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What is COP26 and why it matters

Our best last chance to get runaway climate change under control

By Felicity Bonello

It’s been a year, hasn’t it? Between the sobering news from the 2021 IPCC climate report and the reckoning of a global pandemic, the stage has now been set for what many are referring to as the most important international climate summit in years; the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26. With so much riding on one summit, what exactly can we expect?

The Overview

While we’ve known the climate crisis would send humanity towards a tipping point for decades, it appears we’ve finally arrived, and if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate impact we have but ten years to ensure global emissions plummet. Hosted by the UK, together with their partners Italy, this year’s COP (Conference of the Parties) has been described as the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control. And so, from 31st October to 12th November all eyes will be on our global leaders when they meet in Glasgow, Scotland as the peak decision-making body for the world’s climate change commitments. 

Over two weeks, an international contingent of over 120 political government heads will thrash out climate commitments and a co-ordinated road map out of the climate change disaster lane. Notably, Australia will have government representation at COP26, however, at the time of print, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attendance is not yet on the bill (even at the beseeching of Prince Charles). 

The Background

To understand what we can expect from COP26, we need to roll back to the Paris Agreement of COP21, where 195 countries signed a universally binding commitment to limit global warming to below 2°C and pursuant to a limit of 1.5C. 

When you consider that at just a 1°C warming, Australia has felt the brunt of climate change through heat waves, bushfires, droughts, and storms; a 1.5°C world – which is our best possible future – will change our lives even further, and anything upward of 1.5°C will be an extreme we’ve never felt before.

While the Paris Agreement represents a framework, solutions to cutting global emissions have always been determined by each country. With that in mind, at the time of signing, each participating country agreed to strengthen their climate commitments every five years with an updated plan that would reflect their highest possible ambition at that time. COP26 represents the end of the first five years (well, officially six, but COVID derailed last year’s summit). Essentially, this year’s summit is a critical milestone, and represents a time that countries will, and must, increase their climate goals. 

The Goals

Inaction has already cost us dearly, and the science says that global emissions absolutely must plummet now; with the decade out to 2030 critical. Here’s what’s on the COP26 table…

Mitigation

While we’ve made progress to bend the temperature curve, the world is currently not on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and more needs to be done. COP26 is asking countries to come forward with ambitious emissions reductions targets – which can translate into fast action – that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century.

Adaptation

Even as we work tirelessly to reduce emissions, further change is inevitable, and people across the world are already living with devastating extreme weather heightened by the changing climate. Adaptation plans will look at averting, minimising and addressing the loss and damage that is already occurring from climate change. 

Finance

Between support for developing countries in reducing emissions and accelerating a transition to renewables, and the need to manage the increasing impacts of climate change on all citizens’ lives, change requires money. If we roll back to the Paris Agreement one of the key elements was a USD$100bn per year global commitment to fighting climate change. You can bet that this will be on the agenda.

Collaboration

As well as the above, there’s still much unfinished business to resolve around previous COP’s such as finalising the Paris Rulebook, which is essentially the rules needed to implement the Paris Agreement. Also on the agenda will be how governments and businesses need to work together to transform how we power our homes and businesses, grow food, and develop infrastructure.

It’s going to be a busy two weeks, and with global media outlets, climate organisations, businesses, academics, and government delegates all set to attend, the world will indeed be watching. 

The Commentary 

To round out our pre-COP26 coverage, we checked in with some of the leading experts and influencers in our community, to find out their take on COP26 and why we need to pay attention.

“First Nations people across the globe have been calling for this for decades, but we can’t do it on our own. We need to come together, collaborate, and create a genuine pathway forward. COP26 is essential conversation, to plan for this, to have a committed pathway forward and to action the outcomes. As individuals, we all have an important part to play in providing a sustainable and liveable future for us all, and for our children.”

Rachael Cavanagh, Community Programs and Stakeholder Engagement Manager at Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation

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“I’ll be watching COP26 closely – it’s arguably the most important meeting of our lifetimes. But the time for talking is long gone, what we need now is action. I believe startups will save us, because, let’s face it, governments and big business won’t do it alone. What brings me hope, is the climate entrepreneurs, taking the risks, breathing life into the solutions that will shape how we spend our money and our future. We just need to get behind them, right now, today and help them soar at this crucial moment in humanity’s history, because if we do, another world is possible.” 

Amy Carter-James, Co-Founder of Raaise, a funding platform for climate start-ups

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“Any opportunity to get everyone aligned and learning from each other has got to be a good thing. Big problems need momentum. It’s easy to despair when faced with big challenges, we feel that sometimes. But on those days, we choose to focus on some of the good stuff that’s happening around the world, and we choose action, doesn’t matter how big or small. Because the truth is that every tiny decision, every conversation, every purchase, every behaviour change counts – and that’s especially true of plastic waste. Stemming the tide of fresh plastic hitting the market each and every day is a big and urgent job. We have to see every single piece of plastic we avoid or prevent heading to landfill as a win.’

Emily Perrett, Founder and CEO of Flavedo & Albedo, a zero-waste beauty brand 

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“Personally, I think we need to interrogate the desire for everything to feel good. There is no research evidence to show that everyone feeling hopeful about climate change all the time will actually lead to better outcomes for us. It’s ok to not feel ok about climate change. Maybe governments will let us down again. But maybe we can use that disappointment to spur us to push them harder. I don’t advocate for people to feel any particular way about climate change – it’s better to be honest about how you feel, explore that, work out what that suggests is important to you, and what you need to do to in response to all of that: such as reaching out to friends, family, community and/or governments to create collective change.”

Dr Blanche Verlie, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Sydney Environment Institute

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“The climate debate has been raging for decades, however finally there is huge momentum towards sustainability. This is in part due to the urgency of the situation, but this great shift is being spurred by a surge in new technology. There have been enormous developments that will allow us to transition the world towards green energy and net-zero – much of which has been initiated and developed by academia.”

Professor Willy Zwaenepoel, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Sydney University 

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“COP26 has the potential to be one of the most defining moments in history, however, without proper support from major emissions contributors, such as Australia, our world simply cannot recover from the climate crisis. All Australians should be concerned about this, pressuring the government to support better climate targets and policies, or else our futures will be compromised . Climate change is on the front of almost every young person’s mind, and Australia’s contribution to the COP26 conference could make or break our future, putting future generations at a massive disadvantage, and worsening the lives of all people and nature on this planet.”

Ruby Bron, School Strike for Climate Activist 

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“COP 26 represents a culmination of the incredible momentum that has been building since the last meeting, and the outcomes should send even more positive signals to the corporate world and general public that we’re progressing in the right direction and success is possible with the right strategies in place. We really hope this will encourage further positive climate action from businesses, and we’re currently focused on making sure we can provide guidance to businesses of all types to make the action as accessible as possible.”

Joanna Auburn, Co-founder of carbon offsetting platform, Trace

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“We are reaching an important point in history where we have the power to make change to protect our future. Let’s hold ourselves accountable and work together. The world needs to come together, as our window of opportunity is diminishing.”

Lillian Tran, Founder of conscious homewares brand House of Ise

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