Heralded as “the best last chance to get runaway climate change under control” COP 26 is almost upon us. You can’t listen to news report, switch on the radio or open a newspaper without hearing about it – but what exactly is it and what will it do?
Since 1992 the United Nations have been bringing together almost every country from across the world to discuss and agree what is needed to be done to limit the damaging effects of climate heating. Back in 1992 the countries agreed to an international treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This was the first time that so many nations had formally recognised that something had to be done to limit the damaging effects of global warming that drives climate change. COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC and the parties are the 196 countries that ratified the treaty plus the European Union.
Although climate change is a natural phenomenon that has shaped the planet that we live on, scientists agree that the way in which humans use resources is making the change happen at a faster rate. Raising the temperature of the atmosphere fuels changes to the climate causing severe heat waves and droughts in some areas and heavier rain and flooding in other areas. Ice caps begin to melt causing sea level rises and coastal inundation. Many of the plants and animals that humans rely on for food production cannot adapt quickly enough to the changes. Every degree of warming results in more loss of land and more loss of biodiversity, consequently leading to potential hunger and families losing their means of survival.
In 2015 COP 21 took place in Paris; at this conference every country agreed to work together to limit global warming to less than 2°C and preferably no higher than 1.5°C. Countries committed to preparing national plans setting out how they aimed to reduce their emissions and to update their plans every 5 years. COP26 is the conference when the plans are due to be updated.
Even with the most ambitious plans to reduce emissions the world will still experience rising temperatures into the middle of this century. However, there is a short window of opportunity and if countries can cut their emissions to net zero by 2050 it might be possible to bring heating back under 1.5°C in the second half of the century. Net zero doesn’t mean that no emissions are released, instead it is when the amount of greenhouse gases produced is balanced by an equal amount being removed from the atmosphere. So we reach net zero when the amount we add is no more than the amount taken away. The next few years are going to be crucial in achieving this. Climate change is already affecting every region of the globe; even in the UK hotter temperatures are being recorded year on year, rainfall is getting heavier and in more intense episodes and flooding is more frequent, threatening crops and devastating local communities.
Countries will have to be radical in their commitments and follow their words by decisive action. Actions are needed to reduce the use of fossil fuels, curtail deforestation and reduce carbon emissions from agriculture and construction. Speeding up the switch to electric vehicles powered by renewables will reduce emissions from transport as will reducing the number of car journeys by travelling short distances on foot or by bike. Governments will also need to commit to developing the infrastructure and technologies that enable the changes to benefit everyone. Countries will be encouraged to come together by supporting each other, for example to protect and restore ecosystems, to develop the new technologies required and to build resilient infrastructure and agriculture to avoid devastating loss of food supply. None of these actions will be cheap or easy and international financial institutions will also need to play their part in releasing funding to secure global net zero. Change can’t come without cost – but if we don’t act now, what cost then?