Cop26 Q&A: What is it, who will be there, and can it save our planet?

The United Nations Climate Change Conference is widely seen as the last chance to avoid catastrophic damage to Earth

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which launches on October 31st, will dominate world news with heightened expectation that it will trigger a strong global response to an already-happening climate crisis.

What is COP26?

Almost every country in the world will attend the 26th gathering under the UN "conference of the parties". The 13-day long summit, which will be held in Glasgow, is billed as the last chance to put the world on track to avoid catastrophic damage to Earth due to vast quantities of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. The conference is the only global mechanism to galvanise action in addressing this human-caused damage to planet Earth.

Who will be there?

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Superpowers will sit alongside tiny island states from the South Pacific; immensely wealthy countries, who have contributed most to the crisis, will be across the table from impoverished states from sub-Saharan Africa, who are least to blame.

What is at stake?

The impacts of human-caused overheating of the planet is predicted to persist for centuries but threaten the existence of humankind much sooner.

If global temperature rise continues to accelerate and carbon emissions are not dramatically cut, the world faces a temperature rise of 2.7 degrees and an overwhelming sea-level surge this century. No place on Earth will be safe, Ireland included.

Yet many climate scientists agree the worst effects can be avoided by swift action. It’s possible to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees – the key target of the Paris Agreement forged by those same 195 countries at COP21 in 2015. That is provided ambition is ratcheted up. What’s more, solutions exist.

What will happen at the conference?

With upwards of 20,000 people gathered in the one place, a COP looks at first glance like a recipe for chaos. Numerous briefings, report launches, press conferences, protests, stunts, corporates trying to show off their newly-found green credentials and harrowing stories of climate disruption take place from morning into late evening in crowded venues – with many happening simultaneously.

One minute a minister is trying to defend his country's expansionist fossil fuel policy, the next a pastor from Fiji is making a plea for help as a voyager way of life existing for centuries is threatened by rising seas – or climate activist Greta Thunberg is delivering her latest curt condemnation of dithering politicians.

So, will people work together to find a solution?

A fully-fledged COP somehow restores faith in humanity. Instead of unbridgeable differences, common ground suggests global citizens can in unison restore a scarred Earth, though the clock is ticking faster and faster.

Meanwhile, heads of state, ministers, negotiators, advisers and diplomats are ensconced away from the madding crowd. Here optimism is more tempered. Painstaking work is conducted behind closed doors and the mood ebbs and flows in pursuit of agreement.

Can we expect an agreement?

All too often the outcome has meant disappointment and, more recently, despair as the interlinked crises of a climate emergency; biodiversity loss and pollution arising from excesses of consumerism are getting worse. The Paris pact left too much to interpretation and failed to provide a mechanism to drive urgent action.

Will Covid measures impact the event?

Covid-19 will cast a shadow over COP26. There will be less “all in this together” sessions. Many elements will be partially online and many delegates from poorer countries where vaccinations rates are low may not travel. As hosts, the UK government resisted calls to postpone the talks, insisting it can be a safe and inclusive gathering where all voices are heard.

What actions would help deliver a meaningful agreement?

A great trust builder between rich, big emitter states and developing countries would be delivering the long-promised $100 billion a year to help vulnerable states. A decision to “consign coal to history” would improve mood music. Likewise stopping fossil fuel extraction and withdrawing trillions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies that add fuel to the fire of the climate crisis – big asks.

And how will targets be set and measured?

Declaring “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) is the mechanism for setting targets. Many countries (including Ireland) are promising to halve emissions by 2030 and to achieving “net-zero” emissions by 2050 under this heading, but all big emitter states must be onboard.

The financial foundations to decarbonise the world needs to be clear, indicating direction of travel for green investment backed by robust carbon trading markets.

Methane is a superwarming gas that traps 80 times the heat of CO2. Cutting its production in oil and gas extraction, landfills and agriculture can deliver the quickest climate win. The US and EU have agreed to a 30 per cent cut by 2030. If this prompts a global agreement, it will be a great day’s work – though challenging for Ireland’s agrifood sector.

So is there cause for hope?

If scaled-up innovation and new collaborative thinking are evident during COP26, it will be a good omen. As US climate envoy John Kerry has repeated, "no one country can solve this" – but all too often states act out of self-interest.

There is talk of a novel mechanism to buy out polluting coal plants in developing countries, while some of the world’s biggest companies are signing up for a “First Movers Coalition” to scrub notoriously dirty industries including aviation, steel, cement, trucking and shipping – potential levers of big action. But optimism is easily countered by reality; carbon emissions are predicted to rise by 16 per cent by 2030, rather than fall by half to keep global heating under the agreed limit of 1.5 degrees.

What role will Greta Thunberg play?

Thunberg, who will be in Glasgow, is demanding radical solutions and far quicker decarbonisation. She relentlessly highlights “the growing gap between promised NDCs and meaningful action” and has excoriated global leaders touting promises to address the climate emergency, dismissing them as “blah, blah, blah”.

No one should underestimate her ability to prompt mass protests across the globe, even bigger than marches in pre-Covid days when many millions took to the streets and spoke in one voice. Impatience at the failure to act has moved up several notches since and is concentrated in the generation about to inherit a tarnished planet. Consequently, the world has reached a tipping point and is crying out for great urgency – matched by what Pope Francis has called for; unprecedented co-operation "in the healing of the planet".