What is COP26?

“COP” stands for “Conference of the Parties” – that is, the countries that have signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). COP26 is the 26th meeting of those parties. This is essentially a global climate summit where most of the world’s leaders will meet to see if they can agree faster action to tackle climate change (discussed below).

COP26 will be hosted by the UK (in partnership with Italy) and held in Glasgow on 31 October to 12 November. See here for the COP26 main agenda.

In addition to the main events at the conference, there will also be a number of fringe events happening alongside the conference including the COP26 “Green Zone” which is open to the public – see here for the Green Zone agenda.

With just under a month left to go before COP26 starts, we have seen a number of countries, investors, corporates and other organisations make a series of climate announcements and beef up their climate pledges. We can expect to see more of those type of announcements throughout COP. Think of it as lightening rod for climate announcements!

What’s the big deal about a 1.5°C-2°C increase in global temperature?

The Paris Agreement was agreed at a COP in Paris in 2015. Under the Paris Agreement, a number of countries agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. So when we talk about a business’ operations or an asset manager’s portfolio being “Paris-aligned”, it means the targets they have set are intended to help ensure that global temperature does not go beyond a 1.5°C to 2°C increase.

A 1.5°C to 2°C increase in global temperatures may sound like a really small increase but the world’s leading scientists believe this is the range at which life on Earth will get very hard indeed and where we’ll reach a number of “tipping points” – i.e. catastrophic changes to the planet’s climate that either cannot be reversed or which will be very difficult and/or expensive to reverse. David Attenborough explains this in plain English in the BBC’s “Climate Change – The Facts” 1-hour TV programme.

When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, it was still thought that a 2°C increase in global temperature would mean that things would be relatively bearable across the globe. However, a more recent climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (which brings together the world’s leading climate scientists) has made it clear that what we really need to be aiming for is a maximum of a 1.5°C because if it gets to a 2°C increase then the frequency and severity of things like storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and sea level rises will be much nastier than we thought. And it will be far more difficult and expensive to deal with the consequences if we let climate change get to that level (see our previous blog post). The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, described the report’s findings as “code red for humanity”.

The IPCC has warned that the goals of the Paris Agreement will be missed without deep and rapid cuts to greenhouse gas emissions (in particular carbon emissions but also other potent GHGs like methane). According to the IPCC’s best case scenario (i.e. even with deep reductions in GHGs), we’re expected to reach the 1.5C increase by 2040. According to one of the report’s lead authors, Piers Forster: “If the world can substantially reduce emissions in the 2020s and get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, temperature rise can still be limited to 1.5C”. 

This is why there is so much talk of reducing emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. And why this decade is being heralded as the “make-or-break decade” for climate action.

Why is COP26 important?

The UNFCCC recently published a report on countries’ latest climate action plans, which has found that these may lead to a temperature rise of about 2.7°C by the end of the century. The UNFCCC Synthesis report analysed the available Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of all 191 Parties in the Paris Agreement. NDCs are the efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Under the Paris Agreement, NDCs must be submitted every five years, with this year being a key year for more ambitious NDCs.

We are currently at a 1.1°C increase in global temperatures at the moment and on track to reach about 2.7°C by the end of the century unless collectively we do something drastic to change the dial. We are rapidly running out of time to reduce GHG emissions sufficiently to keep things at a 1.5C increase.

This is why this particular COP is even more important than the previous ones. What we saw this summer with heatwaves, wildfires and floods in countries like the US, Canada, China, Germany and Greece are just a taste of things to come.

Coming next

This is the first in a series of blog posts and other materials about COP26. 

For more information on COP26 and related posts, see: