a sigh of relief over.  

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is making a whistlestop trip to Rome beforehand – here's why: 

COP26 is being run in partnership with Italy.

Rome is also the location of an important two-day G20 summit of world leaders, staring on Saturday 30 October, and will this year serve as a pre-curser event to the climate summit.

Preliminary COP conversations are due to take place between global leaders on the sidelines of the G20, as well as a formal discussion on Sunday morning on climate change and the environment.

The twenty countries involved in the G20 account for more than 80% of the world’s GDP and 75% of global trade, so their power and influence over climate policy is extraordinary.

In the run up to the event, the UK government has said it wants to see concrete action from G20 nations on “coal, cash, cars and trees” acknowledging that it is these countries whose industrial strength was built through fossil fuel consumption of previous decades. 

“On Monday G20 leaders will come face to face with leaders from those countries at COP26 and will have to account for their actions," the Prime Minster’s official spokesperson said:

“If we don’t act now it will be too late.” 

What is the UK already doing to meet its net zero emissions by 2050 ambition? 

Former Prime Minister Theresa May placed a target of the UK reaching net zero by 2050 into law, making the UK the first major economy to legislate on zero emissions. Since then Boris Johnson has set out a ten point plan for a "green industrial revolution".

Policies announced ahead of COP26 include a £160m investment in Scotland and Wales that would see them become home to new floating offshore wind ports and factories.

This would support the government’s plan to deliver 1GW of energy through floating offshore wind by 2030 – nearly 9 times more than the current volumes worldwide.

Are expectations high? 

Generally expectations around tackling climate change have been set exceedingly low, particularly by the UK government.

But despite declaring this week that he thought recycling plastic was pointless, Prime Minister Boris Johnson otherwise struck a more optimistic tone on curbing the rise in global temperatures. 

“It can be done,” Johnson said during a children's parliament event this week. 

But he admitted that it would be "very, very tough" to pull off a successful conference in Glasgow. 

"I’m very worried because it might go wrong," he continued. “We might not get the agreements that we need. It’s touch and go.

"It’s very far from clear that we’ll get the progress that we need.”

There is also criticism that the focus of COP26 is just to reiterate goals set in Paris, which should have already been adhered to, and that its ambition should be far more radical. 

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