The Road to COP26: Our 101 on COP26


COP26 is scheduled to take place from Monday 1st November – Friday 12th November 2021 in Glasgow. It was originally intended to take place last November but was postponed due to COVID-19. It brings together global heads of state, climate experts, and civil society through a series of talks, negotiations, and events, all with the common goal of accelerating action to tackle climate change. Its significance cannot be overstated. Momentum is building following new announcements this week from the UK, the EU, the US, Canada and Japan regarding emissions reductions targets and publicly declared transition action by China, South Korea and South Africa. Further progress at COP26 is not simply a legacy issue but will have tangible direct impacts on existing communities across the world and the speed of transition to a low carbon global society.

We cover COP26’s purpose, context in the wider international framework, and our expectations for the summit, due to take place later this year.

What is ‘COP26’?

The ‘COP’ is an annual global summit on climate change held by the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The summit is known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP for short. This year’s meeting will be the 26th annual summit.

The UNFCCC came into force in 1994 and the first COP was held in Berlin in 1995. It has been held every year since save for 2021, when it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The term ‘COP’ doesn’t apply solely to conferences in respect of the UNFCCC, for example COP15 is taking place in October this year in Kunming, China, which is in relation to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. However, the UNFCCC COP is most well-known.

Italy will run a preliminary set of meetings called the ‘pre-COP’ which are due to take place in Milan between 30th September and 2nd October. Milan will also host the Youth4Climate event for young delegates between 28th and 30th September.

What is the UNFCCC?

The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty with an objective to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system, primarily by stabilising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The UNFCCC requires parties who are signatories to:

  • Develop and implement national programmes for measures to mitigate climate change;
  • Develop and provide an inventory of emissions and removals of GHG;
  • Conserve and enhance GHG sinks such as forests and oceans;
  • Integrate climate change into social, economic and environmental policies;
  • Share information, training and technologies for the combatting of climate change.

Some parties (known as the “Annex II” Parties) have signed up to stricter commitments and are also required to:

  • Provide financial assistance to developing countries to cover the costs of their compliance with the UNFCC and the costs of adaption to the adverse effects of climate change.

Annex II Parties are industrialised (developed) countries (including the UK). Parties who are not included in Annex II include countries with transitioning economies and developing countries. They include some large emitters such as India and China. Developed countries are encouraged to lead on the basis that they are the source of most past and current GHG emissions and can also do the most to cut emissions.

Who will attend?

Nearly all of the countries in the world are party to the UNFCCC. Originally, some 200 world leaders and 30,000 delegates were expected to attend, take part in discussions, report back on progress since the 2015 Paris Agreement, and make further decisions on how to reduce GHG emissions and combat the impact that climate change is already having. Notwithstanding speculation due to ongoing travel and capacity restrictions, the hope is that world leaders will still attend for key in person meetings.

Who will lead the talks?

The UK jointly shares the Presidency of COP26 with Italy. Host nations play a pivotal role at COPs, chairing much of the negotiations. Alok Sharma, the UK’s former international development secretary, is the president of COP26 and will be responsible for delivering the summit, setting the agenda for the summit and presiding over negotiations. Another key name is Archie Young, a member of the Cabinet Office who is the UK’s Lead Negotiator and who is responsible for overseeing climate negotiations in the UNFCCC, EU, G7 and G20.

The first week of talks will mainly involve technical and detailed negotiations. There are different types of talks:

  • Formal plenary sessions which are open to all delegates, and which form a basis for adopting agendas, procedures and decisions;
  • Informal consultations which are arranged to facilitate further discussion, with outcomes being forwarded to the corresponding plenary session; and
  • Closed bilateral meetings which may take place between delegations or country groupings where the parties seek to clarify their collective position and interests.

In week two, the focus shifts to a high-level segment, where a number of ministerial round table discussions take place, aiming to finalise negotiated decisions and facilitate agreement on the most challenging issues. This segment also features statements from heads of state, governments and high-ranking UN officials.

What progress has been made since the UNFCCC came into force?

Key landmarks include:

  1. Kyoto Protocol (COP 3) – adopted in December 1997 and in force from February 2005, the Kyoto Protocol committed 36 industrialised countries and the EU to limit and reduce GHG emissions in accordance with inpidual targets. It only bound developed countries due to the recognised principle that they are primarily responsible for the high levels of GHG emissions. The Kyoto Protocol also established a system for monitoring and verifying each party’s compliance.
  2. Doha Amendment (COP 18) – in December 2012, the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. The amendment included new commitments for parties for a second commitment period to be in force until 2020. The new commitments increased parties’ undertakings to reduce GHG emissions from 5 percent against 1990 levels to 18 percent against 1990 levels. Whilst 136 countries notified their acceptance of the Doha Amendment, it has not yet been formally ratified as ratification requires acceptance by at least three quarters of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol – being 144 acceptances.
  3. Paris Agreement (COP 21) – the Paris Accord on Climate Change whilst agreed in December 2015 entered into force in November 2016. It set a central objective to substantially reduce global GHG emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, while pursing means to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The aim is to achieve zero net emissions by the second half of the century. Each party to the Paris Agreement must submit “Nationally Determined Contributions” (or “NDCs”) outlining national climate action plans. These are required to be as ambitious as possible and are to be reviewed and tightened every five years. The Paris Agreement also requires signatories to reduce GHG emissions, conserve and enhance GHG sinks (reducing deforestation and increasing conservation); to co-operate on climate change adaption measures, early warning systems and emergency preparedness; for developed countries to provide financial supporting to developing country parties for mitigation and adaption measures and to raise education and public awareness. There is also a mechanism for assessing compliance with the agreement.
  4. Katowice (COP 24) – in December 2018 at Katowice the COP agreed the guidelines (or “rulebook”) for implementing the Paris Agreement. The guidelines are known as the Katowice climate package and they set out the essential procedures and mechanisms required to make the Paris Agreement operational. The Katowice climate package contains guidance on how countries will provide information on their NDCs and describe their domestic climate action, including mitigation measures, adaptation measures and details for financial support for climate action in developing countries. The framework enabled countries to track and report progress. The Katowice climate package also included guidance on the process for establishing new targets on finance from 2025 onwards to follow on from the current target of mobilising $100 billion per year from 2020 to support developing countries with climate change measures.

Was anything agreed at COP 25?

Yes, but many key decisions were deferred to COP26. The principal aim of COP 25 was to finalise the rulebook of the Paris Agreement – an operating manual to govern the mechanisms required under the Agreement and to enable it to become fully operational. However, parties were unable to reach consensus on key points related to the rules for Article 6 on international carbon markets and cooperation measures; these rules are to cover bilateral cooperation on emission cuts, a new international carbon market for the trade of emissions cuts and a framework for climate cooperation including on development aid.

Instead, the parties agreed a text known as ‘Chile Madrid Time for Action’ which sets out a compromise agreement stressing the need for urgent deeper cuts in GHGs. 73 countries also submitted their enhanced NDCs and, notably, some 630 global investors delivered a statement to governments on climate change urging the phasing out of thermal coal power and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.

Some other matters which were discussed at COP 25 include:

  • what share of proceeds from selling carbon offsets should be set aside to fund adaption measures in climate change vulnerable countries (a near final draft agreement was released);
  • common implementation timeframes for NDCs, which countries originally submitted in piecemeal fashion with expiring terms on the original NDCs ranging from 2020 to 2030 (no decision made but a number of proposals put forward on 5 year terms, 10 year terms and various hybrids);
  • finance for climate impacts and how to support developing countries;
  • the concept of just transition and providing support for fossil-fuel economies transitioning to low emission (a work plan was agreed); and
  • a 5-year gender action plan was agreed to support women’s full and equal participation in climate policy – this was one of the few outcomes of COP 25 to gain praise from NGOs and media.

What can we expect from the 2021 summit?

Goals:- The stated goals are to achieve a step change in commitments to emissions reduction; strengthening adaptation to climate change impacts; getting finance flowing for climate action and enhancing international collaboration, including for the COP26 campaigns on energy transition, clean road transport and nature.

New NDCs: Much debate over parties’ new pledges on emission targets through to 2030, and likely calls for these to be more ambitious. Not every country has to submit a new NDC, many NDCs already cover the period to 2030 and parties may simply re-communicate the same offering made in 2015/2016. However, the initial NDC synthesis report, prepared by the UNFCCC secretariat and published on 26 February 2021, analyses parties’ NDCs submitted up to 31 December 2020 identifying that the current level of commitment is insufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Paris Rulebook:- we can expect several negotiations to be held on finalising the Paris Rulebook – particularly on Article 6.

Public Engagement:- there is likely to be an overwhelming public response to the summit and increasingly pressing calls for global action. This includes increasingly vocal young people. There is a specific Youth4Climate event being planned for the pre-COP in Italy.

A review of UNFCCC:-There are calls to review its global warming target (this has been done once before in Paris when the target was changed from limiting global temperature increase to 2C above pre-industrial level to well-below 2C and pursing efforts to stay below 1.5C) and also to review the wider COP process as focus moves from setting targets and rules to implementing them.

Why is COP26 important?

COP26 will be the first time since the Paris Agreement that countries upgrade their pledges on tackling emissions reductions. Since 2015, climate science and public opinion on climate change has advanced. The UK has set a new NDC for 2030 of at least 68% reduction for 2030 against 1990 levels and this week a new target of 78% for 2035. Following the European Green Deal Communication in December 2019, the EU has submitted a NDC of 55% by 2030 against 1990 levels. On 21 April at the Leaders Summit on Climate, the US announced a 50-52% reduction against 2005 levels for 2030 and net zero for 2050. There is much anticipation to see what further targets will be proposed.

COP25 in Madrid in 2019 failed to reach consensus in many key areas, leaving many important questions unresolved and pushing decisions to COP26. COP26 will also see the return of the US to the negotiating table, with President Biden making action to tackle climate change a priority, returning the US to the Paris Agreement, after its withdrawal in 2019 and hosting the Earth Summit and demonstrating the US’s present contribution and leadership on 22 April 2021.

In the run up to November, a number of key events will provide further insight on what we can expect from COP26, including:

  • 17-21 May: Climate Exp0, the first virtual conference from the COP26 Universities Network and the Italian University Network for Sustainable Development (RUS), sponsored by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Cambridge University Press and the 2021 UN Climate Change Summit;
  • 31 May – 17 June: COP Intersessional meeting, held virtually;
  • 11 – 13 June: G7 Summit in the UK;
  • 26 June – 4 July: London Climate Action Week;
  • 14 – 30 September: UN General Assembly in the USA;
  • 20 – 26 September: New York Climate Week;
  • 30 September – 2 October: pre-COP in Italy;
  • 11 – 24 October: Convention on Biological Diversity Summit (COP 15) in China; and
  • 30 – 31 October: G20 Summit in Italy.

This Law-Now is part of our Road to COP26 series. We will be analysing and reporting on the implications of these events for the agenda at COP – look out for further updates on our legal insight on our climate change and sustainability pages.