Perhaps you’ve heard rumblings of the Paris Agreement or countries getting together to talk about climate change sometime soon under the banner of the United Nations. Amidst the maelstrom of daily life, it’s honestly hard to remember. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Even people who have spent a lot of time thinking about and acting on climate change often have no idea about the United Nations climate process—which, unfortunately, happens to be both one of the most important and most confusing things happening on the planet. World leaders and hordes of negotiators are gearing up for what’s known as COP26, which is less than a month away. It’s likely the world’s best shot to finally start winding down greenhouse gas emissions tied to burning fossil fuels. Here’s your primer to understand what the heck this COP26 thing is, what on the Earth the UNFCCC is, and why you should care about what happens. Welcome to COP101!
COP is an acronym for “Conference of Parties.” In UNspeak, a COP is analogous to a meeting of Congress or another legislative body, except they’re just talking about climate change all the time. (Imagine if Congress were like that!) In climate land, COPs convene to deal with matters related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which is the big UN treaty that dictates that countries need to come together to figure out this whole how to stop this whole global warming thing.
Once a year, representatives from all the countries in the treaty gather in the same physical space to hammer out international climate change action and policy related to the UNFCCC. COP26 is the specific name of this year’s big climate change meeting that is slated to take place this fall.
Yep. The UNFCCC was created in 1992, when 154 countries signed a new treaty about climate change. That treaty went into effect in 1994. The first COP happened in 1995 in Berlin, and COPs have met almost every year since then. (The math is slightly off because last year’s COP got postponed due to the pandemic.)
The scale of the problem is not only pretty big (duh), but the UN process is, let’s be charitable and say, pretty convoluted. Most COPs are filled with long discussions about minute technical details that pertain to different UN rules and parameters. Some COPs are basically devoted mostly to figuring out technical details of particular agreements.
In between all this procedure, you’ve got some pretty big questions to answer, like how (and if) to hold bigger countries accountable for their fair share of global carbon emissions; how much financial aid smaller countries should get; and what the world can realistically accomplish versus what science says we need to do. When you have nearly 200 countries, all with their own interests, clamoring for input on issues large and small, you have a recipe for consensus being tough to attain and many meetings. Civil society and even fossil fuel companies also show up to try and influence the talks, adding yet another layer. (Unfortunately, leaders seem to listen to the latter more than the former so far.)
Glasgow is where this year’s COP is being held, since the UK is hosting COP. Every year, the “presidency” of a COP—the country that runs the show and basically makes sure everyone gets along and stuff gets done—switches, and the meeting is generally held in a city within that country. That said, recent COPs have been held in countries other than the host. Chile held the presidency of COP25, but it moved the conference to Spain due to protests about rising inequality. (Chile was only the host because Brazil backed out after Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency.)
But usually, the name of the city where talks are held is synonymous with that particular COP. In 2015, France was the host of COP15, which is how we got the name of the Paris Agreement.
At the Paris COP, 192 countries came to an agreement to get the world off fossil fuels and to try and avoid, at maximum, 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of additional warming by the end of this century. The agreement sets an aspirational target of avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming as well thanks to the advocacy of small island nations. As part of the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to submit their own plans that would detail how much they plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
This kind of agreement may sound very basic, but it was a huge deal for the UN process. Back in 2009, countries were hoping to reach a similar agreement, but the negotiations, instead, ended dramatically on the last day of the conference in what amounted to a diplomatic meltdown. Agreeing on this stuff is tough!
Paris was never meant to be the final word on how the world would tackle climate change. Consider it more of a starter blueprint. The agreement is modeled on countries submitting increasingly aggressive plans for cutting emissions every couple of years. We’ve also seen in the intervening years how fragile the agreement is. The Paris Agreement is a comparatively bare-bones agreement to do something about rising greenhouse gas emissions.
But it’s also nonbinding, which is why former President Donald Trump was able to pull the U.S. out with no sanctions or penalties. It’s also why President Joe Biden could just rejoin it and submit a new pledge like nothing happened.
Each of the 192 countries who have signed on to the Paris Agreement will send a cohort of delegates to represent them in the negotiations. It’s a lot of people: Around 20,000 delegates are registered to attend. This year, 120 heads of state are expected to come, too. These folks will spend much of the two weeks in meetings.
The actual negotiations are closed to the public, but there’s a lot of activity that goes on outside the meetings as well. Thousands of spectators from what’s known as “observer organizations”—NGOs, youth organizations, businesses, policy groups—come to COP to cheer the delegates and the process on, try and goad them one way or another, and generally involve themselves in the negotiations as much as possible from the sidelines.
A lot of these groups put on demonstrations, discussions, and other events—many including celebrities and world leaders that get a lot of news attention and can, to some extent, inform what’s going on in discussions. Countries can also put on their own events, some of which can be pretty telling about those countries’ priorities inside the negotiations. (At COP24, the Trump administration put on a woefully sad panel entirely devoted to defending coal.)
There are a couple of key benchmarks in the Paris Agreement that will feature in this year’s negotiations, so this COP isn’t going to be all about technical details—we’re sure to see some throwdowns and fights over big issues.
Perhaps equally importantly, there’s also been a lot of science and research since we’ve last held a COP that illustrates the urgency of acting as quickly as possible on climate. The International Energy Agency said earlier this year that all new fossil fuel exploration needed to end entirely by 2022 in order to keep us under 1.5 degrees Celsius (F). And in August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, another UN body, released a report outlining just how much the planet has changed—and how serious things are going to get if we don’t act now. It’s sufficient to say that the global atmosphere around climate change probably hasn’t been this intense going into any other COP.
Not to exaggerate, but there’s a lot riding on this particular COP. If the UN can buck the trend of seeming every meeting ending with contentious non-agreements and come together in a rare moment of unity, we’ll have a strong framework to work with as we figure out how to get emissions down over the next couple of years. If business proceeds as usual, well... cross your fingers.
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