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COP26, Simplified

I follow current affairs regularly and like explaining things in a simple way to people around me.

COP26 is the buzzword of the week. If you are someone who is trying to understand what COP26 is, then you are at the right place. In this article, I will try to simplify all jargons surrounding this topic.

What is COP26?

COP stands for Conference of the Parties, a simplified name for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. So, COP26 means the 26th Conference of the Parties. In general, a conference of the parties is the supreme governing body of an international convention. This year it takes place at Glasgow, Scotland, UK, from October 31 to November 12.

But, what is it actually about?

To understand that, we need a little bit of history. In 1992, 154 countries came together at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to attend the Earth Summit (formally known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) in response to the global realization of climate change. This summit led to the establishment of an international environmental treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to combat "dangerous human interference with the climate system".

UNFCCC in a nutshell

  • It is an international environmental treaty to combat climate change.
  • Signed at Rio de Janeiro, 1992, by 154 countries.
  • It categorized signatory countries into 4:
  1. Developed countries (Annex I)
  2. Developed countries with special financial responsibilities (Annex II)
  3. Developing countries (Non-annex I)
  4. Least developed countries (LDC)
  • According to the convention, Parties should act to protect the climate system on the basis of "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities", and that developed country Parties should "take the lead" in addressing climate change.

COP milestones

COP1, Berlin, Germany (1995)

The first UNFCCC Conference of the Parties took place in Berlin, Germany, in the year 1995.

COP3 - Kyoto Protocol (1997)

At Kyoto, Japan (1997). While the UNFCCC (which was adopted in 1992) was a rough plan to combat climate change, it didn’t have any solid action plans. It is the international treaty created at Kyoto, called the Kyoto Protocol, that mandated binding targets on the signatories for the first time. The overall target was to have an average 5% emission reduction compared to 1990 levels over the five year period 2008–2012. It listed seven greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).

Common but differentiated responsibilities

The Kyoto Protocol was based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. What does that mean? No two countries have the same economic capabilities. Climate change is our common struggle. No country can escape from its perils - be it developed or least developed. But, we cannot expect every country to contribute the same to solve this problem. Nor can we ask every country to reduce their emissions by the same amount. Hence the term “common” but “differentiated responsibilities”.

COP8, New Delhi, India (2002)

COP8 adopted the Delhi Ministerial Declaration which called for efforts by developed countries to transfer technology and minimize the impact of climate change on developing countries.

COP21 (2015) - Paris Agreement

COP21 that took place in Paris, France in 2015 adopted the significant Paris Climate Accords, popularly known as the Paris Agreement. As of October 2021, 192 countries are parties to the agreement. The agreement has the following targets:

  1. To keep the rise in mean global temperature to well below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900) and preferably limit the increase to 1.5 degree Celsius.
  2. Reaching net-zero by the middle of the 21st century. Net-zero, in simple words, refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.

Some of the adaptation provisions are the following:

  • It requires all Parties to put forward their best efforts through “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs). Simply, NDCs are efforts by each country to reduce national emissions. You can read about country-wise NDC targets and their current state here.
  • To achieve this temperature goal, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.
  • Developed countries reaffirmed the commitment to mobilize $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020, and agreed to continue mobilizing finance at this level until 2025.
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You might probably have a couple of questions here.

Who are the top emitters?

What is the current situation of temperature rise?

According to the World Meteorological Organization, the average global temperature in 2020 was about 14.9 degree Celsius, which is 1.2 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial level.

“The 1.5 degree Celsius target seems achievable. Then, why is everyone worried?”

Well, according to IPCC’s likely estimate based on climate projections in their report ‘Global warming of 1.5 degree Celsius’, the 1.5 degree limit would be reached in 2034 if the warming trend continues in the same way it has for the 30 years up until December 2020. In simple words, looking at the way things are going, the 1.5 degree limit is not really going to happen.

“But, it is just a 1 or 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature, is it that bad?”

Yes, it is bad. According to this NASA article based on the IPCC special report, this 1-2 degree Celsius temperature rise is not happening uniformly across the globe. Some regions, like the Arctic, are going to experience extreme temperature rises. At 2 degrees Celsius warming,

  • Many countries can face heatwaves.
  • Up to half as many people around the planet may experience water stress caused by climate change.
  • Some places will see an increase in heavy rainfall events.
  • A lot of species will find their geographic range reduced by more than half.
  • Deforestation, wildfires and droughts will increase.
  • Sea level rise that can go up to 6 feet over a time scale of hundreds to thousands of years.
  • Ocean oxygen levels will decrease, leading to more “dead zones”.
  • Coral reefs to decline by 70 to 90%
  • The risk of heat-related illness and death will increase.
  • Food availability and economy will be affected.

“Is there a way out? What is our plan?”

“The door is open; the solutions are there. Scientists are clear on the facts. Now leaders need to be just as clear in their actions.”

António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General

What should governments do?

  • Protect and restore key ecosystems
  • Reduce the use of fossil fuels
  • Promote green energy
  • Combat short-lived climate pollutants
  • Mitigation: mitigation is the action of reducing the severity of something. In climate change terms, the efforts to reduce emissions and enhance carbon sinks are referred to as “mitigation”.
  • Adaptation: climate change adaptation refers to actions that reduce the negative impact of climate change, while taking advantage of potential new opportunities

COP26 Goals

1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach. For this, countries need to

  • accelerate the phase-out of coal
  • curtail deforestation
  • speed up the switch to electric vehicles
  • encourage investment in renewables

2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats

3. Mobilize finance

4. Work together to deliver


  1. Trust: Both developed and developing countries still have trust issues while negotiating climate targets. Developing countries do not want to curb their developing activities while high-income countries are reluctant to step up their contributions for climate change mitigation.
  2. Finance: The promised $100 billion under Paris Agreement has still not materialized.
  3. Vague promises: the governments attending these climate summits need to walk the talk.

I hope this article has helped you understand the basic terms and concepts associated with climate change negotiations and why the COP26 summit is significant for our planet.

As the Secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization Petteri Taalas said,

“CoP26 is a make-or-break opportunity to put us back on track.”

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