In November, COP 26 will take place in Glasgow. COP 26 is the short name for ‘The 26th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties’ (UNFCCC COP26). But what is it, and why is it so important?
A ‘Framework Convention’ is a legally binding United Nations treaty which establishes broad commitments for actions. The ‘Parties’ are the countries that have signed up to the treaty. ‘Conferences’ are held annually to discuss progress, (except for last year due to Covid). So COP 26 is: The 26th meeting of members of the United Nations who have signed up to a legally binding agreement to control climate change.
In 1988, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to produce the scientific reports which governments use to make their decisions. In 1990 their first report stated that ’emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases’. This lead to a global treaty to set targets to reduce emissions of carbon; to decide how, and how quickly this could be achieved; and to acknowledge the different responsibilities of developed and developing countries. The wording of the treaty (the Framework Convention) was settled at the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992, so it is known as the Rio Convention. It became law in 1994 when 196 countries had signed it.
It is remarkable that the Convention recognized that climate change was a problem: in 1994, when the UNFCCC took effect, there was much less scientific evidence than there is now. It set a goal, “to stabilise greenhouse gases concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system.” And it put the onus on developed countries to lead the way in cutting emissions.
In 1995, at COP 1 in Berlin, delegates agreed that commitments in the Convention were ‘inadequate’ to reduce carbon emissions, and that stronger targets were needed. This lead to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997: the world’s first Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Treaty. At each annual COP since then, further discussions have taken place. In 2015 at COP21 the Paris Agreement marked a turning point in climate action history, with a legally binding and universal agreement on limiting the increase in mean global temperatures to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels; the agreement even specifies that an overall goal of only a 1.5°C increase should be aimed for. The Paris Agreement also agreed to review country contributions every 5 years.
30 years on from Rio, have these discussions achieved anything? Globally, emissions continue to increase, although the rate of increase has slowed. Scientists are observing changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system, with devastating floods, droughts and fires becoming much more frequent. Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years. Some of the changes, such as continued sea level rise, will take thousands of years to reverse. An IPCC report in August talked of ‘code red’ for humanity if emissions are not cut further, with climate change ‘widespread, rapid, and intensifying’.
Is this the wake-up call that world leaders need?
COP26 will be biggest summit ever hosted in the UK, with around 30,000 attendees. Of these 7,000 are delegates; the rest will be lobbyists and members of pressure groups. There will be a lot of talk at COP26. For the future of the entire planet let’s hope that the talk leads to real action this time, and that it will not just be a lot of hot air.
This article by Rachel Hickley first appeared in the October Issue of Ledbury Focus, published by Grapevine Publications.