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Explainer: What is the Conference of Parties (COP)?

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COP26 is being held in Glasgow, UK at a time when many believe that the world has reached a critical stage as far as climate change is concerned. But what is ‘Conference of Parties’ and why is it important? Here is an explainer.

This year, the UK in partnership with Italy is hosting the twenty-sixth session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), popularly known as COP26, from 31 October to 12 November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. In this global summit, more than 190 world leaders including the Indian Prime Minister are participating, along with tens of thousands of negotiators, government representatives, businesses, and citizens. The twelve days of talks are aimed at accelerating the global action towards attaining the goals of the Paris Agreement and UNFCCC. The summit was originally scheduled to be held from 9 November to 19 November 2020 but was postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

UNFCC was signed in 1992 and came into force in 1994

In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit, was convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where the leaders of more than 100 countries met to discuss the urgent issues of environmental protection and socio-economic development. In this conference, countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which took effect later in 1994. A total of 197 countries have ratified the Convention and are termed as Parties to the Convention. The main objective of the UNFCCC is to achieve the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. 

‘Conference of the Parties’ is held every year to discuss and review climate actions

Since then, for nearly three decades, the United Nations has brought together all the countries which ratified the Convention or the Parties to the Convention for global climate summits known as ‘Conference of the Parties’ or COP making climate change a matter of global priority. The conferences are held on an annual basis and are considered the supreme decision-making body of the Convention. All the Parties to the Convention are represented at the COP by the respective leaders. The implementation of the Convention is reviewed, strategies are re-evaluated, and legal instruments are built. In short, decisions required to promote the effective implementation of the Convention are taken in these conferences. Meanwhile, the national communications and emission inventories submitted by Parties are reviewed. The COP also assesses the effectiveness of the measures adopted by the Parties and their progress with respect to attaining the objective of the Convention.

The first COP was held in Germany

The first Conference of the Parties or COP1 was held in Berlin, Germany in 1995 after the UNFCCC came into force in 1994. The COP meets in Bonn, the seat of the secretariat unless a Party offers to host the session. Currently, COP26 is taking place in Glasgow. COP25 was initially planned to take place in Brazil but the country withdrew its offer and instead the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC) had to host the conference. Ultimately, Chile hosted the conference in Madrid with logistical support from the Government of Spain. The only year when the conference was not held was 2020. The list of COPs and the details of the host is below.  

Paris agreement was signed in COP21 to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees 

COP21 took place in Paris in 2015. In this conference, for the first time, all the countries consented to work together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees compared to the preindustrial levels. The target of 1.5 degrees was arrived at because each fraction of a degree rise in global temperature has a drastic effect resulting in the loss of many lives and destroying livelihoods. The 196 Parties at the COP21 in Paris signed the Paris Agreement to commit to the targets.

Countries are obliged to share NDCs under Paris Agreement every five years

Under the Paris Agreement, the countries had also committed to proposing their national plans by estimating the number of greenhouse emissions that they would cut on. Each country must create an outline and communicate their post-2020 climate actions, also known as their Nationally Determined Contributions (or NDCs) that the country intends to achieve. NDCs constitute the national climate plans which focus on climate actions, including climate-related targets, policies, and other measures rolled out by governments that are being implemented in response to climate change and as a contribution to global climate action. 

Under the Paris Agreement in 2015, the Parties agreed that every five years, they would come back with an updated plan that would reflect their highest ambition at that time. Thus, in COP26, countries will be updating their plans for cutting down emissions. Moreover, the commitments in the agreement that the Parties signed onto have not been achieved. In fact, the world is not even close to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. COP26 is also considered to be an event that many believe is the “world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control”. 

IPCC report has given a ‘code red for humanity

In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its assessment report on Earth’s climate prior to COP26. It noted that unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be impossible to achieve. 

Further, the report noted that the effect of climate change will further increase in all regions. For a 1.5°C of global warming, increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons, and shorter cold seasons will be witnessed. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health. The evidence in the report also noted that carbon dioxide (CO2) was the main driver of climate change, though there are other greenhouse gases and air pollutants which affect the climate.

COP26’s key goal is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century

The key goal of this year’s COP is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century (2050). Further, it also aims to increase climate finance to aid poorer countries that are the most vulnerable to climate change, to shift to clean energy, and help adapt to climate change. The focus will also be to encourage countries affected by climate change to protect and restore ecosystems, build defences, put warning systems in place and make infrastructure and agriculture more resilient to avoid loss of homes, livelihoods, and lives. Similarly, phasing out usage of coal, and measures to preserve, restore, and regenerate natural carbon sinks will also be discussed.

India aimed to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33% to 35% by 2030

India’s commitments during COP21 when the Paris Agreement was signed are listed below. 

  • To reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33% to 35% by 2030 from the 2005 level. 
  • By 2030, around 40% of all-electric power would come from renewable sources like wind and solar. 
  • Plant enough trees and cover the land area with forests by 2030 to create a carbon sink to absorb about 2.5 billion tonnes to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • To mobilize domestic and new & additional funds from developed countries to implement the above mitigation and adaptation actions in view of the resources required and the resource gap

India will highlight climate justice COP26

This year, according to the Prime Minister’s statement, India would be highlighting the need to comprehensively address climate change issues including equitable distribution of carbon space, support for mitigation, adaptation, and resilience-building measures, mobilization of finance, technology transfer, and importance of sustainable lifestyles for green and inclusive growth. The country’s ambitious action on expanding clean and renewable energy, energy efficiency, afforestation, and biodiversity will also be shared. 

Featured Image: Conference of Parties

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