With COP 26 coming up, you may have seen a lot of mentions of “the COP” or “COP26” over the past few weeks. You’ve probably gathered that it has something to do with the climate—but what is it exactly, and how does it get its name? Read on for a brief explainer to help you make sense of the news.
What is the COP?
COP stands for Conference of the Parties. It’s the group of countries and territories that have signed on to the United Nations’ primary global treaty on climate change. This treaty, called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was adopted in 1992. These governments hold a meeting every year (except 2020, when Covid-19 got in the way), also called a COP. The next convention, COP26 (or the 26th meeting of the COP), will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 to November 12, 2021.
What happens at the COP meetings?
COPs are a mix of international negotiation, advocacy, and networking. They attract many individuals and organizations who have an interest in environmental issues, like academic researchers, policymakers, activists, and nonprofits. These also include corporations, because environmental policy can have an enormous impact on a company’s long-term planning and strategy. The policy outcomes never live up to all the hopes of climate activists—sometimes they’re devastatingly disappointing—but some years, far-reaching progress is made.
The Paris Agreement
COP21, held in Paris in 2015, was the most significant meeting to date. The resulting climate treaty, the Paris Agreement, has been joined by 191 Parties (including, after some political back and forth, the United States). It sets a goal of limiting the temperature increase to less than 2°C—but preferably, no more than 1.5°C—warmer than the pre-industrial climate. All participating countries are required to report their greenhouse gas emissions and develop their own plans to reduce them. These plans are called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Even though each country sets their own targets, there is no guarantee that they will fulfill their NDCs and no real sanctions if they don’t. However, this flexibility means that NDCs are drafted to fit the specific circumstances of each country and to serve as a roadmap for national policy to meet sustainable development goals. In some cases, they have already become law. Plus, the fact that these plans are publicly reported gives citizens the information to hold their governments accountable.
NDCs must be updated every five years, and each round is supposed to be more ambitious than the last. This “ratchet mechanism” acknowledges that the original pledges from 2015 were not enough to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and will need to be improved over time. The expectation is that advances in technology, added market share, and (hopefully) increased political buy-in will make it possible to keep setting and achieving more and more ambitious goals.
Funding is another key feature of the Paris Agreement. It specifies that developed countries have an obligation to provide increased financing to support the low-carbon transition in developing countries. This is only fair—developed countries have historically contributed much more to climate change, but generally speaking, developing countries will suffer more of the impacts.
In a later post, we’ll talk about some of the things we can expect from COP26. Stay tuned!