COP26 - the 26th Conference of the Parties got underway on 31 October 2021 at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow and is set to run until 12 November. The target for the two-week climate conference is for the world’s leaders to commit to keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5c above pre-Industrial levels, as set out in the Paris agreement, which was drawn up in 2015 at COP21 in Paris.

World leaders, who have gathered in Glasgow for the conference have already heard impassioned speeches from United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Sir David Attenborough.  

Mr Guterres began with a stark message saying that the planet had had, “Enough of brutalizing biodiversity, killing ourselves with carbon, treating nature like a toilet, burning, and drilling and mining our way deeper.”

But he went on to acknowledge the part that young people were already playing in the fight against climate change:-

“The climate action army - led by young people - is unstoppable. They are larger.  They are louder.  And, I assure you, they are not going away. I stand with them… On behalf of this and future generations, I urge you: Choose ambition. Choose solidarity. Choose to safeguard our future and save humanity”, he said.

Sir David spoke for seven minutes and highlighted the ability humans had to change the current situation and reverse the growth in greenhouse gas emissions:-

“We are, after all, the greatest problem-solvers to have ever existed on Earth. We now understand this problem, we know how to stop the number rising, and put it in reverse. We must halve carbon emissions this decade. We must recapture billions of tonnes of carbon from the air. We must fix our sights on keeping 1.5 degrees within reach”, he said

Echoing Mr Guterres, he closed his remarks with a message for the world’s young people:-

“"If working apart we are a force powerful to destabilise our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it," he said, before concluding, "In my lifetime I've witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery."

Speaking later, US President Joe Biden said “Glasgow must be the kick-off of a decade of ambition and innovation to preserve our shared future”, he said, reminding that climate change is already costing nations millions of lives and dollars.

Early successes included a new agreement to end deforestation by 2030, which has been signed by 110 world leaders.  Among the signatories are Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, China, Canada, the Democratic Republic of Congo and in total, around 85% of the world’s forests will be covered by the countries that have committed to the deal.

Some £14 billion in financing is being provided from private and public funds to support the pledge.  The deal has received a cautious welcome from environmentalists, but whether countries act on it remains to be seen.  A similar deal, the New York Declaration on Forests, agreed in 2014, has so far failed to stop or even slow deforestation - despite its targets of halving deforestation by 2020 and ending it by 2030.  But only 40 countries signed the New York Declaration, and key countries like Brazil (with over 12% of the world’s forests) and Russia (with over 20% of the planet’s trees) didn’t sign.  The scale of the new Glasgow agreement gives us greater reason to be hopeful.

Another significant early development has been that the United States has rejoined the High Ambition Coalition, a group of countries that ensured that the 1.5C temperature increase target was key to the Paris agreement.  The US’ return to the coalition is a significant and positive step in keeping the ambition of the Paris agreement alive.

India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, speaking at COP26, pledged that India would get to net zero emissions by 2070.  He also promised that 50% of India’s power would be renewably-generated by 2030.

A new report from Malte Meinshausen, an associate professor in climate science at Melbourne and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has predicted that the world is currently on track for 1.9C of temperature increases.  Whilst this is well above the 1.5C target of the Paris agreement, it also marks the first time that pledged reductions would lead to an increase of less than 2C, which was the upper limit for increases set by the Paris agreement.  A key contributory factor in the new, lower temperature increase forecast was India’s new pledges to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

But increasing numbers of scientists are now in agreement that 1.5C of temperature increase marks the limits of safety, beyond which many small island countries will be underwater and extreme weather events will take place with much greater frequency across the planet.

To get to below 1.5C, the world needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030.  Current pledges don’t enable this to happen.  But there is a lot more talking to do.  And the context is now different.  People across the planet are aware of the damage climate change can cause, and many have already experienced it in one form or another.  And increasingly, those people - both young and old - are making their voices heard about the urgency of the need for change.  The big question is: can the world’s leaders continue to be deaf to their people’s calls for action?

Photo: Sir David Attenborough addresses the world's leaders at COP26.  Photo provided by COP26.

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