What happened at the COP 26 Climate Change Conference? Worrying or Hopeful?

If you have been following any news outlet over the past couple of weeks you would have been made aware of the COP 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.

Although you may have gathered the general gist of what it was about (i.e climate change = bad), this article provides you with the highlights of what transpired at the event. And more importantly, what does it mean for the likes of you and I.

What is the COP Climate Change Event?

In 1992 a number of countries came together to create an international treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Essentially, creating a framework for international cooperation to combat climate change and deal with its already iminent impacts.

The UNFCCC opened for signature that same year in Rio De Janeiro, collecting an impressive 196 countries’ signatures. The countries that signed the treaty are known as the Parties. Thus, the Conference of Parties (COP) was born. 

The inaugural conference, COP 1, took place in Berlin in 1995.

Who is Attending COP 26?

The COP events are attended by an array of world leaders and well-known figures. Altogether, a staggering 20,000-25,000 attendees as well as 100 world leaders, descend on the event.

World leaders of note are our very own Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, US President, Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, French President Emanuel Macron, as well as leaders from Israel, Australia, Turkey and Canada. There were several more, but you get the idea.

World leaders are not the only noteworthy figures that attend the conference. Every year an abundance of high profile celebrities grace the event with their presence, and 2021 was no different. Everybody’s favorite nature enthusiast, David Attenborough, was named as the COP 26 peoples advocate. His duties included addressing the world leaders and other attendees on the current climate crisis. Who else would you want talking to, the planet, about the planet?

Other esteemed figures included teenage activist, Greta Thunberg (who protested outside the conference) and UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutteres. Hollywood actors, Emma Watson and Leonardo Dicaprio were also in attendance. Leo has been a major player in the fight against climate change over the past 20 years, and if you are really interested in the climate crisis I would highly recommend watching his 2016 documentary, ‘Before the Flood’.

Who did not show up?

Noticeable no-shows to the COP 26 event were Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladamir Putin. These absences are significant as, not only are they two of the world’s superpowers, but also two countries that are contributing the most to the developing climate crisis (especially China). Furthermore, their absence contributes to the growing tension between the two countries and the West (i.e Europe and the US).

What is the Agenda for COP 26?

Now that we know what COP is, and who is going, it’s time to dive into the important part: what is going to be discussed at the event?

Only two months ago the UNs IPCC Report labelled global warming as a “code red for humanity” (yes, that is slightly alarming). So, with good reason, COP 26 is being described as the most important climate summit to date. The main talking points being explored throughout the pivotal convention are:

  1. Transition from coal to clean power
  2. Protect and restore nature
  3. Accelerate the the transition to zero emission vehicles
  4. Financing Climate Action

These three key talking points are geared toward the overall goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Substantial progress has been made in recent months towards realising this goal. However, considerably more must be done for 1.5 degrees to be achievable. To put that into context, current projections have the planets temperature rising by 3 degrees by 2100, which will result in irreversible damage i.e constant floods, severe droughts, rising sea level, deteriorated biodiversity etc.

I understand this apocalyptic talk is pretty heavy, unfortunately, it is reality (for now).

Talking Points from COP 26

The two week event started off somewhat comically. There was outrage as 400 vip jets converged on Glasgow for the conference.

Jeff Bezos, and his $65 million gulf stream jet, along with hundreds of other private jets, carrying thousands of world leaders and dignitaries descended on COP 26. The abundance of private jets forced empty planes to fly 30 miles to find a parking space. This sparked outrage. Mainly due to the fact that the average private jet emits two tonnes of CO2 for every hour in flight. Yes, the irony is overwhelming.

Ending Deforestation

The first noteworthy agreement came on the first day of the conference. More than 100 countries pledged to halt deforestation and reverse land degradation by 2030. The agreement was backed up by $19 billion in public and private funds to invest in protecting and restoring the forests. The countries that stood behind the agreement collectively make up 85% of the world’s forests.

Forests are the Earth’s natural cooling agents. They absorb carbon dioxide greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, preventing them from warming the climate.

However, climate agreements are rarely accepted across the board. Indonesia stated that they may not abide by this deal to end deforestation by 2030. Indonesia’s Environment minister, Siti Nurnaya Bakar, described the deal as “inappropriate and unfair. She expressed that Indonesia’s vast natural resources must be used for the benefit of its people.

Ending the Use of Coal

Burning coal is the single biggest contributor to climate change. There was quite a lot of positive talk around “the end of coal”. Countries such as Poland, Vietnam and Chile, for the first time ever, pledged to phase out the fossil fuel.

It can seem quite daunting for people here in Ireland. It appears that warm, cosy nights in front of a roaring fire are being phased out. I don’t know how to feel about that.

Anyways, similar to deforestation, not everyone was playing ball. India, the second largest producer, and user, of coal, has not committed to ending their use of the fossil fuel. India is industrialising, their economy is growing, so too is their need for electricity. They need all of the power they can obtain, coal provides this power.

Australia and China are also not set on halting domestic coal protection. Furthermore, whilst there have been positive ‘commitments’ toward phasing out coal, actual agreements have not been made. It would seem the fate of coal will rely on individual countries’ ability to operate without it.

Lowering Methane Emissions

You may have become aware of methane after watching a certain Netflix documentary. If you are not familiar with the documentary, let me explain. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is released into the atmosphere through the extraction, production and transport of fossil fuels.

However, methane emissions are also released as a result of livestock and agricultural practices. More specifically, every time a cow passes wind – something we are accustomed to here – it releases methane into the air.

Methane accounts for a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. COP 26 saw the US and the EU put forward The Global Methane Pledge, to reduce methane emissions and slow warming. The pledge promises to cut methane emission levels by 30% by 2030.

This small change could decrease both the severity and frequency of extreme weather events. But, yes you guessed it, there is a downside. This pledge may have a negative effect on farmers globally, as their herds may have to be lessened. This could result in the inflation of agricultural products so that farmers avoid heavy losses.

Financing the Change

Unfortunately, all of this Earth-saving change is, in fact, not free. I know right, shocking! So, what exactly is being done to help finance this change? 

The EU, alongside the European Investment Bank and Bill Gates, have launched a programme to finance breakthrough climate innovation. The EU Catalyst Programme, worth €1 billion, will finance new technologies, and their roll-out across Europe.

Japan committed an extra $10 billion to climate relief over five years. Britain and the US are among five countries, and a group of global charities, that have promised $1.7 billion to support indigenous people’s conservation of forests and strengthen their land rights. All of the planet’s big economic players need to pay their part to ensure the goal of 1.5 degrees remains in reach.

US and China Agreement

Although Chinese leader Xi Jinping did not attend the event, China’s climate change envoy, Xie Zhenhua, was in Glasgow. One of the biggest talking points from week 2 of the conference was an agreement made between Mr Xie and US climate envoy, John Kerry. China and the US are the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses on the planet.

Both countries issued a joint statement where they vowed to do more to cut emissions this decade. In their words they agreed to “enhance ambition on climate change”. This is a significant step as it is the first time China has committed to addressing methane emissions. However, I wouldn’t be too quick to hand out praise. Although they have agreed to cut methane emissions, China has not joined the methane pledge put forward by Joe Biden in week 1. China also agreed to phase down coal from 2026 onwards.

Climate Deal

Talks between world leaders went into overtime at the end of COP 26, running into the weekend. The leaders were ironing out the details to a new climate deal. The overall agreement is entered into by all the countries in attendence. The deal asks countries to republish their climate action plans with more ambitious emission reduction targets by 2030. Some of the highlights of the agreement were:

  • Developed countries to pledge $100 billion to developing countries that suffer the most from climate change.
  • It is the first ever climate deal to explicitly plan to reduce coal, the worst fossil fuel for greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It is the first time there has been a roadmap included on how to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

The UN Secretary General said the planet is “hanging by a thread”, and it is time to go into emergency mode. Countries will meet again next year to pledge carbon cuts with a view toward reaching the 1.5 degrees goal, under current pledges we will only limit global warming to 2.4 degrees.

Although all of these pledges and agreements are positive, they are not legally binding. The majority of the commitments made at the conference are self-policed, only a few are legally binding. So, unfortunately, only time (which we don’t have a lot of) will tell whether countries will keep their promises or not. It is a dangerous waiting game. By the time we realise some countries are not playing their part, it could be too late to do anything about it. 

Ireland at COP 26

Taoiseach, Micheál Martin attended the conference and met with other world leaders such as Emanuel Macron and Joe Biden. The Taoiseach addressed the conference outlining what Ireland is doing in the fight against climate change.

In his address, Mr Martin stated, “farming will have to change, energy will have to change and transport will have to change”.

Furthermore, he expressed Ireland’s willingness to sign a pledge to cut methane emissions by 30%. However, this was a global target, not a national one. Ireland is one of 80 countries entering this pledge.

The Taoiseach also highlighted Ireland’s readiness to accept the obligation for richer countries to support nations that are more harshly impacted by climate change. Ireland pledged €225 million to aid developing countries.

Outside of COP 26, the Irish government published a Climate Action Plan, three days after the Taoiseach’s address. This document includes a Carbon Budget setting out how each sector is going to contribute to the overall national climate goals. These goals include: 

  • reducing the state’s greenhouse emissions by 51% by 2030 and 
  • becoming climate neutral by 2050. 

I would recommend reading this action plan for greater insight into the agenda.

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Ronan Kirby

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