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COP26: Everything you need to know

In this article we’ll outline the expectations, outcomes and impacts of COP26.
Green News
2024-01-13T00:00:00.000Z
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As international concern over climate change and its devastating impacts heightened, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference - more commonly referred to as COP26 - emerged as a pivotal event, drawing intense global attention. Hosted in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 to November 12, 2021, COP26 was not just another summit but a defining moment in international climate change cooperation. It signalled a collective sense of urgency and offered renewed hope for global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the significance of COP26, calling it "the most important climate conference since Paris." This statement alone set high expectations, however, as is always the case with COP, meaningful progress is never guaranteed, and so many doubted whether COP26 would live up to expectations and deliver binding agreements crucial for limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

This article examines what was achieved at COP26, exploring its key objectives, the discussions that unfolded, and the outcomes that have since shaped global climate action. 

👉 In this article we’ll outline the expectations, outcomes, and impacts of COP26. 

What is COP26?

COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of the Parties. It’s part of a series of global summits that play an important role in addressing climate change on a global scale. 

The term 'Parties' refers to the 197 countries that are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty established in 1992. COP26, specifically, marks the 26th annual session since the convention's inception.

The history of COP

COP was established as part of the UNFCCC during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a groundbreaking global environmental policy event. This convention set the framework for international cooperation to combat global warming by limiting average global temperature increases and adapting and mitigating the impacts of climate change. 

The first COP meeting (COP1) was held in Berlin in 1995, and since then, these conferences have been hosted annually in different locations worldwide. 

The climate change conference serves as a platform where world leaders, negotiators, and stakeholders come together to review the implementation of the UNFCCC and discuss new commitments to further the objectives of the treaty. Over the years, COP summits have led to significant milestones in climate change policy, including the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol at COP3 in 1997 and the landmark Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015.

👉 To learn more about the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement, head over to our articles on these important international agreements. 

COP26, therefore, was not just another conference but a continuation of a long-standing and evolving global effort to address one of the most pressing issues of our time. It represented a crucial opportunity for nations to review past commitments, reassess current strategies, and set more ambitious targets to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Key historical COP achievements

The 1997 COP3 in Kyoto, Japan: The Kyoto Protocol

COP3, held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, was a groundbreaking event in international climate diplomacy. It led to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect in 2005. This protocol was the first legally binding climate treaty, setting targets for 38 industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. These countries committed to an average reduction of 5.2% below 1990 levels, to be achieved between 2008 and 2012. The Kyoto Protocol was a significant step forward, demonstrating global recognition of and commitment to mitigating climate change by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2015 COP21 in Paris, France: The Paris Agreement

COP21, hosted by France in 2015, marked another crucial moment in the history of climate change negotiations. This conference culminated in the adoption of the Paris Agreement, a comprehensive framework guiding global efforts to limit global warming. The Agreement set an ambitious target of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C. 

The 2018 COP24 in Katowice, Poland: The Katowice Climate Package

COP24, held in Katowice, Poland, in 2018, helped to get the climate mechanisms agreed in the Paris Agreement up and running. This COP saw the adoption of the Katowice Climate Package, a detailed set of guidelines for implementing the commitments made under the Paris Agreement. These rules, procedures, and directions provided a clear roadmap for nations to report their emissions and efforts transparently, track their progress, and update their commitments regularly. The Katowice Climate Package was crucial for ensuring accountability and effectiveness in the global fight against climate change.‍

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Why was COP26 important?

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), held from October 31 to November 12, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland, represented a critical moment in climate action, arriving six years after the landmark Paris Agreement. This timing was significant as it coincided with the first scheduled global stocktake of progress since the Agreement (a key moment for nations to ramp up their climate commitments). 

Delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN climate change conference also came at a time when the world was reassessing its approach to major challenges such as climate change, adding to the heightened expectations for substantial action from global stakeholders.

What was on the agenda at COP26? 

COP26 had a clear and ambitious agenda: to secure global net-zero emissions by mid-century and keep the 1.5°C temperature rise within reach. The conference aimed to accelerate action on the Paris Agreement's goals, focusing on four key areas.

  • Secure global net zero by mid-century - Encouraging countries to present ambitious 2030 emissions reduction targets that align with net zero emissions by the middle of the century. This followed a report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 which highlighted the catastrophic impact of global heating beyond this level. It was understood that NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) didn’t go far enough and that far larger emissions reductions were going to be needed in order to reach net zero emissions and achieve climate targets. 
  • Mobilise climate finance - To deliver on these ambitious goals, developed countries were expected to make good on their promise (made in 2009) to mobilise at least $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020. By 2019 this annual flow had only reached $80 billion, falling far short of the promised annual amount of funding. This was of particular concern to developing and climate-vulnerable countries; they highlighted the disparity between nations that had contributed the most emissions and those that were feeling the brunt of climate effects.  
  • Finalising the rules for implementing the Paris Agreement - A key agenda item at COP26 was to finalise the rules for implementing the Paris Agreement, with a special focus on Article 6. This article is important as it provides a framework for countries to achieve their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) through international cooperation. The aim was to create a standardised system for carbon credit trading, allowing countries to sell their achievements in reducing emissions to others that are falling behind their targets. Establishing clear rules was crucial to ensure transparency and avoid double counting of emissions reductions.
  • Strengthening the agenda for action - COP26 also focused on encouraging states to work with non-state actors such as cities, regions, and businesses in achieving climate goals. The emphasis was on innovative partnerships that could accelerate the implementation of climate solutions, recognising that effective climate action requires efforts beyond governmental policies.
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What happened at COP26?

As over 40,000 participants and 120 world leaders descended on the city of Glasgow in November 2021, expectations were high for COP26. The conference was set against a backdrop of increasing urgency for climate action, heightened by alarming scientific reports and the very real effects of climate change being felt around the globe. As the first major climate conference since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, COP26 had the added pressure of addressing how global recovery could align with environmental sustainability.

Headlines of COP26

  • Urgent call for climate action - The conference opened with a sense of urgency. World leaders, scientists, and activists emphasised the need for immediate and substantial action to combat the escalating climate crisis and limit global temperature rise.
  • Youth activism and global protests - The event saw significant participation from youth activists, including Greta Thunberg, who voiced their demands for more concrete action from world leaders. Global protests aligned with the conference, further underscoring the public's concern and demand for accountability.
  • Intense negotiations and debates - Throughout the two weeks, COP26 was marked by intense negotiations. Delegates grappled with finding common ground on various issues, reflecting the complexity and diverse interests in global climate politics.

So what was achieved at COP26?

The Glasgow Climate Pact

The crowning achievement of COP26 was arguably the Glasgow Climate Pact, an agreement aimed at accelerating the global response to climate change. The pact's primary goal was to reduce CO2 emissions significantly, with a target to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This ambitious target required a concerted global effort, and the pact outlined several key points to achieve this, namely:

  • Urgent CO2 reductions - Countries agreed to strengthen efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, with a focus on rapid, deep cuts in the coming decade.
  • Accelerating phase-out of coal - A commitment to phase out unabated coal power - though this was subject to a last-minute amendment which we will discuss later.
  • Ending deforestation - The pact included a pledge to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030.
  • Increasing climate finance - Developed countries were urged to double their climate finance commitment to developing nations by 2025 (compared to 2019 levels) - more on this shortly.

Raising contributions

A major discussion point at COP26 revolved around the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). These are commitments made by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The updated NDCs at COP26 reflected an enhanced ambition, with countries recognising that current measures were insufficient to meet the 1.5°C target. The revised contributions aimed for more significant emissions reductions, with many countries setting more stringent targets for 2030.

Climate finance

In terms of climate financing, the conference saw a renewed emphasis on developed countries delivering the promised $100 billion per year in climate finance to support developing nations. This funding is critical for assisting these countries in both mitigating and adapting to climate impacts. The shortfall in the previously promised funds was acknowledged, and developed countries were urged to fulfil their financial commitments.

In the end, the states set up an annually scheduled "dialogue" to continue until 2024 to "discuss the terms for financing the activities". At the same time, developed countries committed to doubling their funding for adaptation by 2025 (compared to 2019 levels).

Fossil fuel reduction

One of the most contentious issues at COP26 was the reduction of fossil fuel usage, particularly coal. The original draft of the Glasgow Climate Pact called for a "phase-out" of coal power, which would have been a historic commitment. However, a significant last-minute change led by India and supported by China, meant that the language was softened to a "phase-down" of coal. This amendment highlighted the challenges faced in achieving consensus on fossil fuel reduction among countries with significant coal dependencies.

Despite this, the inclusion of specific language on fossil fuels in the final pact was unprecedented. It marked the first time a COP resolution explicitly mentioned reducing the use of coal and fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gases. Additionally, the pact addressed the need to eliminate inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, signalling a global acknowledgment of the need to transition away from fossil fuels towards cleaner energy sources.

COP26 brought together the world's nations to confront the urgent need to address climate change. The Glasgow Climate Pact, with its focus on CO2 reductions, updated NDCs, climate financing commitments, and the contentious issue of fossil fuel reduction, represented a step forward in global efforts to combat climate change, albeit with the recognition that much work still lies ahead.
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The Paris Rulebook

Another notable achievement of COP26 was the completion of the "Paris Rulebook," the detailed operational guide for implementing the Paris Agreement. This rulebook initially presented at COP24 in 2018, reached a crucial milestone at COP26 with the agreement on its final elements. The finalised mechanisms of the Paris Rulebook included:

  • Article 6: Carbon Market Mechanisms - One of the most complex and anticipated articles was Article 6, establishing the rules for carbon market mechanisms. This provision allows countries to trade greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, enabling them to achieve their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) more efficiently. The rules set under Article 6 aim to avoid double counting of emissions reductions.
  • Article 4.10: Common Time Frames for NDCs - The rulebook also sets common deadlines for NDC implementation. Article 4.10 states that all countries must update their climate action plans every five years, ensuring a regular and consistent global effort towards emission reduction. This uniform timeframe is important for synchronising global climate efforts and enhancing comparability and transparency among countries’ commitments.
  • Article 13: Enhanced Transparency Framework - Article 13 focuses on transparency and monitoring to ensure that countries adhere to their commitments. This article outlines a detailed transparency framework to provide a clear view of each country's actions towards mitigating climate change. It includes guidelines on how countries should report their emissions and efforts, promoting accountability and mutual trust among nations.

The gender issue

Another important topic that arose at COP26 was the critical issue of gender in the context of climate change. 

What is the gender issue? 

Women - particularly those from poorer nations in the Global South - are among the first and most affected victims of the climate crisis. During the "Climate and Gender Day" on November 9, 2021, Brianna Fruean, a Samoan activist, highlighted the exacerbation of existing inequalities due to global warming. The intersection of gender inequality and social exclusions – manifesting as unequal access to resources, limited participation in decision-making, and restrictions on mobility – aggravates the adverse environmental impacts on women.

The United Nations reports that women and girls constitute 80% of those displaced by disasters and climate change worldwide. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has also highlighted the specific vulnerabilities that women face when it comes to environmental changes. For example, women often risk their safety travelling greater distances to provide for their families and are particularly susceptible during pregnancy and motherhood. Yet, despite these challenges, women are central to the preservation of biodiversity, ecosystems, and sustainable development.

Seeking solutions

  • Incorporating gender equality in climate discussions - Incorporating gender equality in climate discussions is vital for creating effective solutions, as it acknowledges the distinct impacts and contributions of women in the climate crisis. By recognising and addressing these gender-specific challenges and perspectives, climate policies become more inclusive and effective. 
  • Supporting women's initiatives - It’s important for global leaders to support women-led initiatives both nationally and internationally. Despite a growing presence, women's representation still needs to be bolstered in climate discussions. At COP26, women constituted 35% of the attendees, indicating a persistent underrepresentation.
  • Commitments to gender equality in climate investments - Notable commitments were made at COP26 to address gender disparities. Canada pledged that 80% of projects funded by its climate investments would integrate gender equality. Similarly, Sweden and the United States have also pledged to integrate gender equality into their climate strategies and support women's leadership in climate action.
  • Empowering women in decision-making - Giving women more opportunities to participate in decision-making processes is essential for comprehensive climate strategies, as it ensures diverse perspectives and experiences are considered. Women's involvement leads to more balanced and effective environmental policies, reflecting a wider range of societal needs and insights.
COP26 marked a significant step in recognising and addressing the integral role of women in climate action. The emphasis on gender issues reflects a growing understanding that effective climate solutions require a comprehensive approach that includes tackling gender inequality.
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COP26 challenges and criticisms

COP26, while marking significant progress in climate action, faced criticism for not fully meeting the high expectations set for the conference. One of the key criticisms was that the final agreements, particularly the Glasgow Climate Pact, did not go far enough in ensuring the necessary action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

  • Insufficient action - Environmental activists and some nations argued that the commitments made were insufficient relative to the urgency and scale of the climate crisis. The last-minute watering down of the language around the phase-out of coal was seen as a symbol of these shortcomings, reflecting the difficulties in achieving a consensus on more robust climate actions among nations with diverse economic and political interests.
  • Implementation and monitoring - A significant challenge arising from the UN climate talks is the implementation and monitoring of the commitments made. Translating the pledges and agreements into action remains a complex task. Different countries have varying capabilities and resources to implement climate actions, and their national priorities may not always align with their climate commitments. This disparity can lead to delays and inconsistencies in implementing measures outlined in the NDCs.
  • Political complications - Another factor to consider is the dynamism of the political landscape. Changes in government and policy can impact the continuity of commitment to COP26 agreements. Maintaining momentum and political will over time is essential for the long-term success of the initiatives agreed upon at the conference.
  • Economic demands - Another barrier to effective implementation of climate action is that developing countries face the immediate challenges of economic development and poverty alleviation, which can sometimes conflict with the long-term goals of climate action. Finding a balance that allows for sustainable development while advancing climate goals is a huge challenge. 
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How did COP26 influence COP27 and COP28?

Many of the focal discussions at COP27 were influenced by the preceding COP26. Delegates and participants once again emphasised the urgency of climate goals, including limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and global climate financing was back on the table for discussion.

Key initiatives at COP27 included the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions and a significant $20 billion deal to move Indonesia away from fossil fuels. The summit also established a historic loss and damage fund (though without detailed operational plans).

At COP28 in Dubai in 2023, the focus was on refining the Loss and Damage Fund, with questions remaining about its funding and operation. Additionally, the summit revisited the unmet commitment of developed countries to provide $100 billion annually for climate action in developing nations, reflecting a growing distrust from climate-vulnerable nations. The discussions also centred on the critical need to phase out fossil fuels, a topic that gained momentum with major economies like the U.S. and China pushing for clean energy alternatives. This development was crucial, given the dominant role of fossil fuels in global emissions.

👉 To find out more about the achievements of COP27 and COP28 head over to our blog. 

Looking forward

COP26 was an important step forward in the global fight against climate change, setting a precedent for the subsequent COP27 and COP28 summits. As we look towards COP29, there is a renewed sense of optimism. This year's conference presents an invaluable opportunity for countries to not only reaffirm but also build upon their commitments. The groundwork laid by COP26 and the subsequent summits has paved the way for strengthened climate ambition and concrete actions. 

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here

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