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A four-minute guide from a climate scientist
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A four-minute guide from a climate scientist


COP26, which is taking place in Glasgow, is the latest in a series of meetings through which the world’s governments attempt to deal with climate change.

COP stands for “Conference of the Parties”: these 197 parties are the United Nations member countries, plus a few small non-UN member countries and the European Union, all of whom support the Framework Convention on Climate Change. This was set up in 1992 to organise a global response to what most people then called the “greenhouse effect”. It’s COP26 simply because this is the 26th meeting.

Each time, the location of COP meetings is changed. The last meeting was held in Madrid in 2019. Due to COVID-19 there was no COP in 2020. The 2015 Paris meeting, which was the most important COP to date, was held in Paris. agreed to “limit global warming to well below 2℃, preferably to 1.5℃, compared to pre-industrial levels”.

It’s possible to set a target like this because scientific research has recognised a close relationshipThe difference between the global atmospheric carbon dioxide and its average temperature.

In order to achieve the target of “well below 2℃, preferably 1.5℃” the Paris Agreement committed to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century”.

The main task for COP26 is to follow through on this commitment and produce realistic plans to reduce global carbon emissions to levels that hold 21st-century global warming as close to 1.5℃ as possible.

As you can imagine, getting 197 different countries, all with their own circumstances and interests, to agree to such plans isn’t exactly straightforward: after all, it took 23 years to get to the Paris agreement. Most famously, Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris agreement when president, although it returned after Joe Biden’s election. There is uncertainty about the success of COP26.

The main method for reducing emissions is the Nationally-Determined Contribution (NDC) of each country: these are individual countries’ climate action plans. For example, the UK’s most recent NDCIt commits to reducing its emissions by at least 68% in 2030, as compared to 1990 levels.

The main problem facing COP26 is that the combined NDCs of all the parties aren’t enough to meet the 1.5℃ target of the Paris agreement. If you combine all the current plans and promises contained in the NDCs, they would lead to a global temperature increase of 2.4℃ by the year 2100 and if you look at actual emissions now, they would lead to a global temperature increase of 2.9℃By 2100

Graph showing global warming projections with different levels of emissions

Even optimistic net zero targets would still lead to 2°C warming.
Climate Action Tracker

Therefore, there is a need for better NDCs and effective ways to ensure that countries reduce all their emissions. One way to make sure that this happens is for rich countries to provide funding. financial support to enable less wealthy countries to cut emissions, which was an important part of the Paris Agreement but hasn’t been fully acted on yet.

This is why it matters

COP26 matters because the window is quickly closing on the Paris Agreement’s 1.5℃ target: if emissions don’t fall very rapidly, very soon, too much carbon will have been added to the atmosphere to keep the temperature from rising higher. Current emissions must be reduced. halved by 2030 to have about a 50:50 chance of keeping to 1.5℃. The more time the world waits to cut emissions, the more severe the cuts will have to be in order to reach the target or it will be missed entirely.

A woman stands in maize field

A breakdown in climate will make it more difficult to grow crops even in countries that are already hot.
JonathanJonesCreate/ shutterstock

Because of its importance, the Paris Agreement 1.5℃ world is safer than a 2℃ world. For example, the proportion of the global population exposed to severe heat at least once every five years is almost three times higher at 2℃ compared to 1.5℃. The reduction in maize harvests in the tropical regions is over twice as great at 2℃ and coral reefs would be largely eliminated.

If COP26 isn’t successful, it doesn’t mean that we’re doomed. However, it would make it harder for us to avoid the worst effects from climate change, such a heatwave, droughts, floods, rising seas, and heatwaves. It’s perhaps best to see COP26 as part of the long-term project to keep Earth as safe and habitable as possible for all its people, and the more successful it is, the easier that will be.

COP26: the world's biggest climate talks

This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage on COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world.

The Conversation is here for you to clarify the air and get reliable information amid a flood of climate news stories and stories. More.

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