• Mahsa Forghani

A Conference for the Climate: A Rundown of COP26

At an Action Hub Event at COP26, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi discusses the prospects of using nuclear energy to solve the energy crisis posed by climate change. The event occurred on November 4, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Dean Calma/IAEA)

From October 31 to November 12, world leaders met in Glasgow for the annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) after 2020’s conference was postponed due to COVID-19. This annual conference sets the stage for talks about the climate and allows for new policies to be implemented. COP26 has been anticipated since 2020, and for good reason. Many believe that the events at this conference will be of utmost importance when it comes to the ever-growing threat of climate change.

What is COP26?

COP is an acronym for Conference of the Parties. Working under the United Nations, the conference works to review and discuss the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As of 2019, the COP has 197 member states who gathered in Glasgow from October 31 to November 13.

Beginning in 1995 with a conference held in Berlin, COP has become a yearly occurrence that has just seen its 26th year after being postponed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The events at the conference extend beyond its host city, as policymakers use the conference to set the stage for future climate-related actions. For example, the first COP in Berlin was followed two years later by the Kyoto Protocol, an attempt to limit greenhouse gases emitted by industrialized countries.

Why was the 2021 conference so important?

During the 2015 Climate Conference in Paris, world leaders discussed the importance of reducing carbon emissions to below 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. The focus since then has been reducing emissions to achieve global temperatures of 1.5 degrees or less. This hasn’t since happened though, with global emissions on the rise as a result of industrialization. Despite this, even a reduction down to 1.5 degrees will not alleviate all of the issues that come as a result of climate change. Studies show that 1.5 degrees of warming will lead to a 9 percent decrease in rainfall, a 9 percent decrease in wheat production, and a 40-centimeter rise in sea levels, among other effects. However, 1.5 degrees is still much less threatening than 2 degrees of warming, which will result in a 17 percent decrease in rainfall, a 16 percent decrease in wheat production, and a 50-centimeter rise in sea levels. Above this threshold lies the risk of heatwaves, ecosystem collapse, and fatality.

Why is this especially important today? Scientists say that global warming will continue to worsen unless we reach a net zero increase in greenhouse gasses in the environment. Nonetheless, the time frame is crucial, as sources predict that in order to avoid climate catastrophe, we must reduce emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2050. It is more critical now than ever for world leaders to hold discussions about achieving net zero, as many believe it is the only way to prevent the most severe effects of climate change.

What has COP26 achieved so far?

Resulting from the pressure to achieve net zero described, 136 countries have pledged to attempt offsetting emissions. Among them are China and the U.S ― the top two countries in terms of carbon emissions in 2020. This is absolutely vital, as solving mitigating the effects of global warming depends heavily on these two countries, particularly due to their industrialized economies, and consequently, their high levels of greenhouse gas production. Russia has also adopted a net zero pledge ― a monumental development due to their history of suffering under the harsh effects of climate change. Half of the population doesn’t have access to clean drinking water and the country has suffered economically as well.

Discussions on an international carbon market at COP26 have proven to be quite interesting and potentially important in the near future. Carbon markets already exist in places like the U.S. and cities in China in the form of cap-and-trade systems, in which the government issues a maximum amount of carbon dioxide emissions permitted for businesses. This incentivizes businesses to cut back on emissions, and those that emit less than the cap can sell their remaining “allowance” of emissions to other businesses who have exceeded the limit. Despite the predicted success of this method, other forms of carbon markets exist as well. The main kind, which is debated most heavily, was established in 1997 as a result of the aforementioned Kyoto Protocol. This system placed more pressure on developed countries to cut back on emissions. However, if a developing country took measures to reduce their emissions, they could sell “credits” to a developed country, which would then count toward their progress. This system has since collapsed after reports of countries finding loopholes in the policy that allowed them to profit from harming the environment, and concerns remain. Many also argue that, in order for this system to succeed, large amounts of resources would be necessary to enable developing countries to reduce their emissions through planting trees and improving the environment.

(Dean Calma/IAEA)

In the end, it’s clear that climate change will prove to be a very threatening issue in a future that is perhaps not-so-far away. Discussions such as the Conference of the Parties are a tool used by countries to resolve issues like these in an attempt to protect the international community. Science has shown the importance of reaching net zero, or else we may be confronted with devastating effects in the future. Still, this year’s climate conference has shown us world leaders’ dedication to resolving climate change through net zero pledges, the possibility of carbon markets, and more. Nonetheless, time and action remain the true test of the conference’s efficacy.