When you look at the history of the climate crisis, you can’t help but shake your head. This is not a new issue — the world has had too many chances to avoid the apocalyptic hellscapes of fireballs and ash clouds currently being seen across Turkey, Greece, China, and the US.

From the first scientists to warn then-US President Lyndon Johnson about rising temperatures in 1965 to the inaugural, flawed international treaty in 1997 where governments first pledged to reduce greenhouse gases, leaders have been spoiled with opportunities for early action. Too often, these moments have been unduly wasted.

So what’s different about COP26? The climate summit being co-hosted in Glasgow by the British and Italian governments  this November has been held up as one of humanity’s last chances to slow global warming. But why is it any different from what has come before — and how come everyone keeps saying that it's so important?

The summit has been hailed as the biggest climate moment since the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015, the historic treaty signed by 196 countries that agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, although preferably below 1.5 degrees.

The timing couldn’t be more crucial. Here’s everything you need to know about COP26 — and why the summit is a moment where the world simply can’t afford to fail.

3 Key Facts About COP26

  • Up to 200 world leaders and an estimated 36,000 delegates could be set to attend.
  • The key goal of COP26 is to keep a temperature rise limit of 1.5 degrees within reach — otherwise the ecological consequences would be catastrophic.
  • There are just nine years left to limit the worst consequences of the climate crisis before the destruction becomes irreversible

What Is COP26?

It’s an annual climate summit convened by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a climate body of the UN. 

COP stands for Conference of the Parties — meaning a gathering of countries — and 2021 will be the 26th time that it’s taken place. Hence: COP26.

Countries across rotating global regions take it in turns to host the summit. This time around, the UK and Italy partnered up to win the bid. That means that they are officially known as the COP Presidents — and take up responsibility to host the event. This time around, it will be hosted in Glasgow, Scotland, after being delayed from November 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COP26 will last 12 days, running from Oct 31 to Nov 12. Some of the key conversations will be around net-zero emissions targets, policies to help vulnerable communities adapt to the consequences of the climate crisis, and how to pay for it all.

Why Is the Timing of COP26 So Important?

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report, a "code red for humanity” which confirmed that without radical reductions in carbon emissions this decade, temperature rises above 1.5 degrees would be inevitable and irreversible. Right now, the planet is 1.1 degrees hotter than it was between 1850 and 1900.

It was a stark warning of what might happen if COP26 doesn’t come through with serious commitments to radical action. COP26 also takes on a special significance as the fifth summit since the Paris Agreement, which according to the treaty, means countries must come with their updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

This basically refers to the commitments a country makes to reduce its carbon emissions. Every five years, signatories to the Paris Agreement must put forward updated plans with the highest possible level of ambition. COP26 is that next milestone. For a deep dive into why NDCs are important, head here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented the world with a weird, unique opportunity. Lockdown measures to contain the virus resulted in the largest global recession since World War Two, and some countries are preparing to fight back with historic levels of public spending that will aim to get their economies back on track. That spending can either acknowledge the climate crisis through green investment — or it can be used to return to business as usual.

Will leaders at COP26 take advantage of this opportunity? Only time will tell.

What Do Activists Want to Happen at COP26?

Many activists are calling for the same thing: for countries to meaningfully commit to the global environmental movement known as a Green New Deal.

That can mean slightly different things for different countries, but there's some common themes: a complete societal transformation that decarbonises the economy with a focus on green jobs and global climate justice.

If every wealthy country followed through on this, the international outlook would look completely different. But with lots of governments adopting the language of the radical, such as talk of a Green Industrial Revolution, it's important to check the policies. Not all green revolutions are created equal.

Meanwhile, the Climate Coalition — Britain's largest group of people dedicated to action against climate change, of which Global Citizen is a member — has put forward an action plan of asks to the UK government ahead of COP26 that focuses on mitigation, adaptation, and addressing irreversible losses.

That means calls for leadership on closing the gap to 1.5 degrees, addressing the damage already done, increasing climate finance to help the poorest countries adapt, supporting a just transition to green energy, and much more.

"COP26 is a critical moment in history," said Marie Rumsby, Global Citizen's UK Country Director. "It could be a turning point. But without radical pledges to reduce emissions and ensure climate justice — more ambitious than we've ever seen before — the world won't come close. We're running out of time to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis."

How Are Countries Already Showing Leadership?

At this juncture it’s perhaps useful to divide the answer up into what countries are currently doing, and what countries are saying they’re going to do.

Take the UK, for example. On paper, the COP26 hosts have world-leading climate targets: it was the first country in the world to set a legally-binding target to hit net-zero emissions by 2050, and in December increased their ambition on reductions with a pledge to cut 68% of its emissions in contrast to 1990 levels.

But actions speak louder than words. As co-hosts for COP26, leaders representing the UK have frequently spoken of how they want to lead the world on climate ambition. And yet at the same time, the UK has approved a new oil field in the North Sea, is considering opening its first new coal mine in 30 years, and has slashed its aid budget by billions, cutting climate projects and abandoning communities who will be at the forefront of consequences from rising temperatures.

Across the Atlantic, the picture is mixed. The US certainly wins the “most improved” medal — from pulling out of the Paris Agreement under its former president to a $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill proposed by Joe Biden that includes a range of green measures. But compromises made in the Senate has meant that many of the environmental aspects have reportedly been watered down. 

China and India were among dozens of countries to miss the extended UN deadline to submit their updated climate plans on reducing emissions ahead of an assessment on the Paris Agreement for COP26. China is the world’s largest carbon emitter — more than the US and the EU combined — and although the country pledged to hit net-zero emissions by 2060, and take a lead on clean energy technologies, it’s still building new coal plants.

Elsewhere in Europe, Germany has a critical general election coming up in September, ahead of COP26, where Angela Merkel will step down after 16 years as chancellor. The country’s Green party was initially riding high in the polls, signalling that climate could be an important election issue, but their ratings have since faltered.

But even when it comes to following through on old promises, let alone making new ones, the lack of leadership is stark. World leaders pledged in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion a year for low-income countries to incentivise clean economic growth and help vulnerable communities adapt to the climate crisis. But Global Citizens are still demanding that countries cough up.

What Can You Do to Help?

Get taking action! 

Head to our climate action headquarters here to see how you can make a difference — whether that’s signing petitions urging world leaders, businesses, and philanthropists to do better on the climate crisis, sending emails to G20 ministers to protect natural ecosystems like forests, or shooting off messages to countries like the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands to help farmers adapt to temperature rises.

You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defeat poverty and defend the planet by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.

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Defend the Planet

What Is COP26 — and Why Is the Summit a Critical Moment For Leadership on the Climate Crisis?

By James Hitchings-Hales