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Stop, drop and COP: What you need to know about the big climate summit

Canary Media’s cheat sheet for the pivotal climate talks underway now in Glasgow, Scotland.
By Julian Spector

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sidewalk sign: "Welcome COP26 to Glasgow"
(Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

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The moment has come: The Super Bowl of climate change, the Olympics of decarbonization, the Met Gala of nonbinding emission-reduction promises.

It’s time for COP26, the U.N. climate summit that just kicked off in Glasgow, Scotland. And I may as well cop to it: I’ve been putting off the task of getting smart on this sprawling diplomatic assembly, planning to catch up with a handy cheat sheet at the last minute. 

Now it’s my job to deliver your cheat sheet. Or if you already know the gist, maybe this can help you explain to your friends and loved ones why your attention is fixed on a post-industrial Scottish city. 

To make things easy for you, we spun up a dedicated hub for all our COP-y copy, which you can bookmark and access here.

So, what’s this COP all about?

The ultimate goal is to wrangle the many nations of this planet into changing their behavior so that climate change doesn’t wreck the world as we know it. 

At the last major climate summit, COP21 in Paris in 2015, nations committed to keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspiration to stay below 1.5 degrees. Under the resulting Paris Agreement, they made voluntary, nonbinding action pledges in the form of nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs.

The Paris Agreement anticipated that countries would meet again and ratchet up their ambitions. So the big test for Glasgow is whether they now actually do it. 

This needs to happen, because the current tally of national pledges falls well short of ensuring a livable future. See for yourself in our latest Chart of the Week.

There are two problems here: Countries aren’t doing the work to deliver on the climate pledges they have already made. And even if they fulfilled their promises, it still wouldn’t be enough to keep warming below 1.5 degrees.

What action items should we look for?

Any of these things would be a positive indicator of progress coming out of the talks:

  • Nations ratchet up their climate pledges to make it possible to stay under 1.5 degrees of warming.
  • Nations demonstrate that they’re actually acting to deliver on their pledges. 
  • Nations commit to near-term action in the current decade, rather than just setting far-off midcentury targets.
  • Developed countries deliver the funding they’ve promised to help developing nations deal with climate change.

Is there progress to be made outside of international diplomacy?

The business world is in a fundamentally different place than it was in 2015. Climate risk disclosures and decarbonization strategies are increasingly must-haves for companies if they want to access capital. And climatetech has suddenly become big business.

Many of the sectors that a few years ago seemed impossible to clean up now look eminently decarbonizable. Cheap renewables are remaking the power sector. The electric car market is still nascent, but the global auto industry is now bought into the trend, or at least has decided it can’t be ignored. 

Decarbonized trucking is looking more and more doable. The steelmaking industry is building initial facilities to decarbonize that essential industrial process. Clean aviation and shipping are still a ways off, but the likely pathways have come into focus. 

In an interview with Canary Media, RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst said that the business community could prove to be a bright spot at this year’s COP:

There will be another COP going on in the same building, and that’s the COP of the private sector and the financial institutions of the world who are on the move in making this happen.

The big shift that I’m seeing is that Glasgow is going to be a gathering of deeply committed corporations, businesses, financial institutions, civil society, organizations, city mayors, university presidents, Indigenous tribes, who are all saying,​“We’re going to get on with this; we’re going to roll up our sleeves and do this; we’re actually planning for implementation.” The number of companies that are promising net zero by the middle of the century or before is going through the roof. The number of CEOs and business delegations that are planning to travel to Glasgow is more than it was at any previous COP

Check out the full interview for more info on what to watch, where countries are falling short, and what’s different about this COP. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Who’s getting left out of this COP?

Youth climate activist Ayisha Siddiqa told Canary Media’s Maria Virginia Olano that the specific circumstances of this particular gathering will exclude many of the frontline and Indigenous communities who have the most direct experience of living with climate change.

It is one of the whitest and least diverse COPs we have seen. Prices are through the roof for everything, from plane tickets to taxis to hotels. It is criminal how much Airbnbs are charging. It’s not affordable, especially for people from the Global South. No person making a middle-class wage in rupees can afford a hotel room for a night. […]

The other huge issue is vaccine apartheid. They’re only accepting certain vaccines, and those vaccines are predominantly in European nations and the U.S. because other countries did not have the patents to make them. COP promised some activists and NGOs from the Global South that they were going to give them money to get their vaccines, but they didn’t. So people who don’t have the right vaccine or who can’t get a visa are being left out. There’s just absolute frustration from the Black and Brown and Indigenous people who are attending. 

That will change the tenor of the conversations in Glasgow. But Siddiqa is pushing to change the conversation by excluding a different group: the fossil fuel industry. 

The Polluters Out campaign, which she co-founded, wants to ban fossil fuel companies from lobbying, sponsoring or receiving special treatment at the U.N. climate negotiations. Siddiqa said they should replicate what the World Health Organization did when it banned Big Tobacco from its annual summits. 

It is not only achievable, it is absolutely necessary,” Siddiqa said.

Watch this space

We’ll keep sending you COP news this week, and we’ve also got something else exciting in store for Thursday, so stay tuned…

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.