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COP26: A Critical Opportunity for Climate

Miriam Aczel

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) is a critical opportunity to catalyze global efforts and address climate change. 

What is COP?

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the decision-making body of the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that monitors and reviews the implementation of international climate change targets and helps national governments define their climate goals. Since 1995, the UN has assembled nearly every country on the planet for global climate summits, or COPs.

This year marks the 26th annual summit, which will take place from October 31 to November 12, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. Roughly 20,000 global leaders, scientists, and activists are expected to tackle the most pressing issues on climate change, committing to a rapid, widespread transition from fossil fuel dependence to clean, renewable energy.

On December 12, 2015, COP21 resulted in the first international agreement on climate change when 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement. This groundbreaking treaty, which came into effect on November 4, 2016, aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C, with the preferred target of 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. Above this threshold, the risk of severe climate impacts—ranging from extreme drought, heat waves, sea level rise, and ecosystem collapse—grows dramatically. 

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Scientists project that an additional half-degree of global warming would increase the likelihood of severe heat, droughts, and wildfires. An IPCC special report highlights that we have less than a decade to reduce fossil fuel emissions and keep the planet below the 1.5°C threshold. To achieve this long-term goal, signatories have agreed to reach the global peak of greenhouse gas emissions—and halt their increase—as quickly as possible with the aim of achieving a climate-neutral world by 2050.  

Why is COP26 important?

COP26 is a prime opportunity for the U.S. to “walk the walk,” not just talk the talk. While the U.S. was a key negotiator in the Paris Agreement, the potential removal of the Clean Energy Performance Program (CEPP) from President Biden’s proposed Infrastructure Bill may impact our nation’s role following our formal withdrawal from, and later reentry into, the Agreement.

Australia, Russia, China, and India—nations with significant contributions to emissions—have yet to make new pledges to cut pollution, and it’s not clear whether they’ll act before the start of the summit. To date, the U.S., along with sixteen other countries and the European Union, have committed to new climate pledges. At the 2021 Leaders’ Climate Summit, President Biden announced that the U.S. will cut emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade—but national policies will need to be implemented to realize this promise.

California paves the way

California is a key player in achieving global climate goals. According to State Senator Josh Becker (D), who will attend COP 26, “California’s leadership is important not just in reducing our emissions but in showing how it can be done.” For example, California has led initiatives like the Renewables Portfolio Standard to “clean up the grid” and is in the forefront of developing solar technology, whose federally-supported early adoption has resulted in a 90 percent price reduction within the last decade. 

EcoBlock is engaged 

EcoBlock co-PI Professor Dan Kammen stressed the importance of COP26, stating that “with the commitment now from the Biden administration—along with Japan, South Korea, and Europe—to be carbon-neutral before mid-century, and with China’s commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2060, all the right words are in place, but few of the right deeds are in place. This will certainly be the COP of developing actual milestones and targets that are operational—not the kinds of targets that just pass by in the night like has happened so many times before.” Kammen, who will be attending the summit, further emphasized that while much remains to be done, and only two countries are on track to meet their climate targets, California’s role has had a positive influence on other states and countries. However, while there is awareness of California’s language of climate action, “at the international level, we’re going to have to see the action match up.”

Cover image credit: UN COP26

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