COP26: Context for you
How to read news about this pivotal global climate summit
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There’s been so much coverage of what’s been happening throughout COP26 that I thought it would be helpful to clearly break down what exactly COP26 is, and what makes it important. This way you can contextualize the news that you hear about it.
COP26 matters a whole lot.
Ready? Let’s get into it.
Photo by Kiara Worth, UNFCCC
What is a “COP?”
The UN has a bunch of different “entities” that are committed to certain matters of utmost importance to the world at large. Famous entities of the UN include the WHO - World Health Organization, the UNHCR - the UN Refugee Agency, UNICEF - International Children's Emergency Fund, etc.
The UNFCCC - United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is the UN entity responsible for intergovernmental climate change negotiations. They have 197 member countries, and a current member presidency tasked with driving everyone towards agreements (Right now this is the UK).
A COP is a Conference of Parties, a global climate summit, a moment when the member countries come together, bring their interests to the table, and talk with each other, in hopes of updating their commitments made previously, in order to stabilize, mitigate, and adapt to the alarming levels of greenhouse gas emissions that have been put into the atmosphere, so as to best avoid and be prepared for the already inevitable resulting climate disasters as much as possible, like funky weather, massive fires, droughts, sea level rise, food insecurity, etc. etc.(my definition there).
At past COPs, treaties such as the 2015 Paris Agreement (COP21) and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (COP11) were adopted.
Something important you should know: in international climate treaties it’s really hard to get everyone to do what they say that they’re going to do (aka: compliance). It’s the classic carrot vs. stick dilemma. The Kyoto Protocol employed a stick approach, i.e., that there would be repercussions for those not following through on their commitments. That didn’t work as well as people wanted, so the Paris Agreement was all about carrots, with each member country assessing themselves and coming up with their own rubric of commitments and announcing those publicly. Remember this.
What is the relationship between these people and those IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports?
“The IPCC was created to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation options.” - IPCC
Those reports represent international consensus and what we can all agree on about an issue that continues to be very, very politicized.
Many scientists that I’ve spoken with believe that the IPCC reports, as alarming as they are, play it way too safe while painting a picture of what life is going to look like in the near term as our environment becomes more and more unstable, and lack adaptation strategies for the already inevitable.
A small illustration of that point, here’s a slide shown at COP26 this week about what’s already currently happening when it comes to water stress around the globe.
Photo by Kiara Worth, UNFCCC
So, what are they all doing at COP26 in Glasglow?
Publicly, making lots of impassioned speeches filled with snackable soundbites.
Behind the scenes, they are trying to get everyone to commit to greater restrictions on emissions, attempting to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C. They need countries to update their commitments from the Paris Agreement and other moments as we are running out of time, and aren’t seeing enough action.
A lot of the news over the next week will focus on reporting what each country’s commitments are. Commitments like “by 2030 all cars driven in [country] must be electric” or “in [country] we will cut emissions by ##%” or “We’re all gonna end deforestation.”
What I bet will be missing from those stories, is whether or not those commitments are still enough to avoid some very dire consequences, that will definitely happen in our lifetimes. And exactly how those commitments will come to life through laws, initiatives, and projects.
And why do country commitments need to be updated?
How old will you be in 2050?
Christiana Figueres, prior Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, and Tom Rivett-Carnac, founding partner of Global Optimism, wrote a book called The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis and detailed what 2050 may look like if we don’t limit warming as much as possible:
”It is 2050. Beyond the emissions reductions registered in 2015 [During the Paris Agreement], no further efforts were made to control emissions. We are heading for a world that will be more than 3 degrees warmer by 2100.
The first thing that hits you is the air.
In many places around the world, the air is hot, heavy, and depending on the day, clogged with particulate pollution. Your eyes often water. Your cough never seems to disappear. You can no longer simply walk out your front door and breathe fresh air. Instead, before opening doors or windows in the morning, you check your phone to see what the air quality will be. Everything might look fine—sunny and clear—but you know better. When storms and heat waves overlap and cluster, the air pollution and intensified surface ozone levels can make it dangerous to go outside without a specially designed face mask (which only some can afford).
Our world is getting hotter, an irreversible development now utterly beyond our control. We have already passed tipping points, like The Great Melting of the Arctic sea ice, which used to reflect the sun’s heat. Oceans, forests, plants, trees, and soil had for many years absorbed half the carbon dioxide we spewed out. Now there are few forests left, most of them either logged or consumed by wildfire, and the permafrost is belching greenhouse gases into an already overburdened atmosphere.
In five to 10 years, vast swaths of the planet will be increasingly inhospitable to humans. We don’t know how habitable the regions of Australia, North Africa, and the western United States will be by 2100. No one knows what the future holds for their children and grandchildren.
More moisture in the air and higher sea surface temperatures have caused a surge in extreme hurricanes and tropical storms. Coastal cities in Bangladesh, Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere have suffered brutal infrastructure destruction and extreme flooding, killing many thousands and displacing millions. This happens with increasing frequency now.
Because multiple disasters are often happening simultaneously, it can take weeks or even months for basic food and water relief to reach areas pummeled by extreme floods. Diseases such as malaria, dengue, cholera, respiratory illnesses, and malnutrition are rampant.
Melting permafrost is releasing ancient microbes that today’s humans have never been exposed to—and as a result have no resistance to. Diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks are rampant as these species flourish in the changed climate, spreading to previously safe parts of the planet, increasingly overwhelming us. Worse still, the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance has only intensified as the population has grown denser in habitable areas and temperatures continue to rise.
Every day, because of rising water levels, some part of the world must evacuate to higher ground. Every day you see images of mothers with babies strapped to their backs, wading through floodwaters. News stories tell of people living in houses with water up to their ankles because they have nowhere else to go, their children coughing and wheezing because of the mold growing in their beds, insurance companies declaring bankruptcy leaving survivors without resources to rebuild their lives.
Those who remain on the coast must now witness the demise of a way of life based on fishing. As oceans have absorbed carbon dioxide, the water has become more acidic and is now so hostile to marine life that all but a few countries have banned fishing, even in international waters. Many people insist that the few fish that are left should be enjoyed while they last—an argument, hard to fault in many parts of the world, that applies to so much that is vanishing.
As devastating as rising oceans have been, droughts and heat waves inland have created a special hell. Vast regions have succumbed to severe aridification, sometimes followed by desertification. Wildlife there has become a distant memory.
Cities such as Marrakech and Volgograd are on the verge of becoming deserts. Hong Kong, Barcelona, Abu Dhabi, and many others have been desalinating seawater for years, desperately trying to keep up with the constant wave of immigration from areas that have gone completely dry.
Extreme heat is on the march. If you live in Paris, you endure summer temperatures that regularly rise to 111°F (43.8°C). This is no longer the headline-grabbing event it would have been 30 years ago. Everyone stays inside, drinks water, and dreams of air-conditioning. You lie on your couch, a cold, wet towel over your face, and try to rest without dwelling on the poor farmers on the outskirts of town who, despite recurrent droughts and wildfires, are still trying to grow grapes, olives, or soy—luxuries for the rich, not for you.
You try not to think about the 2 billion people who live in the hottest parts of the world, where, for upward of 45 days per year, temperatures skyrocket to 140°F (60°C) —a point at which the human body cannot be outside for longer than about six hours because it loses the ability to cool itself down.” Read more
There’s even more to say here… this is just a tiny snapshot.
And this is all on top of the fact that we’re completely overshooting the amount of earth’s resources that we can regenerate to sustain ourselves, given our current rate of extraction and, according to many, the fact that we have so many people on the planet. We will reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. And currently we still waste 1/3 of all the food we produce.
… Will they get sh$% done at this COP?!
We all hope so. We’re at a critical stage right now. This is why you are seeing COP26 all over the news.
But, do you believe in carrots? Or sticks?
Countries need to commit more than they have, companies need to invest in better supply chains and lowering emissions. We know this.
But it’s a little hard to herd cats, many who are elected and incentivized by capitalism and/or their own egos.
And, they’re all writing their own rules right now.
Inspire me with optimism. Please.
A. We have never had so much international awareness and momentum around climate change.
B. Human ingenuity and innovation are boundless. We just created a vaccine for COVID-19 in one year.
C. There are incredibly smart people working on this around the globe and across all industries and sectors. Much of that amazing work you are not seeing in the news. COP26 is just one sector’s work conference about how we can move forward (however important, considering these are world leaders talking).
D. You are not Elon Musk and therefore are not giving up on earth and moving to Mars. :)
E. The COP26 goals are very clear, and it’s necessary that we achieve these priorities ASAP:
1. Secure global net zero by mid-century  and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
Countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century.
To deliver on these stretching targets, countries will need to:
accelerate the phase-out of coal
speed up the switch to electric vehicles
encourage investment in renewables.
2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
The climate is already changing and it will continue to change even as we reduce emissions, with devastating effects.
At COP26 we need to work together to enable and encourage countries affected by climate change to:
protect and restore ecosystems
build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure and agriculture to avoid loss of homes, livelihoods and even lives.
3. Mobilise finance
To deliver on our first two goals, developed countries must make good on their promise to mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2020.
International financial institutions must play their part and we need work towards unleashing the trillions in private and public sector finance required to secure global net zero.
4. Work together to deliver
We can only rise to the challenges of the climate crisis by working together.
At COP26 we must:
finalise the Paris Rulebook (the detailed rules that make the Paris Agreement operational)
accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society.”
Photo by Kiara Worth, UNFCCC
What can I do?
You already read this note. Well done.
I hope this overview has helped you understand a bit more about what’s being announced at COP26 and why it matters. Here are some other actions that you can personally take:
Keep yourself informed: what is your country saying at COP26? The news is going to tick up towards the end of the summit with bolder announcements. Watch for them.
Elect smart people: politicians are followers. Vote for people who prioritize climate.
Make good decisions at work: Make your decisions count, particularly when they affect more people than just you. Systems change is what we need these days.
Eat more plants & get minimal: eating plant based is one of the easiest and healthiest ways to significantly reduce your personal carbon footprint. As you know, I talk a lot about this. Also, every time you buy something you vote for the kind of companies that deserve your money. Buy things that are ethically produced, and made nearby. Get rid of what you don’t need. Achieve a feather-light existence.
Choose your focus area: Climate change is a huge issue that affects just about everything. Save yourself from the overwhelm and choose an area that you have a particular talent for, learn as much as possible, and take action. Are you into electrification? Planting trees? Water security? Cleaning up pollution? Smart cities? Telling stories that contextualize this for people? Educating kids? Better supply chains for your company? Whatever it is, we all need your ideas.
Cop the attitude that we can all do better, and that we’ll figure this out together.
If not, this COP26 is just a bunch of empty words from people who represent you, and 2050 will indeed look that bad.
(I know this is a real serious one, but you really need to know this. Fun newsletters coming up, promise.)