What Is COP26 and Why Is the Climate Change Summit Important?

Climate talks hosted by the United Nations are underway in Scotland. Here are some key facts.,


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The United Nations global warming conference in Glasgow, which started Monday, is considered a crucial moment for efforts to address the threat of climate change.

More than 100 heads of state and government and thousands of diplomats are meeting to set new targets for cutting emissions from burning coal, oil and gas that are heating the planet. The conference is held annually but this year is critical because scientists say nations must make an immediate, sharp pivot away from fossil fuels if they hope to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

The goal is to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with levels before the Industrial Revolution. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the dangers of global warming — such as deadly heat waves, water shortages, crop failures and ecosystem collapse — grow immensely.

But China, Australia, India, Russia and Brazil have either failed to set new targets for cutting carbon emissions this decade or announced ones that scientists consider weak. Meanwhile, only a few wealthy countries have allocated money to help poor and vulnerable nations cope with the impacts of climate disasters that they have done little to cause.

Those two factors make the likelihood of success at the conference, known as COP26, uncertain.

COP stands for Conference of the Parties. In diplomatic parlance, the parties refer to 197 nations that agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at a meeting in 1992. That year, the United States and some other countries ratified the treaty to combat “dangerous human interference with the climate system” and stabilize levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

This is the 26th time countries have gathered under the convention — hence, COP26.

The first COP was held in Berlin in 1995, after a critical mass of nations ratified the climate convention. It was a milestone and set the stage for the Kyoto Protocol two years later, which required wealthy, industrialized nations to curb emissions.

That accord had its problems. Among them, the United States under former President George W. Bush rejected it, citing the fact that it did not require China, India and other major emerging economies to reduce their greenhouse gases.

Fast forward to 2015. After more than two decades of disputes over which nations bear the most responsibility for tackling climate change, leaders of nearly 200 countries signed the Paris Agreement. That deal was considered groundbreaking. For the first time, rich and poor countries agreed to act, albeit at different paces, to tackle climate change.

The United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement under former President Donald J. Trump but rejoined under President Biden.

While leaders made big promises in Paris, countries have not done enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, which brings us to COP26 in Glasgow, where the pressure is on for leaders be more ambitious.

The conference is underway and runs through Nov. 12.

The meetings will be held at the Scottish Event Campus, Glasgow’s largest exhibition center. In addition to thousands of attendees at formal talks and side events, large marches are expected around the city. Saturday, Nov. 6 has been designated the Global Day for Climate Justice and advocacy groups are expecting about 100,000 protesters.

President Biden arrived on Monday morning. He is among about 100 heads of state and government who are attending, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland. Presidents Xi Jinping of China, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Vladimir V. Putin of Russia are not attending.

Thousands of diplomats from nearly 200 countries will conduct the nuts and bolts of the negotiations throughout the two weeks, while business leaders, academic experts and activists, including Greta Thunberg, plan to monitor the proceedings and in many cases will push for more ambitious targets.

The British and United Nations hosts have said they want to “keep hope alive” of constraining global temperature rise to under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Meeting that goal means all countries must commit to cutting emissions faster and deeper than they already are doing. There is also an expectation that wealthy countries will significantly increase financial support to help the most vulnerable nations adapt to the impacts of warming and build economies that don’t depend on fossil fuels.

For every fraction of a degree of warming, scientists say, the world will see more intense heat waves and drought, and more deadly floods and wildfires. Humans have already heated the planet by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit, since the 19th century.

Countries have less than 10 years to reduce emissions enough to keep the planet below 1.5 degrees of warming. So if leaders don’t commit to bold steps now, when so much global attention is focused on Glasgow, many fear the world will barrel toward dangerous levels of warming.

President Biden has said that America will cut emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels in the next decade. As of now, though, few policies are in place to make that happen. The European Union also made new promises to cut their emissions roughly 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But China, now the world’s largest climate polluter, has not shifted its plan to peak emissions “before” 2030 — a target scientists say is not adequate to keep the planet on a 1.5 degree pathway.

Whether more countries come on board, and whether the United States can actually make good on its promise, will determine the trajectory of the planet.

The annual summit was delayed last year because of the pandemic. Despite calls from environmental organizations to delay again, organizers committed to holding this year’s event in person. The British hosts offered to help any delegates who need a Covid-19 vaccination obtain one, but they are not mandating that attendees be vaccinated.

Anyone entering the main conference site, known as the Blue Zone, must self-administer a rapid Covid-19 test and show a negative result.

The science of climate change is complicated, and thinking about its consequences and how to fix the problem can be overwhelming. Explaining the factors in play to children can be especially difficult. To help start the conversation, The New York Times put together a climate change guide for children as part of this year’s Earth Day package.

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