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European Climate Pact
News article28 October 2021

Why is COP26 such a big deal? Here’s everything you need to know

Why is COP26 such a big deal? Here’s everything you need to know

This November, expect to see headline after headline focusing on COP26. We’re told that the event could be a game-changer for the climate, but before we delve into what’s up for discussion, let’s try and clear up the basics. What is COP26? Who will be there? And why’s it so important?

First things first - what is COP?

COP is the annual United Nations climate conference. Each year, negotiators representing almost every country in the world meet to agree on the global approach to fighting climate change. This year it’s COP26, held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November (officially at least; negotiations could last longer).

OK – but what does ‘COP’ stand for?

‘Conference of the Parties’. We’re talking about countries that are ‘parties’ to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – or UNFCCC if you’re a fan of acronyms.

And what about ‘26’?

It’s because Glasgow is the 26th edition of the UNFCCC’s COP. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit called for regular meetings to prevent and control climate change, and the first one was held in Berlin in 1995. Since then, there has been a COP nearly every year.

But if they happen every year, why is this one so important?

The aim of each COP is to assess the progress made by countries around the world in tackling climate change. However, once every five years, there is a kind of ‘super-COP’ where countries meet to update their national plans to reflect the latest climate science and make key decisions about action they will take.

The last such COP took place in 2015 and led to the establishment of the Paris Agreement, which committed countries to keeping the increase in the world’s temperature to well below 2°C by the end of the century, and ideally limiting it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

2021 is the first decision-making COP since then (there was a one-year hiatus in 2020 due to Covid-19). It’s widely considered to be our last chance to agree on policies that can get climate change under control before it’s too late.

So, there’s a lot at stake this year then. Who’s going to be there?

Put simply – representatives from almost every country in the world. There are 197 parties involved. This includes all Member States of the United Nations and the European Union.

Usually, world leaders don’t attend COP – they send representatives ranging from environment or climate ministers to scientific experts. However, as it’s so important this year, the COP presidency has organised a World Leaders’ Summit at the start of the conference, and many leaders are expected to attend. You may even spot other famous faces including celebrities or royalty.

And of course, there will be hundreds of event organisers, NGOs, researchers and media on site as well.

OK, there are a lot of high-profile people attending, but what will they actually be discussing?

Back at COP21 in Paris in 2015, countries agreed to individual national targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet the goal of limiting the temperature rise to 1.5°C. These are known as ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ or NDCs. However, the NDCs set in 2015 are considered by the UN Environment Programme to be far below the levels needed to meet the objective of the Paris Agreement.

New NDCs now need to be set – ones that will lead to global net zero emissions by 2050.

Wait – what does that mean?

Net zero greenhouse gas emissions means that we’d remove the same amount of carbon from our atmosphere as the amount we’d be emitting. A net-zero world would see an end to most processes that emit greenhouse gases, like burning fossil fuels for energy. Remaining emissions would be absorbed either by natural ‘carbon sinks’ like healthy forests and oceans, or through carbon capture technologies.

It’s the only way to build a sustainable, habitable planet for generations to come. What’s more, the decisions we make today – whether at a high-level at COP26, or an everyday choice like driving less and cycling more – will help to make this net-zero future a reality.

So, the focus is on reducing the amount of emissions we generate?

In part, yes. But there’s more to it – COP26 isn’t just about NDCs and global net zero. Another hot topic is increasing finance for developing countries to help them fight climate change.

At the COP in 2009, developed countries pledged to provide $100 billion (around €86 billion) each year by 2020 to help poorer countries deal with the consequences of climate change and reduce their emissions. Developed countries are now being asked to deliver on this promise.

The EU also wants to bring more attention to climate adaptation by doing more to protect and restore natural habitats such as marshland and forests, and strengthen our defences against the effects of climate change. Adaptation also means preparing for extreme weather events like floods, heatwaves or forest fires – and this includes assessing the risk of a disaster, insuring individuals, property, businesses and countries against it, and providing humanitarian relief and recovery if a disaster should strike.

It’s clearly a big political event. Are scientists involved too?

Yes, of course. The United Nations has its own body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which provides the scientific background to the negotiations at COP and is made up of scientists from around the world. This summer, the IPCC released a new report proving that the world is currently set for a global temperature rise of more than 1.5°C, and only steep reductions in greenhouse gases will prevent a climate disaster.

So, what can we expect from COP26?

We need to see countries agree to new, tougher NDCs that can achieve both net zero and keep global warming below the crucial 1.5°C threshold.

But there are lots of other outcomes that we can hope to see, including making the preservation of natural habitats a priority, increasing efforts to stop deforestation, boosting investments in renewable energy so that we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and finding new and better ways to finance action to both prevent climate change and help our society adapt to rising temperatures.


Can I play a part?

The COP26 negotiations are taking place between world leaders, but you can still have a role in taking a stand against climate change.

  • Get a taste of the action by signing up to over 150 different side events the EU is hosting at COP26 – this year you can watch from the comfort of your home.
  • It’s also the perfect moment to become part of the pan-European movement of people who want to do something about climate change by taking a European Climate Pact pledge to make one (or several) changes to your everyday life. From smaller changes like eating less meat, to bigger transformations like greening your money – there are plenty of easy to achieve ideas that can make a difference.


Publication date
28 October 2021