The COP26 Summit and Why It's Important: Understanding the Climate Crisis

The COP26 2021 global summit in Glasgow has been in the news for much of November - and will continue to do so long after the conference is over. This article, brought together with the insights shared with Knowledge Hacks on Uptime, explains why climate change is a man-made crisis that requires man-made solutions.
by Uptime Staff / 2021-11-08

The COP26 2021 global summit in Glasgow has been in the news over the last few days. This article, brought together with the insights shared with Knowledge Hacks on Uptime, explains why.

Our world is rapidly changing. Reports on progressing climate change statistics inundate our news and social media outlets every day; experts suggest “sustainability swaps” in our routines - at even the smallest scale - in an effort to combat global warming at the individual level. 

While these practices are of course important, what we most critically need are environmental laws in place to enforce corporate changes at a larger scale. And it needs to happen now - if not yesterday.

quotation marksClimate change is not some far-off reality, and its impact is much more than 'just' melting ice and rising sea levels.

- David Nelles and Christian Serrer, authors of "Small Gases, Big Effect".

But how do we make that happen? Is it too late? How can we better understand the complex science around what the environmental landscape currently looks like? This article contains a list of resources to get you up to speed on what's happening with the climate crisis right now, while explaining why this year's COP26 global summit is so important in holding leaders accountable.

What is COP26? What does 'COP' stand for?

The UN Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as COP26, is organized to bring 'parties' together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement (more on that in a moment).

COP stands for Conference of the Parties - Parties here meaning countries. The annual conference is attended by almost every country on earth; any that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1994. In the almost three decades since, climate change has gone from the subject of an annual conference to a global priority.

2021 marks the 26th year of annual summit – giving it the name COP26. (It was originally scheduled to take place in November 2020 in Glasgow in the UK but was postponed by one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Why is the COP26 summit so important?

COP26 has seen appearances from everyone from David Attenborough to Leonardo DiCaprio, Prince Charles to Barack Obama. It's an event that many are describing as "the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control."

While this might be initially unnerving to read, it's a sentiment that's meant to inspire action, rather than an all-out existential crisis.

That's because COP26 is a critical summit for inciting global climate action. To have a chance of limiting the global temperature rising 1.5 degrees, the rate of global emissions must halve by 2030, and reach ‘net-zero’ by 2050. As laid out in the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, this is still an achievable goal. However, in order to achieve this 1.5 degree target, there must be unprecedented, urgent action taken.

The Paris Agreement

An international treaty signed by almost all of the countries in the world at the COP21 in Paris in 2015, the Paris Agreement was a landmark agreement made with the central aim to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change. It aimed to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

If you don't know much about the Paris Agreement, this '2 degree' change can sound misleadingly insignificant.

And, as outlined in "Small Gases, Big Effect", there's a big, big difference between a several degree drop in temperature from one day to the next, and the climate itself warming by 2 degrees.

Because we talk about both weather and climate in the same measurement system, the two can get confused - or, perhaps, the seriousness of such a figure can be underestimated.

Bill Gates expands on this idea in powerfully simple terms in his 2021 book "How To Avoid a Climate Disaster":

quotation marksIn climate terms, a change of just a few degrees is a big deal ... During the age of the dinosaurs, when the average temperature was perhaps four degrees Celsius higher than today, there were crocodiles living above the Arctic Circle.

It's worth noting that serious climate change indicates a change in average weather conditions over an extended time period, rather than just day-to-day fluctuations in weather. People in countries across the world are already suffering from droughts and windstorms on a scale never seen before; they're deprived them of daily food and basic needs, and sometimes forced them to leave their homes altogether. A number of examples of climate-related delighted recent years spring to mind; the devastating bush fires in Australia, for example, or Cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Southern Africa, or the deadly floods and landslides in South Asia, or the droughts in East Africa.

If we want to prevent further damage, and to prevent ourselves from barreling towards warmer global temperatures, we need to start making changes as soon as possible. This is what COP26 hopes to bring about.

Written with the help of our wide range of our Knowledge Hacks on Uptime (over 2,000 of them in total, in fact), here are our three key takeaways from the Glasgow summit:

1: Fighting the climate crisis requires global altruism on a scale never seen before

To combat climate change in the way that we need to, there needs to be aggressive, upfront cuts to our global carbon emission levels. This will require countries working together across all borders, for the sake of both future generations and those alive today. It will also require global leaders, as well today's biggest corporations to shift their perspective from a more nationalistic, short-term-gains-approach to a global, bigger-picture one.

For example, "All We Can Save", the bestselling anthology of writings on the environmental movement co-edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson, pinpoints how fossil fuel companies have fought a concerted campaign against holistic environmental policy for decades, potentially setting back meaningful legislation for years.

quotation marksThe problem of climate change is a problem of energy use and energy policy, which is why organizations and activists are working towards systemic change in energy policy, building policy, and renewables.

- Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson, "All We Can Save".

Journalist and environmental justice campaigner Naomi Klein expands on this sentiment in her book "This Changes Everything", where she argues that serious progress made against climate change will require big changes. While the economic model of most of the world relies on 'growth', we’ve now grown past the earth’s natural limits, writes Klein; the planet has finite resources, but unchecked growth is killing what’s left of the earth’s natural stockpiles. We have to prioritize the long-term future planet over short-term economic growth, or find a way to establish more of a balance between the two, she writes.

This effort will also require wealthier nations to support and uplift poorer countries. An episode Netflix's "Explained" series collaboration with Vox deftly articulates the reasons why; as unpacked in "The End of Oil, Explained", while some Western countries have managed to reduce their carbon emissions over the last few years, the developing world is producing more greenhouse gases than ever before.

However, the suggestion that we must all immediately shift to 'clean energy' overlooks the fact that, for many people across the world, access to renewable energy is a luxury.

Globally, nearly one billion people lack access to electricity altogether.

As Bill Gates outlines in his book "How To Avoid A Climate Disaster", electricity poverty impacts virtually every facet of your life. How can a child do their homework in the dark? If a woman goes into labor at night, she may have to give birth by candlelight because there is no electricity to provide light. Must people be expected to live in the dark because their country is experiencing another power outage?

Lack of access to electricity is a pivotal obstacle preventing progress and development for a considerable proportion of the world’s population. Developing countries need access to electricity in order to advance sectors such as public health, education, poverty reduction, and food security. It's both economically and morally wrong to refuse the most impoverished people access to the same technology the rest of us use everyday, writes Gates. The snag, of course, is that energy generation creates greenhouse gas emissions.

quotation marksDeveloping countries are saying 'yes, we want to be part of this, we want to transition (away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy), but we really need the help.' We cannot achieve our climate goals if we don't achieve universal access for everybody. The story of energy, climate change, and development have to be one and the same.

- Damilola Ogunbiyi, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, as quoted in "The End of Oil"

Another agreement signed in 2015's aforementioned Paris Agreement was that developing countries receive support — whether it be in funds or in green technology — to speed up their transition away from fossil fuels.

In the aforementioned Paris Climate Accord of 2015, wealthy nations pledged to give $100 billion every year to help developing countries find alternate energy sources; in reality, they have only given about $10 billion so far. 

quotation marksEven if the United States and Europe all work together to fix the problem (of carbon emissions), we're still not there unless we bring the developing world along… Without keeping emissions down in the developing world, we'll all fry.

Samantha Gross, director of energy and climate at the Brookings Institution, as quoted in "The End of Oil"

In order to save our planet, wealthy nations not only need to transition from using fossil fuels as a fuel source, but help developing nations to do the same. Net zero targets are a powerful way to signal common cause between nations, but retaining that sense of solidarity requires these targets be consistent with demands for climate justice.

2: We must start taking aggressive, upfront action today - not just pledging to

First, it's worth noting that COP26 has seen a flurry of very promising pledges made - pledges that makes the future feel a little more optimistic.

Take the global methane pledge, for example. One of the key developments in the first week of COP26, this pledge signals an agreement to curb emissions of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas. Led by the United States and the European Union, this pledge seeks to slash methane emissions down by 30% in the next ten years. More than 100 countries have signed it.

Still, global leaders making verbal commitments is one thing, but nailing those commitments with definite action is quite another.

Net-zero pledges – if they're executed as they're written – could undoubtedly make a pivotal difference in slowing the rate of climate change. However, some have argued that current plans are still vague, and not reflected in nationally determined contributions (NDCs). For example, many of the national climate plans delay action until after 2030, raising doubts over whether net-zero pledges can be delivered.

Addressing a mass rally in Glasgow last week, activist Greta Thunberg told crowds:

quotation marksNet zero by 2050', blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great, but so far has led to no action.

Global leaders can set targets to curb our emissions down to net zero in 20 or 30 years from now, but the actions we take today and tomorrow really do matter. In fact, the cuts we make over the near term are far more significant over the ones that we make over the long term.

For starters, climate change is already causing sociopolitical and economic problems we're not prepared for. Globally, extreme weather events already displace millions of people each year (climate refugees).

Anthropogenic ("human-caused") greenhouse gases have caused an abnormally rapid rise in global surface temperatures, and with it, comes a harsh new reality of what our 'average' weather might look like; namely, a rise in devastating disasters. Changes in the global climate aggravate climate hazards and intensify the risk of extreme weather disasters; as our planet has warmed, we've seen a growing trend of increasingly destructive climate disasters (the number has tripled over the last 30 years).

Rising sea levels and warmer air temperatures creates risks of biblical flooding and higher wind speeds.And this reality is already happening: 2020 barreled through the previous record for the number of climate-driven disasters occurring annually in the US, including hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires. This depressing 'achievement' caused more than $1 billion in damage - not to mention the devastating impacts on the people directly impacted by them.

Of course, the worry here is that climate change-fueled disasters are already causing devastating impact - and if this is what we're dealing with now, what might they look like in 20, 30, or 40 years' time?

quotation marksAs leaders, we have a responsibility to fully articulate the risks our people face. If the politics are not favorable to speaking truthfully, then clearly we must devote more energy to changing the politics.

- Marlene Moses, Ambassador to the United Nations for Nauru - quoted in Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything

Is there a way we can ensure that global leaders are held accountable? In short, yes, but it'll take effort. Still, this leads us pretty nicely onto our last insight.

3: If we as individuals want to help fight the climate crisis, political involvement is the most important action we can take

In Greta Thunberg's recent documentary, I Am Greta, she expresses frustration at politicians who 'feign' a desire to protect our planet, yet make no real change to their behavior or policies.

Even more frustrating than outright climate change deniers are those who 'pretend' to be supportive of her message, yet change nothing about their behavior, the young activist argues.

Young people today are the ones most likely to be affected by the ramifications of climate change in the future, continues Thunberg - however, there is not enough time left to wait for our leaders of tomorrow to deal with this further down the line.

This is a sentiment echoed in "The New Climate War", a book published by American climatologist and geophysicist Michael E. Mann in 2021. Mann writes of the 'deflection tactics' often employed by fossil fuel companies - namely, jumping in on discussions about environmental issues and clean energy only in order to understate their own responsibility. As outlined in Uptime's "The New Climate War" book summary, BP was one of the first corporations to promote the concept of 'personal carbon footprint' (way back in the 2000s), to shift our focus from the carbon footprint of major corporations and onto our individual actions instead. By pushing debates about individual lifestyle choices, such as meat consumption or air travel, companies can turn attention away from issues such as fossil fuel subsidies and international environmental policies.

quotation marksConsumer choice doesn't build high-speed railways, fund research and development in renewable energy, or place a price on carbon emissions. Any real solution must involve both individual action and systemic change.

Michael E. Mann, author of "The New Climate War"

However, Michael E. Mann does not make this point to discourage anyone from making careful, considerate, conscientious changes to their lifestyle; just to be aware that it's not the only action we can take in order to make a difference.

In "How to Avoid A Climate Disaster", Bill Gates echoes this sentiment. Undoubtedly, making individual, small-scale lifestyle changes will undoubtedly positively impact the planet. By all means, do incorporate more vegetarian options into your diet, install solar panels, and drive an electric car if you're able. While this will reduce your individual carbon footprint, it will also add to changing consumer spending habits. Importantly, companies respond fastest to market forces, and often need economic incentives to change practices. Once corporations realize that consumers want to buy from more sustainable, eco-friendly businesses, then they will make it their, ahem, business, to become one.

Political action is the most important element in bringing emissions to zero and slowing the rate of climate change. One of the potential 'dangers' of COP26 is that it can encourage a sense of complacency amongst anyone who does not have the power to influence international politics - which is most of us. One can easily feel like all the responsibility lies with global leaders. While this is partly true, that doesn't mean you can't make a difference. Undeniably, making small lifestyle changes will help reduce your carbon footprint - and, importantly, you can become more involved in climate justice movements.

Both Bill Gates and Greta Thunberg are in agreement here: we need change at a much larger scale (and we're talking at a systemic level) to happen in order to bring about net zero and slow the rate of climate change. How do we make that happen? By supporting climate justice movements. When we as citizens collectively build power - such as by signing petitions, attending protests, or choosing to spend our hard-earned cash on companies that are actively committing to greener policies - then we'll be capable of influencing how business is done at a global scale. COP26 is organised partly in order to do just that.

Further Reading

If this article has sparked your interest, there are a huge range of resources out there to read up on the ongoing climate crisis. For a quick, 5-minute refresher of these ideas, we recommend having a look at some of these Knowledge Hacks on Uptime:

There is No Planet B - Mike Berners-Lee

On Fire - Naomi Klein

Chasing Coral - (documentary - dir. by Jeff Orlowski)

Global Planet Authority - Angus Forbes

The Sixth Extinction - Elizabeth Kolbert

quotation marksWhatever we make it into, Earth will be our only home for a very long time to come. There is no Planet B.

- Mike Berners-Lee, author of "There is No Planet B"

One clear, overarching message threads its way through each of these books and documentaries: Earth is all we have. We must look after it.

If this article has inspired you, know that it's never too late to become an environmental activist. In fact, you can read up on how you can do so right here.

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