What COP26 means and why the UN climate summit matters

A guide to COP26, the UN climate summit which is due to take place in Glasgow in November 2021.

Around 30,000 people were estimated to have taken part in COP25 in Madrid

Around 30,000 people were estimated to have taken part in COP25 in Madrid

What does COP26 mean?

COP26 is the annual UN climate conference. A ‘COP’ means ‘conference of parties’.

Governments and negotiators from across the world will travel to the meeting to discuss how to keep temperature rises below dangerous levels and prevent the climate crisis from causing even worse catastrophes for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

The COP is a summit of all the countries which are part of the UN’s climate change treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or ‘UNFCCC’. There are 197 members of this process and they are known as ‘parties’ to the treaty.

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Where and when is COP26 being held?

The COP26 location is the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in Glasgow, Scotland. The conference has been rearranged to take place between 1-12 November 2021 following the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK, as the host country, will hold the COP presidency.

A number of events are scheduled to be held ahead of the COP, including in Italy, which is co-hosting the summit with the UK.

The Glasgow COP climate talks will be the 26th of these conferences.

Why is COP26 important?

Next year’s COP is critical because it is the first moment when countries have to set out more ambitious goals for ending their contribution to climate change under the Paris Agreement.

This was decided at COP21, the climate conference which took place in 2015 in Paris. Governments' climate commitments are known as ‘nationally-determined contributions’ or ‘NDCs’ and are pledges made by countries themselves on the size of the cuts in emissions they will make themselves. 

Countries pledged at the Paris climate talks to work to keep temperature rises below 1.5C. If the world warms more than this threshold, millions more people in the most vulnerable communities around the globe will suffer from devastating droughts, storms, floods and other impacts of climate change.

The UK will host the COP in 2021, taking over from Chile which was the official host of COP25 – although the conference itself was held in Madrid in Spain. The UK government has the opportunity to lead the way in pushing for other countries to set more ambitious climate goals.

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Is COP26 cancelled due to coronavirus/COVID-19? 

It was announced on 1 April 2020 that COP26 will be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. COP26 will now take place between 1-12 November 2021.

Neil Thorns, Director of Advocacy at CAFOD, said:

“We have to urgently get back on track with tackling the climate emergency now that we know when COP26 will be taking place.

“As we prepare to rebuild from the coronavirus crisis, the government must press reset on our economy to put people’s welfare, the planet and nature at its heart.

“The UK has the knowledge, expertise and ability to achieve this and in doing so could genuinely lead a COP26 fit for our time.”

Who is COP26 president?

The COP presidency rotates between different regions. In 2021, the UK and Italy will jointly host the climate conference and the UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma, will be the COP26 President.

Mr Sharma was previously the International Development Secretary and takes over from Claire O’Neill who was Climate Minister under Prime Minister Theresa May and led the government’s work towards setting a net zero target in law.

What will happen at COP26 climate talks?

COP26 will be the largest gathering of world leaders ever to take place on British soil. Many thousands of other people will also gather for the COP, both inside and outside the conference centre.

Inside the conference, delegates such as politicians, diplomats and campaigners will hold formal and informal discussions. Businesses and civil society organisations such as charities will also contribute as observers to the COP process and with meetings called ‘side-events’ which will take place around the COP premises.

Discussions at COP26 are likely to focus on whether the commitments made by countries to cut emissions will be enough to halt dangerous temperature rises and get the world on track to reaching ‘net zero’ as soon as possible. The UK government set a 2050 net zero target after calls from campaigners up and down the country, including thousands of CAFOD supporters.

Negotiators will also discuss plans to provide climate finance support to countries worst hit by the climate crisis and how to help countries adapt to climate change impacts.

Outside the conference, thousands of campaigners will put pressure on COP delegates to show the ambition needed to urgently cut greenhouse gas emissions. Various events are planned, including large marches and demonstrations. More than 500,000 people were estimated to have joined a march in Madrid during COP25.

More than 500,000 people took part in a march through Madrid during the COP25 climate talks

More than 500,000 people took part in a march through Madrid during the COP25 climate talks

How can I attend COP26?

Thousands of campaigners from around the world are likely to travel to Glasgow for the COP, with many planning to undertake their journey as a pilgrimage to pray for the success of the climate talks.

Details for how to attend COP26 as part of a CAFOD group will be published soon.

What can I do to tackle the climate crisis ahead of COP26?

The UK has a key role in ensuring the COP26 talks are a success. Sign our petition to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and urge the government to make sure climate action is at the heart of its recovery plans from the pandemic.

What other big events are taking place in the 2020 ‘super year’?

A number of major global conferences on poverty, climate change and the degradation of our environment and nature have been scheduled to take place in 2020, though some of these have been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As Pope Francis has said in his encyclical letter to the world, Laudato Si’, these issues are all connected:

“We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Pope Francis

With all these international summits scheduled, people have billed 2020 as a ‘super year’. In addition to the climate change COP, these conferences include:

  1. The annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, known as CHOGM, which will be held in Kigali in Rwanda between 22-27 June. Leaders are expected to discuss the climate and environmental emergency. Faith leaders from all Commonwealth member states urged prime ministers and presidents at CHOGM in 2018 to “turn words into action” by meeting their commitments under the Paris Agreement and protecting poor communities across the Commonwealth.
  2. Governments are expected to review the world’s progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals at a ‘High-Level Political Forum’ – a meeting for senior politicians and leaders – from 7-16 July at the UN’s headquarters in New York.
  3. The UN General Assembly will mark its 75th anniversary from 15-30 September in New York at the same time as a summit for leaders on protecting Earth’s biodiversity and nature. It is likely that world leaders will reiterate the importance of working together to tackle issues such as the climate crisis.
  4. A different COP, this time on biodiversity, will take place between 15-28 October in Kunming in China. This conference of parties to a different UN agreement, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and will seek to reverse nature loss by 2030.

Some of the conferences which were scheduled to take place during the 2020 super year have been postponed due to the coronavirus crisis:

  1. A meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of a key UN document on women’s rights, known as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, was due to take place between 9-20 March in New York. Women and girls are already being disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.
  2. A summit to agree a new legal instrument for the conservation of the oceans and sea life was also scheduled to take place in New York between 23 March and 3 April. Oceans and marine life play a critical role in slowing down temperature rises with oceans absorbing huge amounts of the heat generated by climate change.

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