What is COP26 Anyway?!

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My name is Nadia Jogee and I’m a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. I’ve been given the fantastic opportunity to spend three months working with Dynamic Earth as their Discovering the Deep Intern. That means I get to help research all the cool species that will feature in the new exhibit (keep an eye out for more news on that to come!) And - over the next two weeks I will be working with the team at Dynamic Earth to bring you all the latest news from COP26.  

As a coral reef ecologist I have a particular interest in the upcoming climate change conference. But it’s not just the future of coral reefs that hangs in the balance. The upcoming negotiations will hopefully have a positive effect on all of planet Earth. . But first of all, let’s figure out what the meeting is all about and why, exactly, should we all care? 


What is COP26? 

You might have been hearing a lot from either school, TV or social media about COP26, which is being held in Glasgow this November. But what exactly is it? Well first of all, COP is an abbreviation for the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (can you see why they shorten it?!), and it’s held once a year, with 2021 being the 26th meeting. Now that we have the confusing name out of the way, what exactly gets discussed at these conferences, and by who? 

COP meetings are an opportunity for world leaders, and their representatives, to come together in one room, albeit a very big one, and discuss how the planet can navigate the potential disasters linked to climate change. 

Over the past 26 years, the most significant of these meetings was COP21, in 2015. It was at this event that every country in the world agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. For many people this provided a glimmer of hope that the world was waking up to the importance of climate change. It became known as the Paris Agreement, and was a legally binding document. 

In order to achieve this goal, scientists strongly recommended cutting emissions by 45% by 2030, and reaching global net zero emissions by 2050. This means creating a delicate balance between the amounts of greenhouse gases emitted globally and the amount we can remove from the atmosphere. Not an easy task, especially as carbon capture technologies are currently in their infancy. In fact, the best means we have of capturing carbon has been around for millions of years – that right, trees. But with deforestation in some regions showing little signs of slowing, we need to act fast. 

Countries were therefore set individual targets to either reduce emissions or slow down the growth of fossil fuel industries and reduce deforestation rates, however, these individual targets were not legally binding. So to keep us on track it was built into the Paris Agreement that every five years countries will make new revised targets. 

Due to the global pandemic not all countries could meet last year, so it is at COP26 when countries will renew the aim of the Paris Agreement by recognising areas where we are failing and making new pledges. 

 Why Should We Care? 

Whenever there’s a big UN conference or summit it’s really easy to feel like it doesn’t matter to us as individuals. I know I’ve felt like that on more than one occasion. But COP26 really does matter to each and every one of us who call this planet home. To many of us it is a pivotal moment in human history. 

Across the globe we are seeing the ongoing and escalating impacts of the climate crisis. From wildfires in the USA, floods in Indonesia and Bangladesh, the death of coral reefs across the Indo-Pacific and, most notable of all, the melting of the ice caps – climate change is effecting every corner of planet Earth. Here in the UK many of us are lucky to so far not feel the harsh realities of climate change. But this luxury will not last ever. Already parts of the country are seeing increased flash flooding, unusual heatwaves and wetter summers caused by record breaking weather patterns. If we sit by and ignore this then these events are likely to increase in both frequency and severity. 

1.5 °C might not seem like a big difference. After all, you might think a 10 °C day in Scotland doesn’t feel much different to an 11.5 °C day. But we are not talking about small local changes, we are talking about an overall global average. Scientists are also not saying life will be peachy up until that point, unfortunately climate change is already here and wreaking havoc. However, an increase beyond 1.5 °C will have a major effect on the world’s complex weather and oceanic systems. An increase of 2 °C, and we’re at a point where life as we know it will change dramatically, with severe droughts, crop failures, wildfires and the loss of coral reefs, which support 25% of all known marine life. 

If you’re still thinking ‘this doesn’t seem like it will affect me all that much’ - then think about this.... The targets set by our government during COP26 will be the focus of their activities for the next 5 years. Thinking about what career you would like to pursue? Looking for jobs in ‘Green Industries’ might be more secure than jobs in fossil fuel industries. Trying to decide which car to buy? Electric might be a better choice. Wondering where to go on holiday? Trips closer to home might be lighter on the wallet. See where I’m going? 

The next two weeks will certainly be a tense time for many people, and not just climate activists, but those whose current livelihoods depends on fossil fuel industries. We must remember than as much as change needs to happen, we cannot leave anyone behind. 

So, as a species we have a choice. Adapt now whilst we have the chance to choose how we do so, or wait for nature to force us to adapt in ways unknown. As an ecologist I am aware that adaption is part of a species’ history on this planet and those who are unable to adapt to new conditions can see their way of life change dramatically. We, however, are the first species on planet Earth who knows this ahead of the game, who have the advantage of looking to the future and choosing how we adapt whilst minimising the number of lives that are negatively affected. 

To me this is an extraordinary opportunity. Not just one that comes along once in a lifetime, but once in a 3.5 billion year period of life on Earth. And it’s one that we should not, under any circumstances, allow to pass us by. We are all in this together, and hopefully after the 12th of November, when COP26 comes to a close, the planet can breathe a sigh of relief.

2 Nov 2021


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