What is COP26 and Why Is It Important?
By TCI Ambassador Catherine Campbell
Over the next 9 days, International Policy makers are meeting at COP26 to commit their government to policies that will have implications for the next several generations. Their choices, as well as the execution of these plans, will determine which climate change scenario future generations can expect to experience and the degree to which humans will suffer because of climate change. With that said, the narrative that society has until the middle of the century to avoid catastrophic climate change is often misrepresented and misunderstood. In general terms, COP26 will determine how much each nation involved will reduce their emissions, if we can limit warming to 1.5-2℃, and consequently how much future warming humans today will cause for generations to come.
What is COP26 supposed to achieve?
COP26 will update participants’ policies and climate agreements reached at the Paris Climate Accord. COP, meaning Conference Of Parties, occurs annually to review emission inventories of the involved parties and to evaluate the steps that each party has taken to reduce their emissions (Conference Of Parties). COP exists under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the 26 signifies that this is the 26th time the parties have convened (Dalton). Under the Paris Climate Accord, every five years the participating parties must meet and review their respective plans to reach the climate goals established by the agreement in 2015 (Dalton). COP26 marks the passing of the first five year period and is therefore especially important in ensuring that each party is on track to reach these goals (Dalton). Emphasis is placed on this specific COP as it will determine if the involved parties will commit to the greater emission reductions required to reach net 0 carbon by 2050, a goal set under the Paris Agreement (Dalton & Climate Commitments…). As the 2050 deadline approaches, adaptation will become increasingly difficult and costly to complete if adjustments continue to be delayed.
Ultimately, COP26 will review four main goals – mitigation, adaptation, financing, and collaboration. Under the Paris Agreement mitigation efforts are supposed to limit warming to 1.5℃ (or 2℃ maximum) by reaching net 0 carbon emissions by 2050 (Dalton). According to the 2021 IPCC report, warming will reach (and then surpass) this point between 2030 and 2052 if things do not change (IPCC, 2021). In order to avoid this, parties must increase their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), the amount of emissions they’re willing to cut, to account for about a 45% decrease in total emissions by 2030 (The Paris Agreement & Climate Commitments…). Even with this level of mitigation, consequences of climate change will still be felt across the globe. COP26 will aim to discuss how the parties (around 130 in attendance) can adapt to the changes currently being seen as well as those that are predicted to come in the near future (COP26 Goals). Both mitigation and adaptation will be extremely expensive, and parties will need to make plans to pay for these changes. Specifically, the Paris Agreement established a $100 billion annual climate budget which still needs to be reached (COP26 Goals). Together this outlines a collaborative effort to limit climate change, the collaborative aspect being essential to implementing this change in emissions by the 2050 deadline.
“As the 2050 deadline approaches, adaptation will become increasingly difficult and costly to complete if adjustments continue to be delayed.”
The Greenhouse Effect: Why we focus on emissions
When discussing climate change in relation to human emissions the major focus is generally on carbon dioxide (CO2), though COP26 will be the first COP to also consider methane (CH4). All greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, function to warm the environment in the same way. The earth doesn’t absorb all the energy from the sun, rather a portion is reflected back towards space (Dessler, pp. 90). Greenhouse gases are unique in their ability to interact with this energy and reflect it back to Earth, causing warming via the Greenhouse Effect (Dessler, pp. 90). As greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere increase from behaviors like deforestation or the burning of fossil fuels, the amount of energy reflected increases and warming intensifies (Dessler, pp. 91).
With that said, the contribution of each greenhouse gas isn’t equal as the warming power of each gas varies. Of the two highlighted greenhouse gases, methane has a more significant warming power, being 20x more powerful than carbon dioxide (Dessler, pp. 68). However, methane doesn’t have the long-term influence of carbon dioxide as it has an atmospheric lifespan of only about 10 years where carbon dioxide’s is 100’s-1000’s of years (Dessler, pp. 86). This allows the issue of warming to be broken up into short-term warming via methane and long-term warming via carbon dioxide.
By dividing the issue of emissions, society could potentially buy a little extra time to cut carbon emissions. UN projections hypothesize that reducing methane emissions by 45% could avoid about 0.3℃ of warming prior to 2050, roughly 15-20% of the total warming goal (Rowlatt). Addressing methane emissions could therefore expand the time society has to reach the goal of net zero carbon emissions. It’s important to note that reaching this goal will not instantaneously stop warming. The warming experienced at a given time is actually the result of past emissions; this means that impacts of current emissions have yet to be fully realized in observed warming (Dessler, pp. 91). This is what we refer to as “committed warming” as the emissions have already been released or “committed to,” meaning that the consequences are nearly unavoidable (Dessler, pp. 91). This is why current potential climate projections based on “emissions scenarios,” RCPs, follow a similar warming trend until around the middle of the century (Dessler, 137). It’s only after that period of “committed warming” that we start to see the rewards or consequences of the emission mitigation efforts being made today. As it currently stands, society’s dependence on fossil fuels combined with the minimal effort to remove this dependency leaves significant potential for the worst case scenario to occur (Dessler, 137). With this minimal reduction to emissions, warming is projected to surpass 2℃, the consequences of which will be catastrophic.
Significance of Warming: 1.5℃ vs. 2℃
To quantify why this overshoot of the goals set in the Paris Agreement would be devastating, compare the consequences of 1.5℃ of warming to those projected for 2℃ of warming. Just this half degree will have lasting and vastly different impacts on life on Earth. Both scenarios are expected have far reaching ecological consequences, including increased extreme weather events (in frequency and/or intensity), changes in sea level rise (rate, amount, and consequences), loss of species and changes in species range, habitat changes, loss and degradation, increased surface temperature warming, increased ocean warming, and greater ocean acidification (IPCC, 2018 & IPCC, 2021). However, reaching 2℃ will increase the severity of these consequences. For instance, where a projected 6% of insects, 8% of plants, and 4% of vertebrates loose over 50% of their geographic range at 1.5℃ of warming, 18% of insects, 16% of plants, and 8% of vertebrates will experience at least a 50% of their geographic range at 2℃ (IPCC, 2018). The 0.5℃ variation will also change the predicted frequency of arctic summers free of sea-ice (IPCC, 2018). With 1.5℃ of warming, this is expected to happen once per century (IPCC, 2018). It is likely to occur at least once per decade with 2℃ of warming (IPCC, 2018). The clear difference in severity of climate change is why COP26 is so important and why the Paris Climate Accord outlined 2℃ of warming as an approximate “cap” on warming that should be avoided if at all possible.
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Climate change is going to be a pressing issue for the foreseeable future and it’s important that policy makers step up to the challenge now to alleviate future strain on our planet. More significant efforts to reduce emissions enacted now will have extensive future benefits. COP26 is critical to the future of the climate and maintaining the standards set by the Paris Agreement. For updates on COP26 follow TCI @the_climateinitiative on Instagram for daily updates from 10/29-11/12. To access a summary of the goals of COP26 click here. For access to the 2018 IPCC report summary for policymakers click here and for the 2021 IPCC report summary for policymakers click here. For a breakdown of the Paris Agreement click here.
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