What COP26 Is And Why It Matters

Image Credit: Casa Rosada, CC BY 2.5 AR, Image Cropped

COP26 has dominated the news over the past two weeks. The post pandemic world has watched as finger pointing and vague promises have emerged from Glasgow as talks progressed. But underlying all the drama is the realisation that the world is rapidly approaching a point of no return.

For many people the COP circus is just a bunch of world leaders hogging the news outlets for two weeks every year talking a lot of blah, blah, blah. But there’s more to it than that. It may not be obvious, but some genuine collaboration and agreements come out of most COP (Conference of the Parties if you’ve ever wondered) events. So let’s take a closer look and see what it’s all about.

The Background

To understand what the COP is, you need to know what the IPCC and UNFCCC are. The UNFCCC is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which came about at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. The Earth Summit was inspired by the Brundtland report, a report headed by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. It popularised the definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The UNFCCC is essentially a commitment to a sustainable future, with responsibilities handed down to different countries depending on their economic status. It ostensibly encourages ‘developed’ countries to lead the way, often funding climate change related projects in ‘developing’ countries. It’s actually only one of three different treaties signed at the Earth Summit, which initially primarily was concerned with sustainable development. At the Earth Summit, 154 countries signed the UNFCCC, and it came into force two years later.

The IPCC has a different aim – sort of. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a large team of experts put together to prepare comprehensive reviews of the science surrounding climate change. They’re the ones who put out those landmark climate reports every few years – more about the most recent version here.

Then we have the COP. This usually happens once a year, and lasts for about two weeks. The parties who are signatories to the UNFCCC come together to review progress, share research and make plans for the future. There are (as with any major conference) a variety of keynote speakers, whose speeches often make the news, or at the very least your social media feed.

Do They Mean Anything?

A lot of good has come from these conferences. The 1992 Kyoto Protocol was a product of one of the first conferences, and committed parties to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions by individually defined amounts over a given time period. The Paris agreement in 2015 was a product of COP21, and set a key goal for countries to limit the global average temperature increase to below 2 degrees, ideally below 1.5. Yet as with many of these conference decisions, the targets aren’t enforceable, so the COP is often accused of being one giant mess of greenwashing, grandstanding and back-patting.

It’s hard to argue with many of these claims. The private jets these leaders use seem like mass hypocrisy – if the global shakers and movers can’t limit themselves to (lord forbid) first class as opposed to a private jet, it’s hard to convince the rest of us they’re there to help. But where I feel the real strength of these conferences lies is in the harsh glare of the public spotlight which is shone on the world governments who claim to be tackling the climate crisis. For all the Australian Prime Minister’s talk on how he’s working towards a sustainable future, when you’re almost universally panned by scientists and other countries it’s hard to maintain that image. They’re an opportunity for the public to hold their politicians accountable, and see whether or not they’re doing their job in ensuring a sustainable future for humanity.

So What Happened At This One?

It’s difficult to summarise the last two weeks in a couple of paragraphs. Often the results of these conferences aren’t immediately visible, as there’s a universe of difference between a national COP commitment and actual implemented policy once the leader returns home. This report last week from Indonesia outlining their massive U-turn on deforestation is a case in point. The draft text released by the parties this week though was pretty dire, and expressed very serious concern at how little has been done to limit rising temperatures, and how much remains to be done.

I’ve listed some articles below that go into a bit more detail on some of the highlights surrounding the event.

Jeremy Corbyn hits out at COP26 ‘greenwashing’

At COP26, new alliance tries to kill oil and gas industry

Barack Obama has a nerve preaching about the climate crisis

Women bear the brunt of the climate crisis, COP26 highlights

If you have any questions about the conference or want to know anything about what you can do to live more sustainably, as always, feel free to get in touch.


Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and is currently working as a climate data analyst at Ducky AS. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

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