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COP 26 - What's Going On?

Sarah, a Sustainable Overton Volunteer in the comms team, talks us through COP 26, and what it all means for us.


COP26, the 26th annual summit of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, will be taking place from 31st October - 12th November in Glasgow.


The COP – or Conference Of Parties – is responsible for monitoring and reviewing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and its implementation. This Framework is an international treaty. It acknowledges the existence of anthropogenic climate change and provides a framework for climate change negotiations. www.ukcop26.org


How did it all come about?

The convention began at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty was adopted 2 years later by 197 countries. From 1995, COP has met annually to review the implementation of the treaty and amend targets and commitments. It brings together efforts by the world’s governments to tackle the serious challenges posed by climate change.

The road to COP26 specifically has already involved 17 summits, conferences and meetings over the last 11 months. And the November event will see almost 200 of the world’s governments, with thousands of policy makers, negotiators, scientists, campaigners, businesses and citizens, all get together to update plans for reducing emissions. Each country sets out its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to commit by how much they will reduce their emissions.


What are we trying to achieve?

In 2010 a commitment was made to limit the global average temperature increase to 2 Degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. However further research by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) – the UN body responsible for assessing the science related to climate change www.ipcc.ch – has shown that this target needs to actually be 1.5° in order to avoid the extreme impacts of climate change predicted. Although the impacts of higher temperatures are already being felt, it is considered that increases above 1.5° will be a tipping point for many natural systems. The new target of below 1.5° was agreed during the 2016 Paris Agreement.



What climate changes have we already seen?

The most recent IPCC report (2021) www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/ drew together findings from more than 14,000 peer reviewed studies and concluded that it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.


Here are some examples.

  • In 2019 atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years. And methane concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years.

  • Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2000 years. We have already seen a 1° global heating above pre-industrial levels.

  • Global sea level has risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in at least 3,000 years.

  • Hot extremes have become more frequent and intense since the 1950s.

What impacts do changes to the climate have?

The intensity and frequency of extreme rainfall and flooding events increases. As does the intensity and frequency of droughts in many places. Permafrosts thaw, glaciers and ice sheets melt. Sea levels rise, with more coastal flooding and coastal erosion. Warming of the oceans continues, with increase in marine heatwaves, ocean acidification and reduced oxygen levels.

This eventually means more people exposed to climate-related poverty and other risks. Declines of coral reefs and global fisheries. Loss of biodiversity as various species go extinct. More erratic rainfall and water stress through droughts, with associated declines in crop productivity and livestock production.


What are we doing about it in the UK?

So far, the collective NDCs (voluntary emissions reductions) offered from countries world-wide, are insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement 1.5° target. The UK makes up less than 1% of global emissions.

In the UK, emissions need to decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and we must reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Net zero refers to achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. We will never achieve no emissions. ‘Net zero’ recognises that there will always be some emissions but these will need to be offset – through national carbon sinks such as oceans and forests until we have the technology to artificially sequester carbon.

In 2019 the UK updated the Climate Change Act 2008 requiring the UK government, by law, to set 5-year carbon budgets towards the net zero target.


In November 2020 the UK government announced investment towards a 10 point plan: www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-ten-point-plan-for-a-green-industrial-revolution


1) Advancing offshore wind;

2) Driving the growth of low carbon hydrogen;

3) Delivering new and advanced nuclear power;

4) Accelerating the shift to zero-emission vehicles;

5) Green public transport, cycling and walking;

6) Jet zero and green ships;

7) Greener buildings;

8) Investing in carbon capture, usage and storage;

9) Protecting our natural environment;

10) Green finance and innovation.


How are we doing?

Apparently our emissions are down 49% since 1990 and the power sector accounts only for 13% of all territorial emissions within the UK due to our success with offshore wind energy.


However, in areas such as transport, homes and agriculture, emissions remain largely unchanged. Airport and road expansions and new gas and oil exploration could be seen to undermine our global position in the war against climate change. We are not on track to meet even an 80% (previous target) reduction in emissions by 2050.


The UK government needs to publish robust policies which will meet our carbon budgets in transport, buildings, land-use and energy. The Independent has reported that at the recent Conservative Party conference, the prime minister and his ministers barely touched upon the issue of the climate crisis. Which seems surprising considering it really is a crisis. The UN chief described the latest IPCC report as a ‘code red’ for humanity.


This is no longer just climate change, it is a crisis for the planet and for humanity. The difference in predicted impacts between 1.5° and 2° of warming is now clear and alarming.


Click here to go to Sarah's next article: What can we do?



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