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What Is COP26 and Why Is It Important?

Everything you need to know about COP26 Glasgow, the world's most important (and confusing) climate conference.

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Protesters march during the U.N. Climate Summit on November 10, 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom.
Protesters march during the U.N. Climate Summit on November 10, 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom.
Photo: Peter Summers (Getty Images)

Gizmodo has reporters on the ground at the UN climate talks in Glasgow. This page is updated regularly to include the latest news and stories from COP26. Last update 11/10/21 4:15 p.m. ET.

At a glance:

  • What is COP26? It’s the 26th annual UN Climate Change Conference.
  • When is COP26? It began on Oct. 31 and continues until Nov. 12.
  • Where is COP26? It’s being held in Glasgow, Scotland, UK.
  • What does COP26 stand for? Conference of Parties 26
  • Why is COP26 important? Why you should care about the UN Climate Talks.

The latest COP26 news:


What is COP26?

COP is an acronym for “Conference of Parties.” In UN-speak, a COP is analogous to a meeting of Congress or another legislative body, except they’re just talking about climate change all the time. 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 how to stop global warming.


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.

Who is attending COP26?

Each of the 192 countries who have signed on to the Paris Agreement have sent a cohort of delegates to represent them in the negotiations. It’s a lot of people: Around 20,000 delegates and 120 heads of state registered to attend. President Joe Biden is there along with 13 cabinet members and his top climate advisers Gina McCarthy and John Kerry.

Read More: We Talked to Congressional Republicans at UN Climate Talks About Their ‘Rational Approach’

In the video below, you can watch highlights from the “World Leaders Summit” at COP26, including speeches from Boris Johnson, Joe Biden, David Attenborough and many more world leaders and climate activists. (A number of key prime ministers and presidents, though, decided to skip the opening leaders summit.)

So, does the “26” mean there were 25 other COPs?

Yes. 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. (Last year’s COP got postponed due to the pandemic.)


That’s a lot of meetings. Why haven’t we fixed climate change by now?

The scale of the problem is not only pretty big, but the UN process is 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.)


If it’s called COP26, what is the Glasgow conference? 

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.

What is 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!

If the world signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, shouldn’t we be done with these meetings by now?

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.

What is happening at COP26? 

Negotiators are working on a lot of different mechanisms meant to help countries report climate targets and communicate with each other, including setting common timeframes for NDCs and a common transparency framework that helps countries see each other’s progress and build trust that everyone is doing their climate homework. They are also discussing how to carry out promises made on climate finance, specifically how wealthier countries take on responsibility for helping poorer ones transition their economies and adapt to climate change.


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.

Oxfam activists dressed as a Scottish pipe band and representing (L-R) French President Emmanuel Macron, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during their “Big Heads” protest at the Royal Exchange Square in Glasgow on November 1, 2021 on the sidelines of the COP26 UN Climate Summit.
Oxfam activists dressed as a Scottish pipe band and representing (L-R) French President Emmanuel Macron, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during their “Big Heads” protest at the Royal Exchange Square in Glasgow on November 1, 2021 on the sidelines of the COP26 UN Climate Summit.
Photo: Oli SCARFF / AFP (Getty Images)

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.) 

Why is COP26 important? 

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.

Read more: Democratic Senators Assure UN Negotiators Build Back Better Is ‘Very Close’ to Passing

Will things change after COP26? Are we going to fix climate change?

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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