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Everything you need to know about COP26, the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow

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After a summer of record-setting heat waves, hurricanes and forest fires, public concern about climate change has reached an all-time high leading into the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which gets underway on Oct. 31.

The outcome of this summit, which is also referred to as COP26, may be the single most important factor in determining whether humanity suffers the worst consequences of climate change.

Even by the standards of the United Nations, however, the conference promises to be confusing and complicated to follow. But understanding what is happening in Glasgow is key to knowing what the future may hold for life on earth. To demystify the proceedings, Yahoo News has answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about COP26.

Second from left: Ban Ki-moon
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, second from left, celebrates with officials at COP21 in 2015. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

What is climate change and why does it matter?

Climate change refers to the effects of global warming — a worldwide average temperature increase of 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 Fahrenheit) — recorded since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century. As humans burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas, the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which trap heat, rise. The effects of this, such as sea-level rise and more extreme weather, have already begun. If left unchecked, greenhouse gas emissions will lead to several more degrees of warming with devastating results for people in vulnerable areas.

So what is happening in Glasgow?

Almost every country in the world, 197 nations in total, will go to Glasgow to try to negotiate an updated agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was created in 1992.

There has been a Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC, or COP, every year since 1995. The first agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions was the Kyoto Protocol, struck in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. (Kyoto was COP3.) Most years, the COP is dedicated to discussing the mundane details of implementation of the existing agreements, but every five or six years, there is a major conference to try to forge an updated agreement.

The last agreement was signed in 2015, in Paris. Countries agreed to re-adjurn in five years to update the agreement to make it stronger. Last year, however, it was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When is it happening?

The conference will be held from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12. For some reason, the climate negotiations seem to always happen in cold, dark places in late autumn. Before the Paris conference, which was held in the first two weeks of December 2015, it was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009.

Environmentalists hold a banner
A demonstration in Paris during COP21 in 2015. (Mal Langsdon/Reuters)

Who is going to be there?

While the actual negotiations are conducted by high-level government officials, like a country’s environment minister, many heads of state, including President Biden, will also show up to make speeches. The U.S. delegation is being led by former Secretary of State John Kerry and the White House has announced plans to bring several current members of the Cabinet, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as well as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan. Queen Elizabeth II also plans to attend.

The delegates will likely be outnumbered by the legions who come to influence them. Corporations and advocacy groups will set up shop in a giant pavilion on the inside and host panels and press conferences, while environmental activists, many of them young, are planning rallies, marches and other events near the conference.

Why did the Paris agreement need to be updated and strengthened?

While nations agreed in Paris to limit the global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial average, and to make their best efforts to hold it down to 1.5C, their actual pledged actions will lead to at least 2.7C of warming by the end of this century.

Scientific projections suggest that much warming will lead to extremely harmful and dangerous consequences: brutal heat waves, turbo-charged storms, sea levels rising by several feet and raging forest fires.

So, the hope in Paris was that as nations switch to clean energy sources such as solar and wind, that they would be willing to make more ambitious commitments to cut emissions in the next agreement.

Didn’t former President Donald Trump withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement?

In November 2020, former President Donald Trump formally withdrew the U.S. from the Paris agreement, a move that was viewed as a potentially fatal blow to hopes of keeping global temperatures in check. President Biden, as one of his first official acts, signed an executive order to rejoin it and is looking to restore American leadership on climate change.

Why is it called the Paris agreement, instead of a treaty?

In the United States, by far the largest total greenhouse gas emitter, treaties have to be approved by the U.S. Senate. Since Senate Republicans wouldn’t allow any international climate treaty to pass, and since the U.S. has to be a party to any global climate agreement for it to work, the Paris agreement couldn’t be an official treaty. Technically, each major new climate agreement is an amendment to the original 1992 treaty.

Whereas treaties are legally binding and can actually subject countries that don’t keep their promises to penalties, there are no penalties for a country that fails to meet its promises under the Paris agreement.

Ice calves off the jagged face of Perito Moreno Glacier
Ice calves off the jagged face of the Perito Moreno Glacier and splashes into Lago Argentino near El Calafate, Argentina. (Jon G. Fuller/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

What will it take to make Glasgow a success?

If successful, countries will negotiate an agreement to set a limit on warming and specify what each will do to limit its emissions. But they will also need to agree on funding to help developing nations meet their own emissions targets.

What are the sticking points?

As scientific research increasingly shows, climate change is already having worse effects at lower temperatures than previously projected. Many countries, including the U.S., the United Kingdom and some in the European Union want to reduce the maximum warming commitment to 1.5C. A few countries, most significantly China, have so far refused to agree to that because they fear it could interfere with economic growth.

So far, nations have pledged enough emissions cuts to hold warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Another major issue is climate finance. In Copenhagen in 2009, wealthy countries promised to mobilize $100 billion per year in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, but they are still tens of billions short. Getting sufficient climate finance contributions from nations that have given less than their fair share is key to getting large developing countries such as India to agree to limit their future emissions. So far, the U.S. has not lived up to its own financial commitments.

What are the prospects for success?

The world faces an uphill battle in the fight against climate change. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has warned repeatedly that First World countries need to increase their emissions reduction and climate finance pledges to bring the next agreement in line with the goals laid out in Paris.

But he, Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and others are applying public and private pressure to get there, as are climate activists, especially young people. The earth hangs in the balance, but the outcome is unknown.

So why have any faith in the process at all?

Preventing catastrophic climate change requires every country’s participation, and Glasgow will, at the very least, bring every nation to the table to negotiate. Despite some setbacks, the process has already yielded progress: All nations have committed to combating climate change, many countries have committed to significant emissions cuts and even developing nations that were once unwilling to commit to climate action have begun to do so.

The climate agreements also created mechanisms for gathering funds from wealthier countries, which are responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions, and distributing the money to developing countries for adapting to climate change and growing economically without relying on fossil fuels.

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