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In context: What is COP26?


In context: What is COP26?

And will any meaningful climate change action come of it?

For two weeks in November, Glasgow will play host to a United Nations climate change conference, known as COP26. Even with months to go before the event takes place, the hype and contention surrounding its preparation has begun in earnest.  So, what does this actually mean for Scotland, Glasgow and the world? Why is it such a big deal? 

What is COP?

Great question. It’s basically a global summit on the topic of climate change and what nations are planning to do about it. 

COP stands for Conference of the Parties, those being the 197 countries signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This year’s meeting will be the 26th session, hence COP26. Its full title is much, much longer and a bit confusing. 

Is it a big deal?

Yes, both for Glasgow and – we’re told – the wider world. It will be the biggest summit of any sort that the UK has ever hosted. And it’s been described as the most significant climate event since the 2015 Paris Agreement.

It will involve around 200 presidents and prime ministers and some 30,000 delegates coming to Scotland to take part in discussions, report back on progress since the Paris Agreement and, hopefully, make some new decisions on how to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for the impact that climate change is already having. 

The timing is said to be crucial. Scientifically and politically, 2020 is being described as our “last chance” to do something meaningful about climate change.

So the previous 25 conferences did not stop climate change?

No. In fact, in the aftermath of COP25, which took place in Madrid last year, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said he felt “disappointed” by the outcome. Others have called that conference a failure. 

A lot of the work that was meant to be completed had to be rolled over to this year’s conference, after agreement couldn’t be reached on carbon markets and financial aid for smaller, developing nations. These are now meant to be set in Glasgow.

Outside the conference hall, meanwhile, global emissions are at an all-time high and none of the big countries are on track to meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement. 

The Scottish Government has been warned by the UK Committee on Climate Change that, although ambitious carbon reduction targets have been set, it is now time for Scotland to “walk the talk” on its commitments. 

And the UN believes we have only about a decade to cut global emissions in half to safely avoid catastrophic warming. 

So, this was the context to Guterres saying: “I am more determined than ever to work for 2020 to be the year in which all countries commit to do what science tells us is necessary.”

Oh right. What are other people saying about COP26?

Well, the Scottish Government is pleased to be hosting. Climate change secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: “It is right that this conference should come to Scotland given our leadership in climate action.”

The UK Government is pleased, too and hopes that it wins recognition in Scotland for the way it “championed Glasgow”, as Scottish Secretary Alister Jack has said.

But climate campaigners are approaching it with more scepticism, hoping the conference will add pressure on the UK and Scottish governments to take greater action to meet their own targets. 

Extinction Rebellion Scotland said they want to see indigenous and ‘front line’ communities leading discussions, as they’ll be hit first.

Friends of the Earth Scotland has also warned about the presence of fossil fuel industry representatives at the conference, something that has been seen at previous COPs, so that “COP doesn’t just become a networking opportunity for our biggest polluters”. 

In a crushingly factual speech at COP25, Greta Thunberg said: “Finding holistic solutions is what COP should be all about. But instead, it seems to have turned into some kind of opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes and to avoid raising their ambitions.”

Thunberg accused countries who do not include aviation and shipping in carbon targets, or who continue to support oil extraction while engaging in progressive climate rhetoric, of “clever accounting and creative PR”.

So, plenty of independent fringe events and protests are also to be expected.

What’s Glasgow doing to prepare?

Because of the unique nature of the event, Glasgow is going to have to adapt to cope. 

For a start, it was announced that the venue, the Scottish Events Campus in Finnieston, is to be ‘handed over’ to the UN for the duration of the conference. That means any crimes which take place within the ‘blue zone’ will be investigated by Police Scotland – but prosecuted under international law.

Policing could prove to be the first area of controversy, after the Scottish Police Authority claimed the cost of policing the event and related protests could run into hundreds of millions of pounds. 

The Scottish Government has said it expects the UK Government to meet "all cost" of policing, but at this stage, all the UK Government is saying is that the "core costs" will be met. 

In the meantime, Glasgow has been promoting its aim to become the UK’s first carbon neutral city, by 2030. 

If nothing else, it’ll be an opportunity for Scotland’s green experts and innovators to show off and link up with global decision makers. 

But as Sir David Attenborough said recently: “This is not just about having nice little debates and arguments and coming away with a compromise. This is an urgent problem that has to be solved. And we know how to do it."

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