By Jonas Hermans, S6ENB, ESF
There has been a lot of conversation around this year’s COP in Glasgow, but what is it exactly, and why is it so important?
What is COP?
COP stands for the Conference of the Parties, which is a yearly summit held by the United Nations, revolving around an international treaty known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UFCCC). The goal of this treaty is to prevent human activity from having a dangerous effect on the planet’s climate, ecosystems and biodiversity, with a focus on stabilising the emission of greenhouse gases.
The first COP was held in Berlin in 1995, and this year’s conference, co-hosted by the United Kingdom and Italy, and taking place in Glasgow, marks the twenty-sixth summit, after last year’s COP was postponed due to the pandemic. The conference started on November 1st, and negotiations will last until November 12th, with world leaders from almost 200 countries attending, some of which are supportive of climate policies, while others remain hesitant. Interest groups and NGOs like Fridays for Future and Greenpeace are also converging in Glasgow. It is the largest climate event since the Paris COP21 in 2015, when world leaders came to an agreement for the first time in the history of the Conference of the Parties. But why is this year’s COP so relevant?
In 2015, world leaders produced a document known as the Paris Agreement, in which almost every country in the world pledged to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, aiming to keep 1.5 degrees in reach by 2050. However, since the Paris Agreement, the pledges being made have been moving in a negative direction.
Current targets for over 100 countries attending the COP have been calculated to result in a 16% increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030; a far cry from the 45% decrease needed to reach 1.5 degrees by 2050. COP26 is also the first conference since the Paris Agreement where countries are required to renew the promises they made, known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDC’s. These promises need to include drastic changes in almost every industry, because the future of our planet’s stability depends on it.
Since the 1800’s, human activity has been the main driver of rapid climate change, and we are witnessing the effects of that now. The last decade was the warmest on record, with an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events like wildfires, floods, droughts and hurricanes, as well as record loss of ice from the Arctic.
If we continue to rapidly change our climate, scientists predict that much worse will happen. People living in less economically developed countries in the global south will be the hardest hit, with many being forced to migrate as more and more frequent extreme climate disasters make their countries impossible to live in. Countless ecosystems will die, and many more species will go extinct while rapidly rising sea-levels will swallow our coastlines and the homes of the 2.4 billion people who live there.
If we do not address the crisis we are facing immediately, the situation could become irreversible, as scientists predict that more than 1.5-2 degrees of global warming compared to pre-industrial levels would push the Earth past a tipping point that we are extremely unlikely to be able to undo. The Earth is currently 1.2 degrees warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution, providing world leaders with a small window of opportunity to act, with many considering COP26 to be a last chance to set in motion the changes needed to keep the world below 2 degrees of warming by 2050.
What’s being done
To reach that goal, every country must reach net-zero emissions in all societal sectors, especially agriculture, energy, construction, forestry, industry and transport. This means that the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being released is equal to the amount of greenhouse gases being recaptured from the atmosphere. To feasibly achieve this, we must decrease our emissions by 45% by 2050 relative to 2010, and heavily invest in carbon removal technology, as well as preserving and adding natural carbon removers like rainforests and wetlands. The energy model currently being used cannot support that change, as we need to stop using coal and gas immediately, and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power must account for 70 to 80% of energy production. There are many barriers in the way of this transition and overcoming them will require strong policies and large-scale investment in research and development.
Climate disaster is not inevitable. It is perhaps the biggest challenge society has ever faced, and it will require drastic measures to prevent, but there is still hope. We have the technology and the options to transition to a sustainable societal model, we just need strong and capable leadership to do so. World leaders in Glasgow need to put the planet and the people living on it first. Our future depends on it.