What is Cop26 and why does it matter? Your guide to the Glasgow climate summit

Following a two-year gap, countries are due to meet in the UK for UN climate talks in November. Here’s what is at stake

A delegate enters the plenary hall during the 2019 climate talks in Madrid, Spain (Photo: UN Climate Change/Flickr)


The next round of UN climate talks, or Cop26, has been billed as a test of global solidarity between the world’s rich and poor and the most important climate talks since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.

Delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, heads of state, diplomats, business leaders, campaigners and journalists are due to meet in person in Glasgow, UK, from 31 October to 12 November.

The hosts are aiming to mobilise a step up in climate action and keep hope alive of meeting the tougher goal of the Paris Agreement: limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C.

That means curbing emissions deeper and faster, adapting to a new era of climate impacts and scaling up the financial support developing nations need to build low-carbon and resilient economies.

Here is what you need to know about the conference.

First things first. What is a Cop? 

“Cop” is short for Conference of the Parties, which refers to the meeting of the 197 members to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as UN Climate Change.

The talks are hosted every year by a different country and bring together delegates from every national government to advance global efforts to prevent dangerous climate change.

Cop1 was held in Berlin, Germany, in 1995. This year, the 26th session of the talks is known as Cop26.

At the core of the Cop are negotiations on the legal mechanisms for governments to hold each other accountable. Orbiting that core are politicians, business leaders, campaigners and journalists, engaged in a lively discourse on what climate action means in the real world.

Who is in charge at Cop26?

The UK and Italy are joint presidents of Cop26. As host of the main event, the UK government has the bigger role, in coordination with the devolved administration in Scotland. Italy is due to hold some pre-Cop meetings in Milan.

Alok Sharma, a politician with the UK’s ruling Conservative Party, was appointed Cop26 president in February 2020. For nearly a year, Sharma also served as business and energy minister before dropping ministerial responsibilities to focus exclusively on Cop26 preparations.

UN Climate Change is responsible for keeping the climate negotiating process running year to year, led by Mexican diplomat Patricia Espinosa.

Cop26 president designate Alok Sharma of the UK meets China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua in Tianjin, China (Photo: Alok Sharma/Twitter/Flickr)

How is ambition measured at Cop26? 

A key responsibility of the Cop26 presidency is to mobilise greater ambition from other nations. This is primarily measured against the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.

In 2015, in Paris, 197 countries agreed to collectively cut emissions to limit global temperature rise “well below 2C” and strive for 1.5C. To meet this goal, every country was asked to contribute emissions reductions and set out targets for doing so by 2025 or 2030. These plans are known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

This bottom-up approach means governments decide how fast to decarbonise their economies. But the plans submitted so far will lead to a lot more than 1.5C of warming by the end of the century – 2.4C if implemented in full, according to analysis published by Climate Action Tracker in May.

UN Climate Change found that updated plans by the end of 2020 put the world on track to stabilise emissions by 2030. To halt heating at 1.5C, scientists say global emissions need to fall 45% from 2010 levels in that time.

Cop21 president Laurent Fabius holds up the text of the Paris Agreement (Photo: IISD/ENB/ Kiara Worth)

What needs to happen now? 

Under the Paris Agreement, every country agreed to update their NDCs every five years, with each plan more ambitious than the last and reflecting their “highest possible ambition”.

Cop26, which was due to take place in 2020, is the first test of this “ratchet mechanism”.

The US, Canada, the EU and the UK are among 110 countries, largely developing economies, to have formally submitted improved plans to the UN by the end of July. But many of the world’s largest emitters missed the repeatedly extended deadline. China, India and Saudi Arabia’s plans are notably absent from the list.

Others like Australia merely reaffirmed old targets with no increase in ambition. Brazil even weakened its commitment by changing its baseline.

Ahead of Cop26, the UK will need to use its diplomatic clout to get Beijing, New Delhi and others to commit to stronger targets.

What else are the organisers trying to achieve? 

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has summarised the host nation’s agenda for the conference as: “coal, cash, cars and trees”. Let’s unpack that.

Coal: The UK wants to make Cop26 the summit that “consigns coal to history”. The G7 agreed in May to end new direct government support for unabated coal power by the end of 2021 – but avoided setting an exit timeline for burning the fuel. Italy is trying to orchestrate a similar pledge from the G20, against resistance from members like China, Russia and India.

Cash: Developed countries agreed in 2009 to mobilise $100 billion a year in climate finance to the developing world by 2020. At the last count, they were $20bn short. Germany and Canada have been tasked with making a plan to plug the gap ahead of Cop26. This is critical to trust in the process for recipient nations. Negotiations are due to start on what the next collective finance goal beyond 2025 should look like. Then there are various initiatives to “shift the trillions” of private sector cash towards achieving global net zero emissions by mid-century.

Cars: The UK is hoping to speed up a switch to electric vehicles, proposing a 2040 deadline for selling the last petrol cars. It established a Zero Emission Vehicle Transition Council bringing together ministers and representatives of major car markets – although China was not on the list.

Trees: “Calling time on deforestation” is another Cop26 goal. Together with the US and Norway, the UK launched the Leaf Coalition, which aims to mobilise $1 billion of public and private finance in 2021 to cut emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

Did they miss anything?

That four-word soundbite does not cover everybody’s priorities. The world’s poorest countries, which don’t have too many cars or coal plants to worry about, want to see more action to address the impacts of climate change they are already experiencing.

The Paris Agreement established a global goal on adaptation to climate impacts, but six years later it is still unclear what that means in practice. The agreement has a section on loss and damage, in recognition that people are already losing homes, lives and livelihoods to extreme weather turbocharged by the fossil fuel burning of the industrialised world, but practical support has been slow to follow.

With those climate vulnerabilities compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, the least developed countries are calling for a solidarity package that includes progress on these neglected topics.

It remains to be seen how progress on any of these elements will be packaged into a meeting outcome. Some climate thinkers are proposing a Glasgow PACT.

UN talks in Copenhagen in 2009 (Photo: UN Climate Change/Flickr)

What do negotiators need to agree on?

There are technical issues negotiators in Glasgow will need to address.

The Paris Agreement rulebook was due to be finalised three years ago at Cop24 in Katowice, Poland, but a number of contentious items remain unresolved.

These include the rules of a new global carbon market, under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. How to avoid double counting emissions reductions, the role of old credits from the Kyoto climate regime under the new system and whether to allocate a share of proceeds from the market to the Adaptation Fund are among the stickiest issues.

Negotiators will also need to find agreement on the transparency rules for reporting emissions reductions and whether countries’ future climate plans should all cover the same time period of 5 or 10 years.

A passenger has his temperature checked at Incheon airport, South Korea (Pic: Jens-Olaf Walter/Flickr)

What about the Covid-19 pandemic? 

The organisers are planning for around 20,000 people to attend Cop26 in person, despite the ongoing threat of Covid-19 infections. They insist the health and safety of participants and the host community is paramount.

But stark inequalities of the vaccine roll out between rich and poorer nations have raised serious concerns about participation from developing countries. As of 4 September, 64% of the UK population had been fully vaccinated. For many African countries, the figure was less than 5%.

While vaccines are not mandatory to attend the summit, the UK host “strongly encourages” all delegates to be vaccinated. With the UN, the UK government set up a Cop26 vaccination programme to provide jabs to delegates who aren’t able to access vaccines in their home country. The first doses are expected to reach delegates in September.

There are other financial and logistical barriers to participation. Delegates travelling from countries on the UK’s “red list” will need to isolate in a quarantine hotel facility for five days if they are vaccinated and 10 if they aren’t. The UK government has offered to foot the bill.

A Covid-19 protocol is also being put in place for the conference with regular testing, masks and social distancing.

Read more on: 1.5C | Adaptation | Climate finance | Climate politics | COP26 | Fossil Fuels | NDCs | Paris Agreement | UN climate talks