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The world's biggest climate summit kicks off soon - here's what you need to know

“The main thing will be whether there is a willingness to do business or not.”

THE COP26 SUMMIT starting later this month in Glasgow has been described as “a critical point for setting ambition for the next decade” in climate action. 

The annual UN conference brings together almost every country in the world to discuss climate change and seek an agreement on collective action.

The science is clear – human activity is the primary reason behind global warming. It’s up to humans now to agree on how the effects of this can be minimised and tackled. 

COP26 will once again bring this issue to the forefront and the stakes have never been higher. 

Let’s take a closer look at this crucial conference, and whether experts are optimistic it will lead to agreements necessary to prevent the worst-case scenarios of climate change. 

What is a COP?

COP stands for the Conference of the Parties – a United Nations summit on climate change which takes place every year. This is the 26th conference and the first one took place in Berlin in 1995. 

The UK is hosting this year’s summit which will take place in Glasgow, Scotland from 31 October to 12 November. The conference was postponed from 2020 due to the pandemic. 

Tens of thousands of government representatives, negotiators, companies, activists and journalists are set to attend. Representatives from Ireland – including the Taoiseach and the Environment Minister – will also be attending the summit. 

This COP is seen as particularly important for a number of reasons – largely because it’s the deadline by which countries must lay out their plans to stay in line with the Paris Agreement.

spain-greta-thunberg-during-cop25 Members of Fridays for Future at COP25 in Madrid in 2019. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

All UN countries agreed on a goal at the 2015 COP to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees, preferably 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

Since this agreement was signed, the COP summits have focused on working out the finer details of how this will be achieved across the world. 

This was due to be finalised in 2020 before the pandemic postponement, so now the pressure is on to hammer out the small print of the 2015 agreement. 

Professor John Sweeney from the geography department at Maynooth University has attended numerous COPs, and is well-versed in their outcomes. 

“The main thing will be whether there is a willingness to do business or not,” Sweeney told The Journal about the summit. 

Usually you can detect the vibes for that fairly early on in the conference. I’ve been at ten of them and you could detect it in Paris, but you hadn’t really detected it very strongly before and after Paris.

Countries must come to the COP with new NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) which set out how the country plans to reduce emissions and reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

“That will be an indication early on, whether countries like India and China will go for more enhanced NDCs or will seek to simply play for time with various bureaucratic stalling mechanisms,” Sweeney said. 

Key issues

french-foreign-minister-laurent-fabius-right-joins-united-nations-climate-chief-christiana-figuere-center-and-laurence-tubiana-celebrating-the-agreement-on-climate-change-at-the-conclusion-of-the 2015 image of French politician Laurent Fabius, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, centre, and Laurence Tubiana after the approval of the Paris Agreement at COP21. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Alongside finalising the Paris Agreement rulebook, there are a number of key issues experts see as the major points of consideration and contention at this COP.

Some of these are: 

  • Developing vs developed countries goals and requirements 
  • China and the US 
  • Carbon trading 
  • Small island developing nations 
  • IPCC report 
  • $100 billion (€86 billion) fund for impacted countries 
  • Bureaucracy vs real action 

Each country will come to COP with a different agenda and narrative.

A key consideration is the disparity between the usually historically high emission levels of developed nations (including Ireland) and the perspective of lower-income and developing countries often most impacted by the effects of climate change. 

At the moment, the US and China account for almost half of all global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Since 2009, developed countries have promised a fund of $100 billion (€86 billion) per year to help countries most vulnerable to the transition from fossil fuels and the impacts of climate change.  

There is increased pressure to finally make this a reality at COP26. 

Professor Sweeney said: “That’s maybe something that may sound like a lot of money, but in fact it’s relatively small money.

“It’s a reflection also of the responsibilities of the developed countries who have made their money on the basis of carbon fuels to try and undo some of that damage, but also ensure that the other countries in the developing world don’t go down the same unsustainable route.”

He said this is one of the “critical” commitments developing countries will be seeking in Glasgow. 

Sweeney said that another key aspect to be discussed is carbon trading and how this will work under the terms of the Paris Agreement. 

Political tensions

vice-president-biden-raises-a-toast-in-honor-of-chinese-president-xi-at-a-state-luncheon-at-the-state-department File image from 2015 of Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

A lot of stakeholders and delegates will be paying attention to two countries in particular – the hugely emitting United States and China. 

John Sweeney said: “This will be the first COP where the US delegation will be in concessionary mode and even participatory mode for some time so that will be quite crucial in terms of what guidance they have been given by Biden.”

The US formally withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2020 under former president Trump before entering back in by president Joe Biden after his inauguration earlier this year. 

Sweeney said the position of China and India – the third largest emitter – will “determine the success or failure at this COP”. 

Relations between Biden and China president Xi Jinping in the next few weeks and at the time of the conference will be watched closely. 

Biden will be in attendance, but it is uncertain yet whether president Xi will be joining the rest of the world leaders. 

UK prime minister Boris Johnson will also be a central figure as the host of the summit. 

Johnson has been going all out in terms of climate speeches and strong words – recently reminding leaders at the UN that Britain had pioneered the industrial revolution and was the first country “to send enough acrid smoke into the atmosphere to disrupt the natural order”.

“We understand that when developing countries look to us for help, we have to shoulder our responsibilities,” he said. 

Budget 2022 033 Minister Eamon Ryan at a government briefing earlier this month. Source: Sasko Lazarov

From an Irish perspective, Micheál Martin and Environment Minister Eamon Ryan will be in attendance at different points along with a group of Irish delegates led by minister Ryan’s department. 

A number of other ministers will also attend events over the course of the two weeks. 

Ryan said in September that Ireland has “actively engaged with its EU partners” to prepare for the conference. 

“Throughout the negotiations, maintaining environmental integrity, participation of non-party stakeholders, and a science-based approach will be key,” minister Ryan said in the Dáil. 

The EU as a whole agreed its stance earlier this month ahead of the summit – with positions approved on discussions about voluntary cooperation on carbon trading and a common time frame for commitments to emissions reductions. 

Those most impacted by extreme weather

world-climate-conference-continues 12-year-old Timoci Naulusala speaking at COP23 in 2017. Source: DPA/PA Images

Small island nations are at risk of being wiped out as sea levels rise and extreme weather events become more frequent. There will be a big focus on listening to these impactful voices at the conference. 

At COP23 in 2017, a 12-year-old Fiji boy Timoci Naulusala told the summit about the impacts of devastation wrought by the devastating Cyclone Winston: “My home, my school – my source of food, water, money – was totally destroyed.

“My life was in chaos. I asked myself: Why is this happening? What am I going to do?”

Professor Sweeney said the stories from those most affected by climate change are a “crucial” element of the COP.

The all-important IPCC report 

The conference is taking place on the foot of a landmark UN climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which was described as a “code red for humanity”.

This sixth assessment report on the physical science of climate change published in August said it is “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. 

4161 Climate protests A climate protest in Dublin last month. Source: Sam Boal

“Human influence is very likely the main driver of the global retreat of glaciers since the 1990s and the decrease in Arctic sea ice area between 1979–1988 and 2010–2019,” the report said. 

Human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years.

The report was clear that “deep reductions” in emissions are crucial to prevent the planet from warming by more than 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius (the temperatures set out in the Paris Agreement). 

Professor Sweeney also said the “first straw in the wind” at COP26 could be the reaction to this report and whether any countries refuse to welcome it. 

Criticism of COPs 

The main criticism behind the COPs is that they can result in all talk and no action. Global emissions are still rising despite years of high-level discussions and scientific evidence on global warming. 

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, recently accused leaders of ”shamelessly congratulating themselves” for insufficient pledges to cut emissions and promises of financing.

Echoing a speech by Boris Johnson in April, Thunberg said last month: “This is not about some expensive politically correct dream of bunny hugging, or build back better, blah blah blah, green economy, blah blah blah, net zero by 2050, blah blah blah, climate neutral blah blah blah.

This is all we hear from our so-called leaders: words, words that sound great but so far have led to no action, our hopes and dreams drowned in their empty words and promises.

climate-change-activist-greta-thunberg-attends-the-high-level-event-on-climate-emergency-during-the-u-n-climate-change-conference-cop25-in-madrid-spain-december-11-2019-reuterssusana-vera Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg at COP25 in 2019. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

This COP has an added layer of taking place amidst the ongoing pandemic – although most restrictions have lifted in Scotland and other countries as Covid-19 vaccine rates rise. 

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Vaccinations have not occurred at the same levels across the world, however, with richer countries having greater access to supplies. 

In early September, a global network of more than 1,500 climate NGOs called on the UK to postpone the summit, saying that a lack of Covid vaccines risked sidelining developing countries.

In an effort to combat this, the UK government offered to deliver vaccines to attendees who were unable to get a dose in their own country and they will also pay for a mandatory quarantine stay required for anyone arriving from a red list country.

In Ireland, a group called the ‘COP26 Coalition Ireland’ is planning a climate protest on 6 November in Dublin and other cities across the country. Similar protests will be held in the UK on the same day.

The organisation comprises NGOs, trade unions and other campaign groups and it aims to increase focus on climate action on an Irish and global level.

People Before Profit (who are also involved in the organisation) TD Bríd Smith said: “We thought it’d be a terrible shame if all the best climate activists just went to Glasgow and we didn’t have anything here in Ireland.”

She said the coalition hopes that “lots of ordinary people come out on it and say we need to live our lives differently”. 

She estimated that several thousand people will be in attendance. 

Can we expect a positive outcome from the conference? 

young-female-cop15-demonstrators-for-climate-justice-copenhagen Climate protesters demonstrating in Copenhagen at the time of the 2009 COP summit. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Experts are mixed on whether there will be a positive result from this summit.

Professor John Sweeney said the build-up to COP26 is “remarkably similar” to what he experienced in Copenhagen in 2009. 

This was another notable COP which was widely seen as a failure at a time of increased focus on climate action. 

Sweeney said: “[Copenhagen] ended in a bit of a car crash, so I’m not as optimistic really that this will be the COP that delivers the answers that people are expecting.

“I think there will be an element of recalcitrant countries that still will not have been enamored by the kind of hustling that’s going on to get them to agree to things, and they will probably dig their heels in.

While presidents and prime ministers and even Taoiseachs may talk about how they’re going to be flexible and they’re going to save the world, the brief that’s given to their negotiators may often be ‘don’t concede anything, don’t come back with anything that costs us money’.

However, he said there will likely be some element of (at least perceived) success. 

“I think at the end of the COP, it will be claimed to be very successful but whether or not, when you drill into the detail that the commitments that have been made will be sort of concrete commitments, I’m not sure.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here. 

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