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What is COP26 and how will its outcomes influence our future?

26 November 2021

9 mins

Guest blog from one of our MSc students, Meg Leeder. Meg is studying Climate Change Science and Management and recently attended COP26. Here Meg breaks down what COP26 is, her experience there and some tips on changes you can make.

What is COP26? 

Since 1994, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has brought together 196 countries from around the world every five years for a global climate summit called COP – ‘Conference of the Parties’.  

This year’s 26th annual commit, COP26, was hosted in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November. The aims of COP26 were to: 

  • Secure global net zero by 2050, to keep a global warming limit of 1.5C within reach 
  • Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats  
  • Mobilise finance to release private and public sector finances required to secure global net zero 
  • Work together to finalise the Paris agreement and accelerate action 

The last COP21 summit in 2015 was hosted in Paris where leaders agreed to work together to limit warming to below 2C with aims for 1.5C – this was named The Paris Agreement. Despite these targets, scientific evidence shows that we remain on a trajectory that will see us far exceeding these aims. 

Therefore this year’s conference was a pivotal opportunity to create transformational changes to global climate policy and action, with the decisions and pledges made at COP26 impacting the future of our planet. 

What is the significance of COP26 for our future? 

The world must halve emissions over the next decade and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in order to be in with a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Studies show that given existing commitments we are heading for 2.4-2.7C warming.

What will a world with +1.5C global warming look like?  

The levels of warming mentioned above will have catastrophic impacts for the natural world and all those who live on it. If we are able to limit temperatures, we can avoid rising mean atmospheric and ocean temperatures; heat extremes; intense precipitation; and droughts across most regions. All of these would have severe health, economic and social impacts if we don’t take action. 

What is ‘net zero’? 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) define net zero emission as: when anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period’. 

What were the main outcomes of COP26? 

The last two weeks of meetings and conferences between world leaders, government officials, stakeholders and delegates culminated in a set of agreements and pledges being made, which are hoped to shape the global climate agenda for the coming decade.  

Below is a breakdown of some of the key agreements made: 

  • Emissions: Countries will meet next year to pledge further cuts to CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions, as humans have increased atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by 48% since the industrial revolution.  
  • Trees: 100 countries promised to end deforestation by 2030, yet how this will be monitored and enforced is unclear. 
  • Fossil fuels: Despite no deadlines being given, there was an agreement amongst world leaders to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.  
  • Use of coal: For a fuel source responsible for 40% of yearly CO2 emissions, this was the first time any explicit reduction plan has been agreed to. However as discussed in the next section there has been much criticism of the outcomes surrounding coal. 
  • Methane: 100 countries also agreed to a 30% reduction in methane emissions by 2030 (methane is responsible for a third of anthropogenic warming). However, China, Russia and India declined to join the agreement. 
  • Financial: An initiative to involve private companies in net zero targets saw financial organisations agreeing to back ‘clean’ technologies. But unless the big fossil fuel companies commit to this, little success is likely to transpire. 
  • Developing countries: Pledges were made to increase monetary support to help developing countries reduce their footprints and deal with the threats of climate change. This comes with much speculation after the 2009 pledge of donating $100bn by 2020 was never met. 
  • Redefining temperature limits: The main goal of the Paris agreement (COP21) was to keep global temperature rise ‘well below 2C’. In Glasgow, efforts were redefined to hold warming below 1.5C, in light of updated scientific evidence that this is a far safer limit.

What were the key issues with the outcomes of COP26?  

A fundamental issue with COP26 is that the agreements made are not legally binding. This is an early warning sign of potential failure for many countries to meet or follow through with their pledges. This could result in us rapidly overshooting the aim of staying within 1.5C global warming. 

China and India opposed the commitment to ‘phase out’ the use of coal (which had been considered by many as an essential step to achieving warming limits) during final deal negotiations, instead settling on ‘phasing down’. This is potentially detrimental, given that they are the second and third largest emitters of carbon. 

  • This is a stark contrast to the start of the conference, when India’s Prime Minister pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by 2030, and increase the proportion of renewable energy used by 50%. 
  • Both countries raised the issue of climate inequality, with China stating that countries’ efforts to meet the 1.5C target should be contextualised in regards to their poverty agenda.  

One of the most significant barriers we must  acknowledge is the responsibility of the developed  nations to  support and guide the development of poorer regions, who will suffer most from climate change impacts. This is essential to ensure they develop in a sustainable manner (to better their economies, standard of living and industries) without making the same catastrophic climate mistakes they have over the last 150 years.   

Bill Hare, the Lead Author for the IPCC 4th assessment and 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, estimates that ‘based on the current promises made in Glasgow, emissions will still be twice as high in 2030 as they need to be to stay within 1.5C’. This indicates the desperate need for further and tighter agreements, continued commitment and public drive to reduce global warming for the survival of our planet and everyone on it. 

My visit to Glasgow’s COP26 

As a master’s student in Climate Change Science and Management at Loughborough, it was a brilliant opportunity to attend and witness first hand one of the most influential climate meetings of our generation. Regardless of the mixed opinions and frustrations about the outcomes of the conference, the past two weeks in Glasgow were pivotal in bringing the global climate emergency to the forefront of decision makers and the public eye. 

In addition to the Blue Zone (a UN managed space where negotiations were hosted), the COP26 Green zone was managed by the government and allowed the general public to attend and be a part of this enormous event as observers. There were over 100 exhibitors including Sainsbury’s, Unilever, Royal bank of Scotland as well as numerous daily talks and conferences.  

Two of the highlights from my visit were:  

  • On ‘Transport Day’ I attended a session ran by Formula E, who are at the forefront of electrical vehicle technology whilst also managing to prioritise high performance and sustainability. The innovation made by this sport could influence the development of the whole transport sector. 
  • An event hosted by Ekaterra, Unilever’s Tea Business, discussing the responsibility businesses play in leading the way and creating change. The talks covered how science and nature can inspire innovations for the planet, by utilising the power of plants.  

My master’s degree 

Loughborough University launched their new MSc and MA programmes in Climate Change Science this October.  

The MSc programme, which I am currently undertaking, aims to addresses the urgent science behind climate, how to manage the many risks it presents and how to implement strategies. It also covers issues which will define the 21st century as we tackle this imminent climate emergency.  

The degree aims to equip students with the scientific skills to research and question the current understandings of our changing climate and its potential risks, as well as gaining an insight into the management and organisation required both publicly and privately (at all levels) to instigate and deliver change.  

Modules that form part of this programme tackle issues such as defining and modelling climate risk, tools for environmental management, sustainability and development, and crisis governance. 

My recommendations for small, everyday changes we can all make to be more sustainable: 

  • Be more conscious of your energy usage, and reduce this wherever possible 
  • Change the ways you travel: Cycle and walk wherever possible, use public transport over private cars, and consider lift sharing. 
  • Change the way you eat: Reduce your meat and dairy consumption, and when eating meat and dairy ensure it is from sustainable sources. Avoid food waste, increase the amount of fruit and veg in your diet, and become more conscious of food miles and where your food is coming from. 
  • Change the way you buy: Reduce your consumption. Choose recycled or preloved products over brand-new ones. You can also research ethical companies and use your voice to demand change from those who aren’t doing enough.   
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