Almost every year since 1995, world leaders have met in person to discuss the climate crisis at a meeting known as Conference of the Parties (COP).
The “parties” are the more than 190 countries who signed up to the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN’s climate body.
The COP is effectively the UNFCCC decision-making body that meets once a year to negotiate on how to best tackle climate change.
The exception was 2020, when the pandemic postponed the 26th instalment.
Why is COP26 so important?
By COP26, countries are due to finalise their national action plans (nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement.
At COP21 in Paris in 2015, countries agreed to try to limit global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels to curb the climate crisis. This landmark global accord became known as the Paris Agreement.
“COP26 is the first chance for nations to review commitments and further strengthen ambition,” says Cambridge University climate scientist Dr Emily Shuckburgh.
“This is important because since the Paris Agreement there has been much greater clarity in terms of the science of the dangers of exceeding 1.5C [as opposed to 2C] of warming,” she said.
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Friends of the Earth (FOE) called this year’s delayed talks “vital” because the “window of opportunity to remain under that crucial 1.5 degrees of planetary warming is getting smaller and smaller with each passing year”.
It’s particularly important to the UK because, as host, “all eyes will be looking at what the UK is actually doing, rather than what it says”, said FOE’s director of campaigning impact, Jamie Peters
“As one of the nations most responsible for climate change, due to historic pollution, there will be a world focus on the UK’s role in responding to it – as well as how these talks are chaired,” he added.
When is COP26, will it take place in person, and are COVID-19 vaccines compulsory?
COP26 negotiations are scheduled to run from 1-12 November at the Scottish Events Campus (SEC) in Glasgow, although the procedural opening is on 31 October.
More than 30,000 people from roughly 200 countries will likely attend, but some associated events will happen online.
Vaccinations will not be mandatory, but are “strongly recommended” by the UK government.
It has offered COVID-19 vaccines to thousands of negotiators, observers and journalists who would not otherwise have access to one.
The deadline to apply for a vaccine was 23 July, so it’s not yet clear how well the offer was taken up or worked.
The initial programme has been published on the COP26 website.
What will be the sticking points?
“Arguably the greatest controversy will be whether or not what is agreed is sufficient to limit the worst impacts of climate change,” said Dr Shuckburgh.
The first round of government’s NDCs turned out to be insufficient to limit warming to well below 2C. So ahead of COP26, governments are due to submit new – and more ambitious – plans.
So far 62 countries and the EU have done so, but they are “still far away from where they need to be”, said Chatham House environment analyst Anna Aberg.
That’s because many of the new pledges are “not ambitious enough” – and because “several large economies – including China and India – have yet to submit new or sufficient plans”, said Ms Aberg.
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The thorny issue of climate finance will be pivotal to the success of COP26. Generally the world’s richest countries are the most responsible for the climate crisis that is experienced most severely by poorer countries, who have done the least to cause the problem.
Back in 2009, richer countries pledged to raise $100bn per year by 2020 to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to climate change impacts. But they missed the target.
“While much more than $100bn per year is needed to meet the financing needs in developing countries, the fulfilment of the pledge has great symbolic value,” said Ms Aberg.
“And when money is involved, along with discussions about who should pay for what, that’s when things get interesting,” said FOE’s Jamie Peters. “But the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
There are also unresolved issues from the Paris Agreement that parties have yet to agree. These include the rules for carbon market mechanisms, which allow countries to offset their emissions by purchasing carbon credits (emissions reductions) from another country, and how to address so-called “loss and damage” from climate change.
What role will China play?
China is expected to attend COP26 and has been involved with the ‘”Climate Change Dialogues” online series, which took place last year due to the postponed 2020 COP.
“China attaches great importance to the dialogue,” says Jiangwen Guo, senior research fellow at Chatham House’s energy, environment, and resources programme.
China, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has committed to carbon neutrality by 2060. Scientists have said the rainfall that’s caused severe flooding in central regions there was almost certainly linked to global warming.
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But China is one of many economies – along with Japan, Australia and Brazil – that has “pushed back” on pressure to share net zero plans on a shorter time horizon than 2050, said Rebecca Peters, another fellow at Chatham House’s energy, environment and resources programme.
The US’s climate envoy John Kerry in July urged China to cut carbon emissions faster. The US is the second largest emitter.
Who might be the disruptors at COP26?
Some countries, including Mexico and Russia, have submitted new climate plans that were no more ambitious than previous goals. While Australia has become “increasingly isolated from other OECD nations as it lags on action”, said Chatham House’s Rebecca Peters.
“We may expect to see heels digging in around specific elements of the negotiations,” said Ms Peters. For instance, at COP25 in 2019, China, India and Brazil pushed for earlier carbon trading permits to be allowed to count toward their Paris Agreement targets.
“But using these credits – while potentially saving the countries money and effort in the short time – could actually increase global emissions,” she said.
There is also a risk some countries might also resist the revised, tighter 1.5C target to avoid having to drastically curtail fossil fuel production and use.
She said India “also play a crucial role” as the world’s third largest emitter, as it is due to surpass the US by 2040 without a rapid transition in its energy systems.
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Sky News has launched the first daily prime time news show dedicated to climate change.
The Daily Climate Show is broadcast at 6.30pm and 9.30pm Monday to Friday on Sky News, the Sky News website and app, on YouTube and Twitter.
Hosted by Anna Jones, it follows Sky News correspondents as they investigate how global warming is changing our landscape and how we all live our lives.
The show also highlights solutions to the crisis and how small changes can make a big difference.