What would make the COP26 climate conference a success?

What exactly are world leaders hoping to achieve at the COP26 climate conference in Scotland next month? CBC News takes a closer look.

All eyes are on Glasgow as global climate conference nears

Artists painted this mural on a wall near the Scottish Events Centre, in Glasgow, Scotland, which will be hosting the COP26 UN Climate Summit in November. Expectations are extremely high that the conference will deliver on environmental pledges made at the 2015 climate conference in Paris. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

"A turning point for humanity."

That's what the upcoming COP26 climate summit will be, at least according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who made the statement in a recent address to the United Nations General Assembly. 

As the U.K. gets ready to host this year's conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Johnson has called on world leaders to "recognize the scale of the challenge we face" on climate issues.

This past summer, much of the Northern Hemisphere was battered by a succession of record-breaking natural disasters, from severe heat waves in North America to deadly flooding in parts of western Europe, India and China to uncontrollable wildfires in the Mediterranean.

The latest report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the Earth was heating faster than previously thought, calling it "code red for humanity."

So what exactly are world leaders hoping to achieve at COP26? Here's what you need to know.

What is COP26?

Every year since 1995, the UN has brought together nearly every country in the world to address climate change at what is called the Conference of Parties (COP).

Simply put, it's the biggest, most important climate conference on the planet, and COP26 has been hailed as "the world's best last chance" to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, a 'turning point for humanity.' (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Last year marked the 26th year of COP, but the global pandemic delayed the gathering, so it is taking place this year from Nov. 1 to 12. It will bring together more than 20,000 participants in Glasgow, including heads of state, negotiators, climate experts, business leaders and citizens. 

COP26 is seen as the important follow-up to COP21, held in Paris in December 2015, which gave birth to the Paris Agreement.

Why is the Paris Agreement important?

In 2015, for the first time, countries agreed to work together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, aiming for 1.5 C.

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: Your input helps inform our coverage.

Under the Paris Agreement, each nation committed to setting out a plan to reduce their carbon emissions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Countries also agreed to update their NDCs every five years to reflect the most ambitious and achievable target at that time.

COP26 is the first time since Paris that countries will have to present their updated NDCs. Canada's updated NDC is reducing emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, an upgrade on the original pledge to cut emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

WATCH | Greta Thunberg and other climate activists voice their concern about the speed of action:

Inaction and inequity key concerns ahead of COP26 climate summit

1 year ago
Duration 2:07
As world leaders prepare for next month's COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Greta Thunberg is criticizing governments for not living up to their promises while others are pointing to concerns about the inequity facing countries most impacted by climate change.

Another important promise made in Paris was to reaffirm a prior commitment by developed countries to contribute to a climate fund of $100 billion US per year to help developing countries by 2020, and extend that commitment for another five years until 2025.

What does COP26 hope to achieve?

COP26 has four key aims:

  • Secure global commitments to net zero emissions by 2050 and keep 1.5 degrees within reach, specifically by taking measures like phasing out coal, switching to electric vehicles and stopping deforestation.
  • Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats.
  • Mobilize finance to make good on the promise to pool at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2020.
  • Work together to deliver on these goals.

"Accountability is really a watchword for this COP. One of the key issues there is making sure that there is accountability in the system," said Jennifer Allan, a lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University and a contributor to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, the de facto record of global environmental negotiations. 

"It's really about getting that reporting so everybody knows what everyone's doing on a regular basis, rather than worrying about it a few years later."

This is why COP26 is happening over two weeks. Time is needed for an army of negotiators to get into the nitty-gritty of time-frames, emissions-cutting pledges and a reporting system where progress can be measured and countries can be held accountable. 

Allan says these negotiations are crucial to the success of COP26. 

"Yes, these technical rules are boring. But it builds confidence that all countries are doing similar things, they're all moving in lockstep."

How far is the world from reaching its climate targets?

Still quite far. Critics have warned that current updated national pledges to reduce carbon emissions will miss climate targets by a long shot. 

"At the moment, we're only 15 per cent closer than we were two years ago to being on track for 1.5 degrees if no more NDC revisions are made ahead of the Glasgow summit," said Anna Åberg, research analyst at Chatham House in London.

Firefighters and volunteers try to extinguish a wildfire burning in the village of Markati, near Athens, in August 2021. Wildfires in Greece this summer were among the worst the country has ever seen. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Meanwhile, pledges to reach the $100 billion in financing have also fallen short.

Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada's environment minister, is part of an effort to push countries to stand by their commitments and deliver on the $100 billion US climate finance goal through 2025. 

"This $100 billion figure is mostly symbolic. It is not commensurate with the needs of developing countries, but it is really important that it is delivered," Åberg said. "It was the core element of the bargain underlying the Paris Agreement. Not delivering would constitute a massive breakdown in trust."

What are some of the biggest announcements leading up to the conference? 

Before the conference, several major players have made significant climate pledges.

Chinese President Xi Jinping made an unexpected announcement at the UN General Assembly in September that China would end funding for foreign coal power plants. Xi provided no details, but the announcement followed similar moves by South Korea and Japan earlier this year.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a video screen as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly in September. In his address, Xi promised that China would stop financing foreign coal plants. (Mary Altaffer - Pool/Getty Images)

U.S. President Joe Biden also upped the ante at the recent UNGA by doubling the U.S.'s climate aid. He said he would work with Congress to double funds by 2024 to $11.4 billion per year to help developing nations deal with climate change.

These positive moves by the world's two biggest carbon emitters has injected a note of optimism ahead of the Glasgow summit.

Earlier this month, a group of major cement producers pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by up to 25 per cent this decade and reach net zero by 2050. The industry is responsible for around seven per cent of global carbon emissions — more than any one country other than China and the U.S.

What does a successful COP26 look like?

The question is, will COP26 have a positive outcome or just be the culmination of "30 years of blah blah blah," in the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg? 

Åberg says one of the key things to watch for are "statements policymakers make during the high level plenary," where ministers and other prominent figures demonstrate their climate ambition.

Experts are particularly interested in what governments plan to do to bridge the gap between current pledges versus the emissions cuts necessary to remain on track to keep global warming to 1.5 C. 

"Will they be revising their NDCs earlier than the Paris timetable dictates? Will they be making concrete commitments on fossil fuel phase-out and protecting nature?" Åberg said.

Anna Åberg, senior climate research fellow at Chatham House in London, says COP26 is all about implementing the goals set in Paris in 2015. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC News)

In a nutshell, a successful COP26 is about making good on promises made in the Paris Agreement. It's about making more ambitious moves to meet climate targets as early as possible. And it's about having concrete plans of action — not just words — to get us there. 

Without that, the implications are especially dire for parts of the world that bear the brunt of climate change, says Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian architect, climate activist and one of Time Magazine's Heroes of the Environment in 2009. 

"Africa as a continent warms at a level higher than the global average — about 50 per cent more," said Bassey. "We survived being in the pot, on the fire, for so long. Now, Africa is on the chopping block."

Allan points out that to date, major emitters like China, India and Australia still haven't submitted updated NDCs ahead of the summit. Current pledges represent a 12 per cent reduction in global emissions, but that still puts the world on track for 2.4 C warming by 2100. 

"It's going to be really difficult to call a win out of this COP unless we see a big increase in that ambition," she said. 

Åberg said she's "hesitant to use this success-failure language, because I think it's quite clear at this point that Glasgow will not achieve everything we want to achieve."

But she acknowledges "we can still come very far. What this COP26 is all about is implementation. We're not there yet, but we're on the right track. I think the worst thing we can do is give up."


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Canada's original Paris Agreement target was to cut emissions 36 per cent below 2005 by 2030. In fact, Canada's original target was 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
    Oct 15, 2021 7:09 AM ET
  • An earlier version of this story quoted Anna Åberg as saying that "we're only 50 per cent closer than we were two years ago to being on track for 1.5 degrees if no more NDC revisions are made ahead of the Glasgow summit." She in fact said 15 per cent, not 50 per cent.
    Oct 15, 2021 7:18 AM ET


Tesa is a reporter based in CBC's London, UK bureau.

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