Activists hold placards reading "There is no Planet B".

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time and it demands global collaboration. Image: DisobeyArt/

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COP26 explained: what it is and why it's important for tackling climate change

One of the world's most important international conferences, the Conference of the Parties, is being hosted by the UK this year in Glasgow. The event will see representatives from across the globe come together to negotiate the best ways of tackling climate change.

What is COP26?

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is an annual event that brings governments together to discuss and review how climate change is being managed domestically and internationally.

The first COP meeting was held in 1995 in Berlin, Germany. It is the main decision making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an agreement made by 197 countries to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions and avoid dangerous climate change.

The twenty-sixth COP (COP26) was scheduled to take place last year but it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The conference is now taking place this year from 31 October until 12 November. It is being hosted by the UK Government in Glasgow.

A photogrpah of the Glasgow Science Centre - a silver dome-shaped building.

COP is held in a different country each year. This year, it will be hosted partly in the Glasgow Science Centre shown above. Image: Florian Fuchs, licensed via Wikipedia Commons under CC BY 3.0.

The Paris Agreement and 1.5°C warming

Every year, it is hoped that COP meetings result in agreements between world leaders to take measurable action on tackling climate change. But some meetings run more smoothly than others.

One of the most positive sessions was held in Paris in 2015, which established the Paris Agreement, a legally binding treaty in which leaders pledged to limit global warming.

They promised to try to keep global temperatures to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, and ideally below 1.5°C.

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 1700s, and it marked the start of major greenhouse gas emissions. As emissions rise, our world keeps getting hotter.

At the moment, the world is on track to get 1.5°C hotter by the 2030s. If Earth gets even hotter still, disasters are likely to unfold around the planet. Every fraction of a degree's warming will make a huge difference to our future, so it was a big moment when leaders agreed to aim for 1.5°C.

The treaty was signed by 196 countries. It included rich countries offering financial assistance to poorer countries to reduce emissions.

The treaty is assessed every five years and will be one of the main discussions of COP 26.

Why is COP important?

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time and it demands global collaboration.

COP provides an organised environment for parties to gather and discuss how best to tackle climate change together. It brings together rich and poor countries, high emitters and low emitters.

Agreements come to fruition from consensus and while this can mean slow process, it also means decisions made at COP have global authority.

In 2015, governments also promised to make adjustments in various sectors within their own countries to reduce carbon emissions, known as nationally determined contributions (NDC).  

These national targets agreed in Paris didn't go far enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Countries are being urged to improve on them for COP26 this year.

A photo of an offshore wind farm, taken from the beach.

North Hoyle offshore wind farm in Wales. Wind power delivers large amounts of clean energy. Image: Kaly99 licensed via Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

What's on the agenda for COP26?

The Paris Agreement is assessed every five years. COP26 is the first time the treaty will be revisited and countries will need to show how they have met their national targets. Many believe this year's COP is a last chance to keep hopes alive of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Countries will also be asked to bring plans to help the world reach net-zero by the middle of this century. Ultimately, that means phasing out fossil fuels like coal and gas and switching to renewable energy.

The UK Government would also like representatives to discuss the protection of nature, and the financial investment needed to make real change.

Who will attend COP26?

For two weeks, government representatives will descend on Glasgow, together with roughly 30,000 negotiators, scientists, businesspeople, activists and policy makers.

Prominent people attending the conference include Boris Johnson, Sir David Attenborough, Her Majesty The Queen, Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg. US President Joe Biden will also be attending after re-joining the Paris Agreement.

The event will be split into two zones. The blue zone will be held in the Scottish Event Campus and managed by the United Nations. This is where official COP members will be, and negotiations and assessments will take place.

The green zone will be open to the public, including artists and academics. It will be held in the Glasgow Science Centre, which includes a 370-seat IMAX auditorium. The space aims to promote learning and participation around climate change through workshops, exhibitions and discussion groups.

British politician Alok Sharma will act as the President of COP26 which means he will no longer represent the UK. Instead, he will act as a neutral and impartial COP official. The President's role involves opening and closing meetings, determining order of speakers and helping to steer discussions towards successful outcomes.

Activist Greta Thunberg speaking into a microphone.

Activist Greta Thunberg is expected to attend COP26. Image: Daniele COSSU/

How COP26 affects you

The pledges made at summits like COP affect us all. Governments will be looking to take action in their own countries.

In the UK, it has been made law that the country becomes carbon neutral by 2050. Only radical change can get us there. Government and big business are a key part of the journey, but individuals will also play a role.

Several changes for consumers are on their way over the coming decades. For instance, the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030, and there is a proposal to ban new gas-powered boilers in homes in favour of low-carbon alternatives.

Follow along

We'll be following all the action from COP26 in Glasgow on our website and social media channels. Join us from 31 October to get the latest from the conference.