Understanding COP26: What is COP26 and why does our future depend on it? (Part 1)

By Katy Greco, Deputy Editor

No doubt you’ve seen the phrase “COP26” plastered all over the place recently – you know it’s a big deal and you know it’s unlikely to be the latest addition to the RoboCop franchise because it’s happening in Glasgow… But other than that, it all seems a bit mysterious… So, what is this COP26, and why is it so important?

In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created. The UNFCCC is a treaty whose signatories agree to the overarching goal of the “stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” – or in normal-people language, ‘to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so the world doesn’t end’. The treaty came into effect in 1994, and since then representatives of the countries, states, and territories (collectively known as “Parties”) who signed the UNFCCC have met every year (except for 2020 as the meeting had to be postponed due to COVID-19) to review and assess each Party’s measures to uphold their agreement to the UNFCCC and combat the climate crisis. This meeting (or conference) is the Conference of the Parties, which is abbreviated to COP. There are currently 197 member Parties to the UNFCCC, and thus 197 Parties who attend the COP. At the COP, members review governmental emission reports and targets, and discuss, negotiate, and make decisions on the measures needed to effectively implement the goals laid out by the UNFCCC. So basically, the COP refers to the United Nations’ (UN) annual climate summit in which leaders from across the world meet to negotiate and review members’ measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.

The first COP, COP1, was held in Berlin, Germany, in 1995, the major result of which was the Berlin Mandate. The Berlin Mandate stated that the then current commitments of member Parties under the UNFCCC were not enough to solve the problems of climate change and that greater commitments were needed, particularly from Annex I Parties (ie. the wealthier, industrialised, ‘developed’ nations). This call for strengthened commitment to solving climate change, in addition to the outcomes of COP2, ultimately led to the adoption of (arguably) one of the most significant international environmental treaties, the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol was formally adopted by the UNFCCC in 1997 at COP3 (although it wasn’t fully implemented until 2005), and basically it added a dimension of legality to the UNFCCC – it meant that emissions reduction commitments could become internationally legally binding for Annex I Parties. Indeed, agreements solely under the UNFCCC have been described as ‘voluntary’, which is why alongside the main COP is the CMP (which stands for Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol), which facilitates the legally binding agreements under the Kyoto Protocol.

The next major event to come out of the UNFCCC’s COP is the Paris Agreement. In 2015, at COP21 in Paris, 196 Parties adopted the historically monumental international climate treaty known as the Paris Agreement, with the central goals to limit global warming to no more than 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels (although ideally to no more than 1.5°C) and for the world to be carbon neutral before the end of the century. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement applies to all Parties, regardless of their annex. However, it still takes into account one of the key principles of the UNFCCC that Parties have “…common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” – which is to say that the onus is more on the rich nations who not only have the economic means to combat climate change but are also largely to blame for it. Under the Paris Agreement, each Party must devise a plan of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which lay out their greenhouse gas emission-reduction strategies and targets, which are reviewed and updated every 5 years. Thus, the Paris Agreement is based on a 5-year cycle. Unfortunately, the UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2020 found the current NDCs to be “woefully inadequate”, stating that, based on the commitments laid out in COP21, global warming would likely surpass 3°C by the end of this century – which is way over the 2°C limit of the Paris Agreement. The situation is urgent.

And this, my friends, brings us to why November’s COP26 is so important. COP26 marks the first 5-year cycle since the 2015 Agreement (well, technically it’s been 6 years because of the COVID delay, but you get my point). COP26 is the moment the world will re-evaluate its commitments to fighting the climate crisis, and it’s considered to potentially be our last real chance to curb the global warming. The future of the world rests on COP26. Let’s hope we get it right this time.


If you’re interested in global climate negotiations (or just want to get a better understanding of how it all works) the Warwick Climate Negotiating Forum is Warwick’s very own simulated version of COP. WCNF is a fantastic event that puts teams of students in the shoes of the national delegations that attend COP, and challenges them to save the world by negotiating to make national and global climate commitments! To learn more about how you can be involved, click here!

Header image by 995645 via Pixabay 

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