What does COP26 mean for the world?

By Ciaran Gill

In the summer of last year Siberia – the famously climatically hostile part of the world– experienced highs of 38°C. In February of this year, meanwhile, the US state of Texas experienced lows of -18°C. 

What these extreme events show is not that both countries have swapped their climates – like a meteorological version of ‘Freaky Friday’ stretched out over nine months – but that they have been affected by the same thing: climate change. 

November’s COP26 conference, to be held in Glasgow, if COVID-19 permits, will play host to delegates from around the world, all of whom will have different ideas on how to tackle the global heating that is causing extreme weather events across the globe. 

COP26 was initially planned to take place in November 2020, the first week of which was to coincide with the US Presidential Election. Fast forward to 2021 and hopes for the conference are higher now than they were then due to both the likelihood that President Trump could secure a second term and a lack of engagement in the global climate fight on the part of large nations such as China. 

Things, however, have now changed. The COVID-19 pandemic crystallised that the edifice that underpins both modern society and the global economy will always be vulnerable to natural and biological threats. It also illustrated both the interdependence that binds countries together across the world and the capacity of governments to make substantial changes in short spaces of time to address considerable collective challenges. 

With the global zeitgeist very much geared towards climate action, countries have taken several steps which have generated optimism ahead of COP26 in November.

In December 2020, in a compliment to its goal of reaching Net Zero emissions by 2050, the UK announced that it had adopted a target of reducing economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. Earlier in the year, the European Green Deal was launched by the European Union which commits the bloc to attaining climate neutrality by 2050. 

In the latter half of 2020, Net Zero announcements were made by countries such as Japan and South Korea, which both confirmed that they would seek to acquire climate neutrality by 2050. And in September 2020, a substantial boost to the world’s fight against climate change arrived in the form of China’s announcement that it would seek to become carbon neutral by 2060. 

As these announcements were followed by President Biden’s victory in the US Presidential Election, who pledged in his campaign that the US would re-join the Paris Agreement (which it did, taking effect on 19 February this year) the feeling towards COP26 has therefore been one of relative hope and optimism relative to the sentiment prior to previous conferences. 

And what, you may ask, does this conference mean for the world? 

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, President Macron of France, in a characteristically assertive way, set out his belief that only through multilateralism can the global community achieve results in areas such as climate change. 

After several tumultuous years in which the forces of national populism have emerged in countries such as the US, Brazil and India, COP26 presents a chance for many world leaders – who are so inclined – to work together in such a way as to illustrate that multilateralism is an effective way of managing 21st century international relations.

With President Macron, for example, a successful COP26 would stand him in good stead ahead of the French Presidential Election of 2022 when he is expected to face off against the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen. 

For the UK, as co-hosts of COP26 alongside Italy, the conference presents Boris Johnson’s government with the chance to forge a progressive post-Brexit identity: a globally-minded broker between countries committed to achieving good in the world. A successful COP26, in turn, could allow Boris Johnson to hit back at critics who say that Brexit will lead to a substantial loss of influence for the UK on the world stage. 

For the US, COP26 is a vehicle for President Biden to reaffirm America’s leadership role within the world after several years in which its soft power diminished considerably. Biden has appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, who recently said that the Glasgow conference represents “the last best chance” for the global community to avert the worst environmental consequences. 

For China, meanwhile, which has attracted international criticism over the past years in relation to issues such as its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its treatment of the Uighurs of Xinjiang, and its ties with the technology company Huawei, COP26 presents the nation with the chance to show that it can play a constructive role within the international community. China’s commitment to attain carbon neutrality by 2060, given its position as the world’s largest carbon emitter, paves the way for more engagement in the fight against a climate catastrophe. 

In a world in which globalisation and the flow of capital across borders has often reduced the power of governments, COP26 presents the chance for national administrations to come together, seek solutions and reaffirm, in the eyes of domestic citizens, their own authority in the process. 

COP26 will mean different things to different states but all nations will ultimately appreciate its immense importance.  As countries’ economies are ultimately driven by companies, they will also appreciate how important the conference will be. This stems from the fact that measures agreed at COP26 could determine for many companies whether they have a viable future and whether their innovative approach to tackling environmental problems will be enough to help bring about success. 

In November, all eyes will be on Glasgow. If John Kerry is right that COP26 is the “the last best chance” to avert catastrophe, let’s hope that constructive preparation is already under way. 

Update COP26
 
This Friday (5th March, 2021) is the deadline for companies to submit an expression of interest to the UK Government to exhibit or host an event at the UNCCC COP26 summit (being held in Glasgow between 1 – 12 November).
 
Companies have to bid for a place via a 1,000-word expression of interest and, to be successful, submissions must align with UK aims (as President of COP26) as well as demonstrating inclusivity and collaboration. To be eligible to participate, organisations must also show their commitment to decarbonisation via either the UN Race to Zero, or the Science Based Targets Initiative. 
 
This Friday’s deadline also kicks off an intense eight months of meetings, milestones and opportunities for organisations to engage with the sustainability movement and build their ESG brand credentials. We’ve outlined the key points of debate and engagement through 2021 in our COP26 brochure here.