Explainer

COP26: Do these climate conferences ever achieve anything?

Credit: AP

By Digital Multimedia Producer Elisa Menendez, ITV News


COP26 is set to be one of the most important in the history of the international climate change meetings.

The Glasgow conference, taking place between 31 October and 12 November, will be the 26th time world leaders have come together to discuss how best to reduce greenhouse gases across the globe.

But there are concerns that leaders from some of the world's biggest emitters won't be there, reportedly including Russia's Vladimir Putin, India's Narendra Modi is yet to decide, and China's Xi Jinping will attend virtually.

So, after almost three decades of COP meetings, has much changed for the planet?

Do COP meetings achieve much?

Each meeting is an opportunity for world leaders to take stock of progress and increase their ambitions in tackling climate change with the backdrop of scientists' latest findings.

An agreement or declaration on how countries should unanimously reduce greenhouse gas emissions comes out of every meeting, with the Paris Agreement hailed as the greatest advancement in COP history.

While experts widely agree the meetings achieve a lot, there is often a lot of bureaucracy which delays action.

"COP meetings are frustrating because they are so procedural and slow, with many veto players," Professor Sam Fankhauser, a professor of climate economics and policy at the University of Oxford, told ITV News.

"At the same time, it is essential to have this global framework and an agreed platform to negotiate. 

"The difficulty, as with all international agreements, is the lack of enforcement power. If countries don’t like it they don’t sign up - viz the US under Trump".

Executive Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Asher Minns, echoed his comments: “The meetings absolutely do deliver but probably at a slower pace than anybody would really like, including the negotiators as well I think - and certainly environmental groups, scientists and the general public now they're more conscious.” 

Mr Minns said the main aims of COP26 will be “to increase ambition – so those pledges for bringing down emissions – and channelling money to poorer countries so they can afford to respond to climate change.” 

The COP26 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP26? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP26:

  • US President Joe Biden, climate envoy John Kerry, climate adviser and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and 10 other US cabinet officials.

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the days leading up to COP26, Mr Morrison committed Australia to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Prince Charles, Prince William, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are also attending. The Queen has withdrawn from visiting after being advised by her doctors to rest - she will address the conference virtually instead.

China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are among the leaders that have decided not to travel to Glasgow.

Back to top

What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - Countries are being encouraged to set ambitious 2030 emissions targets. They are also encouraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal, clamp down on deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.

2. Protect natural habitats and communities from climate change disasters

3. Finances for a greener future - In 2009, developed countries were asked to keep to their promises to contribute at least $100 billion (£72.5 billion) per year by 2020 to protect the planet. In 2015, it was agreed that the goal would be extended to 2025.

However, new analysis shows the goal is unlikely to have been met last year and is on track to fall short in 2021 and 2022.

4. Getting all countries and organisations to work together to tackle the climate crisis

Back to top
Boris Johnson has said he hopes COP26 will be a chance for the global community to commit further to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: PA

What have past COPs achieved and have promises been followed through?

In 1992, a mass United Nations treaty aiming to reduce greenhouse gases came into force after it was signed by 196 "parties" or countries - a near-universal membership.

The first COP was hosted by Berlin in 1995 and was presided over by then-environment minister Angela Merkel. The Berlin Mandate was a milestone first agreement which established a process to strengthen the climate commitments of developed countries.

Since then, a COP meeting has taken place annually apart from in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It wasn't until the third meeting in Japan in 1997, that the world's first agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was adopted - known as the Kyoto Protocol. But it would take another eight years before it would come into force.

Then-environment minister John Prescott watches as Ritt Bjerregaard, of the European Commission, signs the Kyoto Protocol in 1998. Credit: AP

The next biggest achievement to emerge from the meetings came almost two decades later - the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Other declarations, agreements and plans emerged from the COPs in between, such as the 2009 Copenhagen Accord which made high-income countries pledge $30 billion towards efforts, and the 2010 Cancun Agreement to help developing nations in tackling climate change.

But Kyoto and Paris are considered the biggest agreements to ever emerge.

What was the Kyoto Protocol?

It was adopted in December 1997 but due to a complex ratification system, it didn't come into effect until years later, in February 2005.

The Protocol required wealthy, industrialised countries - which are largely responsible for high levels of emissions - to limit and reduce greenhouse gases. The targets varied per country but the average was a cut of 5% relative to 1990 levels by 2012.

The Kyoto Protocol is a binding agreement to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: PA

Though it was hailed as a great advancement, the Protocol had a number of issues. The biggest being that the US would not take part under President George W. Bush's administration because major emerging economies like China and India were not required to be part of it.

The Kyoto Protocol ended last year and it produced mixed results as many countries did reduce emissions but others didn't. However, there are considered to be a greater number of successes than failures.

What was the Paris Agreement?

18 years after the Kyoto Protocol, 196 countries signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement pledging to limit global warming to well below 2C but preferably 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Almost every country was involved, including China, India, and initially the US, and was welcomed with great optimism from world leaders and scientists.

But four years after President Barack Obama signed up, President Donald Trump made the US the first nation in the world to withdraw - a move that was seen as a big blow to the Agreement as a whole.

The US pulled out of the Paris Agreement after Donald Trump took office Credit: AP

The former president said the Agreement was unfair to the US and had made leaving Paris a key part of his election pledges, in line with his plans to revitalise the energy sector by ramping up coal and oil productions.

In February of this year, the US officially re-joined Paris just hours after President Joe Biden took the oath of office.

Professor Fankhauser said what is different about the Paris Agreement is that is it about each country deciding "what they want to do" and "not binding commitments as Kyoto tried" to enforce.

"Paris has changed the narrative and the way countries go about climate change," he added.