As world leaders and negotiation teams board their emissions-belching private jets to return home after COP26, we’re left a fortnight after it began wondering what exactly it achieved. Over the whine of jet engines and protesters, it’s hard to make out the wins, the loses and if the world has decided to do enough to prevent a climate catastrophe.
So, qualified environmentalists that we aren’t, here’s our layman’s ‘everything we could Google and you could probably Google better if you could be arsed’ questions and answers from COP26.
What even is a COP?
It’s a fair COP, because let’s face it most of us have zero clue what it stands for. In fact it seems likely that even some attendees aren’t 100% aware that COP stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’, a meeting place for governments, charities, activists and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to come together and agree ways to work together to tackle climate change.
COP stands for ‘Conference of the Parties...
The Glasgow-based COP26 was the 26th such COP on the topic over the last three decades, all organised by the United Nations (UN).
And why was it held here?
A question the government probably asked several times. This COP was intended to be held in Rome as a follow-up to the Paris Agreement in 2015. However, the Italians backed out and Boris, then Foreign Secretary, saw this as a chance to burnish his ‘global Britain’ credentials, as well as a way to potentially stamp down on Scottish nationalism by showing the Scots the benefits of being within the UK.
Boris, then Foreign Secretary, saw this as a chance to burnish his 'global Britain' credentials...
It’s unclear if he made any impact on the latter, but arguably by being President of COP26 the UK has shined its international halo a little. Plus it’s probably focused minds at home when it comes to initiatives the UK can be implementing to combat climate change.
So what was this COP trying to achieve?
So Paris was the big one; the conference where the world agreed (apart from the US who then un-agreed under Trump and re-agreed when Biden took the Presidency) to reduce emissions and aim to limit global temperature rises to ‘under two degrees’ and set a goal of 1.5 degrees.
Glasgow was never going to be as momentous...
Although the expectations were never really set correctly for the public (or, indeed, the myriad protesters), Glasgow was never going to be as momentous. The purpose of this COP was to put in place guidelines as to how to achieve the aspirations of Paris, to update their plans and set some common goals.
Was everyone onboard?
There were two notable leaders missing from the conference, China’s President Xi and Russia’s bare-chested novelty calendar sensation Vladimir Putin. This was important because both countries are major polluters, the Chinese, particularly, as they produce the most emissions in the world (though America still has the highest emissions per capita).
There were two notable leaders missing from the conference, China's President Xi and Russia's bare-chested novelty calendar sensation Vladimir Putin...
However, even though the leaders were not there their negotiators did show and there were particularly some breakthroughs with the Chinese, with President Biden building some bridges to get them on more-or-less the same page.
So how did it all play out?
There were early wins, with India’s Prime Minister Modi surprising everyone with a commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. Much later than is needed, but a clear demonstration of intent from a leader of a country that has a very long way to travel to achieve that aim (and which will require immediate changes at home).
There were also early signs of progress, with nations (including major offender Brazil) making pledges around ending deforestation.
It wasn’t a conference stacked with opportunities for mirth. The main gaffes were Boris and Biden both appearing at points to be asleep (both men spent much of the last two weeks mired in scandals and approval-rating decimation so might’ve been allowed a little slack).
Perhaps the most amusing was CNN News Anchor Wolf Blitzer, who tweeted that he’d arrived at COP26 with a backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. Which is approximately 46 miles and a completely different city away from all the action in Glasgow…
What was happening outside the COP?
For the duration of the conference, the area inside the secure zone of Glasgow’s main conference centre was counted as UN territory. But back in Scotland (ie the other side of the cordon) protesters were making their thoughts known.
Climate activist and Jeremy Clarkson trigger Greta Thunberg poured scorn early on, saying it was all just ‘blah blah blah’ and this was generally the line of those wielding placards on the streets, that the world’s leaders were not doing nearly enough to avert large-scale crisis and general armageddon.
However, the protests remained good natured and there wasn’t violence, which was welcomed by Glasgow, the government and the police, not to mention the delegates. However, their presence was no doubt a crucial reminder to leaders that the world’s public expects change.
Okay, so what actually happened?
Good point, we’re a good 1,000 words in and we’ve not really said anything definitive. Which, to be fair, is how it looked things might end up as by the Friday evening deadline for an agreement, a text had not been adopted by the attendees. However, negotiations continued into the night and throughout the weekend (this always happens) until finally all sides agreed on a way forward.
The major sticking point was fossil fuel, particularly coal. Countries like India and China were not happy with the suggested line committing them to ‘phasing out’ coal, and eventually it was agreed to write ‘phase down’ coal. This amendment agreed, the rest fell quickly into place.
We’re running out of time and will to live. Give it to me in bullet-points…
– Money – The target of 1.5 degrees (and realistically it’s going to be more like two degrees) temperature rise needs more money, and rich countries promised $100bn, the figure seen as required to keep on-track.
– Coal – Countries agreed to ‘phase down’ their use of the fossil fuel for energy production including biggies like Poland, Vietnam and Chile, but currently China, India and the US are not behind the plans.
– Deforestation – Leaders from over 100 world countries, which cover 85% of the world’s forests and include Brazil, home to the Amazon rainforest, promised to stop deforestation by 2030.
– Over 100 countries agreed to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. China and India were not on the list, but it’s hoped that there’s still a chance to get them onboard.
– The US and China will cooperate over climate-change. The Biden administration and President Xi reaffirmed their aim to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees and also promised to work hand-in-hand (ash) on methane emissions, de-carbonisation and the transition to clean energy. Certainly a step in the right direction for two of the world’s biggest powers and polluters.
– Bankers – because it wasn’t just countries at the negotiating table, the world’s financial institutions (450 of them, controlling a total of $130tn) agreed to back clean technologies and lead the charge of business being net-zero carbon emitters.
And does it all go far enough?
Obviously not, even with the ambitious curbs announced by world governments in the wake of COP26 the planet faces a tricky 100 years dominated by the effects of climate change. But it sets the right tone.
The reality is that governments can only do so much, while public sentiment and technology will be the big drivers in reaching net-zero emissions.
At best COPs and governments set the music to which the rest of us tap our feet to. As public demand for cleaner solutions, like battery powered cars, technology provides solutions. And events like COP26 put pressure on governments (hello ‘heat pumps’) to accelerate green policies while public awareness changes behaviours.
So no, not far enough, but still far…