The UK will host the UN’s COP26 climate change conference in November 2021, but what is a COP – and what happened at the previous 25 COPs?
15 April 2021 marks 200 days until COP26 is due to start. Taking place in Glasgow from 1-12 November 2021, COP26 is the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC was originally signed by 165 signatories at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (more commonly known as the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. It now has 197 parties.
COP1 was held in Berlin in 1995 and a COP has taken place in a different city annually since then, except in 2020 (when COP26 was originally due to take place in Glasgow, but had to be postponed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic).
COP26 is also referred to as CMP16 and CMA3. What do those terms mean?
COP26 will also serve as two other conferences – the 16th Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP) and the 3rd Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA). The sessions of the COP, CMA and CMP are all held during the same period to reduce costs and improve coordination between the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.
Not all states that are parties to the UNFCCC are also parties to the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement. The Kyoto Protocol currently has 192 parties and the Paris Agreement currently has 191. UNFCCC parties that are not also Kyoto Protocol or Paris Agreement parties may participate in the CMP and CMA sessions respectively as observers, but cannot take decisions.
The CMP and CMA oversee the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement respectively, and take decisions to promote their effective implementation.
What is the Kyoto Protocol?
Adopted in 1997 at COP3 in Kyoto, Japan, the Kyoto Protocol gives effect to the UNFCCC. It only came into force in 2005 owing to a complex ratification process.
It commits 37 industrialised countries and economies transitioning to a market economy to limiting and reducing their emissions of six greenhouse gases in accordance with agreed individual targets. For example, the UK had a target of reducing its emissions by 8% compared with its 1990 ‘baseline’ emissions during the period 2008-2012, the so-called ‘first commitment period’. A second commitment period was added for 2013-2020 by the ‘Doha Amendment’ agreed at COP18 in Doha, Qatar, in 2012, but the amendment only came into force on 31 December 2020.
A notable omission from the list of 37 countries with emissions reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol was China, now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, but still a developing country in 1997.
Another significant feature of the Kyoto Protocol was the establishment of three market-based mechanisms to assist countries with emissions reduction targets to meet those targets – international emissions trading, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI).
What is the Paris Agreement?
Adopted in 2015 at COP21 in Paris, France, the Paris Agreement came into force on 4 November 2016. It is a legally binding international treaty on climate change with a goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius) compared with pre-industrial temperatures.
The Paris Agreement adopts a different approach to the Kyoto Protocol (which contains different obligations for industrialised countries and for developing countries), by bringing all its parties into common efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. Its parties have committed to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
The Paris Agreement works on a 5-year cycle of increasingly ambitious climate action. A key part of this was the submission of ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs) by 2020, in which parties set out actions to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to build resilience to adapt to the impacts of rising temperatures. The next set of NDCs must be submitted by 2025.
While NDCs are mandatory, parties were also able to submit by 2020 voluntary ‘long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies’ (LT-LEDS). The LT-LEDS set out parties’ long-term planning and development strategies.
The Paris Agreement also provides a framework for financial, technical and capacity building support for countries that need such support. Developed countries are expected to take the lead in providing climate finance for both mitigation and adaptation. It establishes a framework for technology development and transfer, and encourages developed countries to support climate-related capacity-building actions in developing countries.
What’s on the agenda for COP26?
The primary aim of COP26 will be to accelerate action towards meeting the goals of the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement, but the final agenda is not likely to be agreed until the ‘pre-COP’ scheduled to take place in Milan, Italy, from 30 September – 2 October 2021, attended by 35-40 countries.
The four key goals of COP26 are:
- a step change in commitments to emissions reduction;
- strengthening adaptation to climate change impacts;
- getting finance flowing for climate action; and
- enhancing international collaboration, including for the COP26 campaigns on energy transition, clean road transport and nature.
There will also be a focus on five campaigns in the run-up to COP26:
- adaptation and resilience;
- energy transition;
- clean road transport; and
Over the coming months we can expect to see further announcements from the UK government in its capacity as the COP26 Presidency about its ambitions for COP26, so watch this space.