COP26 – What is It and Why is It Important?

COP26 – What is It and Why is It Important?

Although the global Coronavirus pandemic has dominated headlines, climate change has been a major news focus over the last year. Both international governments and the business community are racing to reduce their carbon footprint and reach ‘net-zero’, where their emissions are reduced as much as possible and any residual emissions are removed by offsetting. There is an increasing urgency around the need to reach net-zero and the message from scientists and international organisations such as the IPCC is clear, we are running out of time to limit rising global temperatures.

One of the key environmental events of 2021 is COP26, a meeting of international leaders who are part of the UNFCCC treaty at which they will discuss global strategies to tackle climate change. It was originally scheduled to happen in Glasgow in November 2020 but has been rescheduled for November 2021 due to the pandemic. But what exactly is COP26, what is likely to be discussed there, and why is it so important? We take a look at some of the history and progress of the UNFCCC treaty in our COP26 primer.

What is the UNFCCC?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty with the goal of “preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth's climate system” by stabilising the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The countries that have signed up are committed to reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases, and there have been several additional protocols and agreements to provide a framework to achieve this. The UNFCCC was established at the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, where it was signed by 154 countries and there are now 197 signatories who are ‘parties to the convention’. The countries that have signed up meet annually for a ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) to discuss progress and adjust the agreements.

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The UNFCCC is provided with scientific guidance by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which presents Assessment Reports every five years, with the sixth one due out in 2021/22. The IPCC produced a special report in 2018 on restricting the rise in global temperature to 1.5oC, demonstrating the striking difference in impact between a 1.5oC rise and a rise of 2oC, and the dramatic risk of exceeding both these goals. It also recommended a global ‘net-zero’ emissions target by 2050, a goal to which increasing numbers of governments and businesses are committing.

The Kyoto Protocol

The first agreement within the UNFCCC to set binding emissions reduction targets was the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, which came into force in 2005. The Kyoto Protocol set emissions reduction targets only for 36 industrialised countries and the European Union, not for every signatory to the UNFCCC. The protocol aimed for an average of 5% emissions reductions compared to 1990 levels, which was to be achieved between 2008 and 2012. All the parties signed up to the first phase achieved their emissions reduction targets, in fact they achieved an average 22% emissions reduction, far exceeding the 5% target.

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The second phase ran from 2013 to 2020, agreed as part of the Doha Amendment, and required a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 18%, based on a 1990 baseline. Fewer countries committed to the second phase and the US did not commit to either of the Kyoto Protocol phases. The Doha Amendment was only ratified at the last minute in 2020, but the 37 developed countries had reduced their emissions by an average of 25.3% by 2018 so it was met. The Doha Amendment targets were insufficient to reduce the upward trend in excess emissions, however, so more ambitious goals were required.

What is the Paris Agreement?

The Kyoto Protocol was superseded by the Paris Agreement, which came out of ‘grave concerns’ around the inadequacy of the current agreement expressed in 2011 during COP17 in Durban. It was decided that there should be a legally binding agreement applicable to all parties (not just the industrialised nations), which would be signed in 2015 and come into force in 2016. COP21 saw the largest gathering of world leaders in history and the signing of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to under 2°C, ideally no more than 1.5°C.

Wind turbines in South Yorkshire. Photo credit: Charles Cook (

Each of the 191 countries that committed to the agreement sets their own Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) towards reducing their national emissions, with new and more ambitious NDCs required every 5 years from 2020. The agreement also sets out actions required for adaptation to the effects of climate change, and stipulates that wealthy nations should provide finance and technology to assist poor and vulnerable nations in meeting their goals. The US signed up to the Paris Agreement, although there was a brief period in 2020 when they left and then rejoined. The Paris Agreement NDCs are not legally binding, although the reporting and review framework is. There is a consensus principle behind the agreement which hopes that political encouragement will push countries to reduce emissions faster.

Why is COP26 important?

COP26 marks the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement and the first statement of more ambitious NDCs from the parties, which were due in 2020. Following the Coronavirus pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion around ‘building back better’, ensuring that the economic measures contribute to a ‘green recovery’. COP26 is the ideal point to provide international pressure to achieve this. Repeated analyses have concluded that nations are currently off track in reducing emissions, and that targets need to be more ambitious, so COP26 will be a pivotal moment in assessing and applying international pressure where necessary. There will be close attention paid to commitments made by the US in particular, following the change in administration. Biden introduced a raft of climate measures rapidly after the inauguration and initiated the recent World Earth Day Leaders Summit on Climate, giving a foretaste of how the US wants to lead action on the climate.

Joe Biden addresses the Leaders Summit on Climate

COP26 will be the largest summit ever held in the UK and represents a key opportunity for the government to demonstrate international influence post-Brexit. The UK has one of the best track records in the world on wind power and reducing carbon emissions (down 45% on 1990 levels) and COP26 is a great opportunity to showcase this and provide a positive example for other nations.

Expected discussion points

Some of the main discussion points are expected to be around carbon markets, funding for loss and damage, nature-based solutions, and the $100bn finance target.

Carbon markets would allow trading between countries of carbon credits, as a way of offsetting some of their emissions. Countries that emit more could purchase credits from countries that emit less. The discussions around this are extremely technical but it is hoped that a consensus could be reached on how to structure and monitor markets at COP26.

There is currently no framework for a country to claim for loss and damage that has occurred due to climate change, so this is expected to be another discussion point.

Photo credit: Holly Victoria Norval (

Nature-based solutions are being investigated for their role in offsetting carbon emissions and reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The $100bn finance target was due to be implemented by 2020, but the amount committed so far is falling short of that. The money is an annual commitment from developed countries which would allow less developed countries to access resources to assist with climate change damage, technology needed to reach net-zero targets and protecting nature.

How are different countries performing against their targets?

Prior to 2020 the news was not promising, with very few of the countries performing well against their targets. In fact it has been estimated that if all countries met their pre-2020 commitments, we would be on track for over 3°C of warming by the end of this century, which would have catastrophic consequences.

To limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C, a global emission reduction of 7.6% is needed every year between 2020 and 2030, and in 2020 this was only 6.4% globally, with the reduction mainly due to Coronavirus lockdowns. In addition, at the end of 2020, only 45 of the Paris Agreement parties met the deadline to disclose their updated NDCs and even fewer announced more ambitious emissions reduction targets.

Wildfire smoke in San Francisco, September 2020. Photo credit: Christopher Michel (

However with the inauguration of President Biden in the US and a rapid raft of climate measures, including a target emissions reduction of over 50% by 2030, there is new momentum behind rapid decarbonisation. The UK has one of the best decarbonisation records in the world and has just set an ambitious target of 78% emissions reduction by 2035. China has also committed to be net-zero by 2060, which is particularly important for global emissions as they are the largest contributor. A recent study for Climate Tracker concluded that if all these commitments are met then warming will be restricted to 2.1°C, which is a significant improvement.

2020 was a landmark year for action on climate change, with a sudden increase in net-zero commitments from businesses and international governments. If that momentum can be maintained throughout 2021 then COP26 could be a turning point in the fight against climate change.

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