COP26: What is a COP? Why this year’s climate summit might be the most important one yet.

A roundup of the goals and key topics of discussion at COP26.

Zi Shan Kow | October 28, 2021, 12:01 PM

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A climate conference, commonly known as COP26, is happening from Oct. 31.

COP26 is regarded as the last chance for the world to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Here's everything you need to know about it.

What is a COP?

Started in 1995, COP refers to the "Conference of the Parties" - an annual climate event where global leaders come together to agree on how to tackle climate change.

Prominent COPs in the past introduced the Kyoto and Montreal Protocols, as well as the Paris Agreement, which was drawn up in 2015 at COP21.

This year, after being postponed for a year due to the pandemic, COP26 will take place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12.

This marking the fifth year of the Paris Agreement, nations are due to provide updates on their climate actions.

What is the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is a landmark international treaty that was ratified by 191 members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Previously, the responsibility to reduce emissions mainly fell on the developed countries. For the first time, both developing and developed countries agree to act on climate change with a "common but differentiated responsibility" principle via the landmark Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement follows the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Copenhagen accord in 2009, which failed to secure emission cutting commitments and saw major emitters like the US and China refusing to submit to the legally binding nature of the document.

Furthermore, countries like Canada which lapsed on their pledges also faced no consequences for doing so.

With the Paris Agreement, the UNFCCC is trying a different approach - now, emissions reduction is no longer legally binding, and both developing and developed nations are simply required to declare their climate contributions, big or small, tailored to each country's circumstances.

Known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), members are to update their climate actions once every five years.

And this year, the agreement will be put to the test for the first time.

The goal to limit global warming

The Paris Agreement aims to keep global temperature rise to well below 2ºC, or if possible, 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels in the year 2100.

However, according to an UNEP report in 2019, even if all the NDCs pledged in 2015 were fulfilled, temperatures are still predicted to rise by 3.2ºC.

What's the difference between 1.5ºC and 2ºC?

Globally, temperatures have already increased by 1.1-1.2ºC above pre-industrial levels.

Yet, scientists predict a world of difference between a warming of 1.5ºC and 2ºC.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5°C Report, an ice-free Arctic is likely to happen once every ten years if temperatures rise by 2ºC, instead of once every 100 years if temperatures rise by 1.5ºC.

Biodiversity loss across insects, plants, and vertebrates will also be twice or three times worse in a 2ºC scenario compared to a 1.5ºC scenario.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest report, the sixth Assessment Report (AR6), suggests that we can expect the rise in temperatures to exceed 1.5°C in less than a decade.

It also stated that it is likely that the Arctic will be practically sea ice free in September at least once before 2050 under all scenarios considered in the report.

The report also concluded that it is "unequivocal" that human influence has warmed up the atmosphere, ocean and land, resulting in widespread and rapid changes to the environment.

What will be discussed at COP26?

New NDCs

So far, according to the Climate Watch Tracker, 147 countries have submitted their new or updated pledges.

And 84 countries have proposed NDCs with reduced total emissions compared to their previous NDC.

Even with an additional year, major emitters like India and China have yet to submit their revised targets ahead of COP26.

Carbon market mechanisms

The biggest setback in COP25 was the failure in setting up Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.

Under this provision, countries are long overdue to come to an agreement on how carbon markets and trading should work internationally.

Carbon markets allow countries to claim carbon credits for carbon sinks and emission-cutting projects, which other countries can buy to count towards their emission targets.

As credits are easier to come by for developing nations, the idea is that this enables them to get additional financial help with implementing green solutions, while developed nations achieve reduction in emissions more easily, accelerating global decarbonisation.

Negotiations for the mechanisms of the market fell apart as countries were unable to come to a conclusion on how to avoid double counting, and whether credits awarded before 2020 should count towards Paris goals.

As the last outstanding item in the Paris Agreement, it is hoped that these details can be ironed out in this year's talks.

This year at COP26, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu is co-facilitating the ministerial consultations on Article 6 with Japan's Minister of the Environment Shinjiro Koizumi.

Climate finance for developing countries

In 2009, developed countries promised to provide at least USD100 billion every year starting 2020, for at least five years.

This sum is meant to help developing countries to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change.

Mobilising climate finance, and making good on this 100 billion amount, is one of the four goals of the UK’s COP26 presidency.

However, with a lack of consistency in how countries declare their contributions, the 100 billion target was likely not met in 2020 based on current estimates.

Furthermore, developed countries are calling for more grant-based financing, as roughly 80 per cent of the financial aid has been in the form of loans.

According to Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada, loans, instead of grants, “worsens [their] financial burdens and increases the climate vulnerability of developing countries.”

Crucially, delivering the 100 billion is "a matter of trust" in international climate politics, said the UK’s COP 26 President-Designate Alok Sharma.

The amount is "just a fraction of the investment needed" to tackle the climate crisis, he added.

Top image by Getty Images.