COP26 – A Student Perspective

This blog has been written by the Northampton High School Current Affairs Team at the culmination of COP26 to express our thoughts on it’s achievements and likelihood of its success.

COP26 For Dummies (What is it and why is it so important?)

COP stands for Conference of the Parties and they are the governing body of an international agreement; in this case, in the context of the global response to climate change. Other COP’s exist, such as for the Convention on Biological Diversity, another issue of huge environmental importance. 

COP26, hosted by the UK in Glasgow this month, has been seen as incredibly important, as countries have been asked to produce their plans to cut carbon emissions by 2030, in order to keep global warming below the 2 degree threshold; this threshold has been identified by scientists as representing more dangerous, potentially runaway, climate change. 

In the run up to the conference, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the UN body responsible for assessing the most reliable science related to climate change, released its sixth impact report, highlighting the urgency of taking immediate action; a press release summarising their findings can be found here.

What key policies have been announced?

A number of key policies have been announced as a result of negotiations at COP26; we’ve chosen a few to highlight: 

Cutting deforestation An historic deal was announced to halt deforestation by 2030 (of significance as land clearance relates to around a quarter of greenhouse emissions), coal-fired power and methane emissions. Previous agreements to tackle this have failed (notably the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests); however the signatures of countries like Brazil to the 2021 agreement, alongside the significant financial support ($14bn), gives some cause for optimism that more can be achieved this time.

Countries to go above the $100 billion target that they have to give each year to help slow down climate change.

Cutting methane – Whilst there seems to be a high degree of public awareness about the role of carbon dioxide in driving climate change, it is only recently that attention has shifted to the role of methane, which in the short term is much more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Therefore it is very significant that countries have agreed to cut 30% of methane emissions by 2030.

Phase down of coal – More than 40 countries have agreed to shift away from coal. This proved to be one of the most controversial areas within negotiations, with a late change to the agreement text from ‘phasing out’ coal to ‘phasing down’ coal, with the implication being that this allows countries reliant on coal to retain its importance within their energy mix well into the future. It is considered crucial to keep the majority of remaining coal reserves in the ground to be able to restrict warming to less than two degrees; this article by CNN summarises the current role of coal.

Who is doing well?

Of the countries analysed by Climate Action Tracker, none are yet considered to be adopting policies completely compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5o, however a small number of countries are considered to be almost sufficient, with the UK standing out as the only developed western nation in this category. This is, in part, based on efforts to decarbonise the UK’s energy sector, with 43% of electricity in 2020 being generated from renewable sources. In the lead up to COP26, the UK also launched its net zero plan for 2050, considered to be the most ambitious in the G20. 

Despite these strengths, the UK is still only ‘almost sufficient’, with the need for action to be strengthened to ensure targets are met; particularly for the UK, to increase contributions towards the $100bn climate target. There has been some controversy raised over whether a stated increase in contributions to this fund was actually new money or had previously been promised. 

Who needs to do better?

Unfortunately some countries can be observed to have engaged more with COP26 than others, with some notable world leaders not attending the conference at all, including Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil; Vladimir Putin, President of Russia and Ebrahim Raisi, President of Iran, all countries that can play a key role in the global response to climate change. President Xi Jinping did not attend in person, but did join the conference virtually, and the joint declaration by the US and China in week 2 of COP26 did seem to indicate some Chinese engagement with climate action. 

Going beyond attendance, the climate action tracker also helps to examine the policies of countries deemed as insufficient or highly insufficient at keeping warming to 1.5o. An examination of the climate action tracer highlights that Russia has made no substantial contribution to international climate finance goals, and has highly insufficient domestic targets and climate policies. Similarly, under Iran’s current targets and policies, emissions will continue to rise and are consistent with more than 4°C warming. Iran’s internationally supported target for 2030 reflects minimal to no action and is not at all consistent with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature limit. 

Amongst developed countries, Australia has been exposed to some of the sharpest criticism for its stance on the use of coal in the medium term, which the country is keen to continue exploiting for the foreseeable future, despite the significant carbon emissions associated with the dirtiest of the fossil fuels.

Final Reflections

The following are messages from the Northampton High School Current Affairs group to decision makers, such as world leaders and business leaders:

‘Time is running out to cut fossil fuels and stop deforestation, because if we don’t start saving our planet now, it will be too late.’

‘The unborn people of the future need us to protect them now.’

‘The people that don’t want a transition to clean energy are taking an economic risk (they will be left with stranded assets); they are taking a short term economic view.’

‘There are concerns over whether pledges made will transfer into action.’

‘It feels a bit late; we are changing our strategy when the game is nearly over – we need more planning ahead and urgency.’

What are your views?