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COP26: The UN climate conference that will decide our planet’s future

Here are three reasons why you need to pay attention.

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While many Americans head to Halloween festivities, many world leaders will be in Scotland for a very different social event — the sort that could determine Earth’s future.

Joined by climate scientists and activists, they’ll be in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12 for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change.

That name is a mouthful so it’s also known as COP26. The conference was set to take place last November but was delayed by the pandemic.

Since the last UN Climate Change conference in 2019, we’ve become even more aware of the dangers inherent in the accelerating climate crisis — both through research and lived events.

As climate anxiety mounts, it’s easy to tune out the chatter about the climate crisis. Our advice? Don’t. Here are three reasons why everyone needs to pay attention to COP26.

1. We’ve reached “code red”

A wildfire burning in Queensland, Australia. Global warming has increased the severity and length of wildfire season in many parts of the world. Getty

We already knew the planet had gotten warmer by about 1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. A 2021 report published by the UN reinforced this understanding and added new striking revelations. Three of its key takeaways include knowledge that:

  1. Extreme weather events are on the rise due to human-induced global warming
  2. Humans are undeniably making the world hotter — and at a faster rate than expected.
  3. Global warming will reach or exceed our target goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next 20 years — and we must urgently shift to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions to prevent even further global warming

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, called the findings a “code red for humanity” that required urgent action by world leaders.

COP26 provides the necessary forum for world leaders to act while the report and this past summer’s devastating extreme weather events are top of the mind.

2. Meaningful actions need to happen ASAP

According to recent reports, current climate actions will not be enough to avert global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. Getty

In 2015, leaders came together to sign the landmark Paris Agreement. It was agreed then that limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius — ideally 1.5 degrees — was a necessary step to halt the climate crisis.

Heads of state went back to their countries, pledging to set national limits for greenhouse gas emissions, also known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Since then, some countries have taken significant steps to curb greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

There has been significant progress: Before Paris, the world was on track to reach or even exceed 4 degrees Celsius in warming by the end of the century, which would have made daily living unbearable for future generations. With these post-Paris climate commitments — including a pledge by the Biden administration to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 — that 4-degree threat is way less likely.

But it’s still not enough, according to a report released Tuesday by the Union Nations Environment Program, which revealed:

  1. Global temperatures will rise 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, taking into account current emissions trajectories and climate pledges.
  2. If all nations effectively implement their net-zero goals, we can drop warming further to 2.2. degrees Celsius.
  3. To keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius in the 21st century, we’ll need to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions within the next eight years — a Herculean feat.

COP26 will build upon the goals of the Paris Agreement. But in light of this damning report, world leaders will need to be even bolder and more aggressive than they were before. This effort will likely be a flashpoint at COP26.

Top polluting nations will especially need to step up their climate commitments at COP26. China, the world’s largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, has pledged to end funding for new coal plants overseas but is simultaneously ordering plants at home to produce more coal than ever before.

Meanwhile, President Biden joined office with strong climate goals, such as beefing up electric vehicles and increasing up clean energy, but key climate provisions in the multi-trillion-dollar budget bill undergoing debate in Congress have been held up due to opposition from a handful of senators.

COP26 will test how willing world leaders will be to actually commit to further actions.

3. We must listen to underrepresented voices

Youth activists will play a key role in pushing the conversation forward at COP26. Getty

It’s almost certain that heads of state from top-polluting countries — read the U.S and China — will dominate talks.

But this year, the conversation around the UN climate conference will also be pushed forward by non-governmental officials. Specifically, two groups are expected to take center stage: youth and Indigenous activists.

Youth leaders met for a pre-COP26 summit in Milan in September. Earlier this week, the group unveiled a manifesto of climate demands that include net-zero emissions by 2030 and a formalized body for youth discussion of climate issues within the UN. Since younger generations will be most impacted by a failure to halt global warming, their presence at COP26 cannot be understated.

Similarly, Indigenous activists will be calling for policy solutions that center their communities and solutions. In recent months, leaders of Indigenous communities, who are key to protecting essential carbon sinks — places that store carbon and prevent its release into the atmosphere — have called for a bigger seat at the table during the COP26 climate change conference.

What’s next — The conference kicks off in Glasgow with opening discussions on October 31st, but most heads of state will be gathering a day earlier for the G20 summit in Rome, where climate change is likely to be a focus of the talks.

The conference will set up a Green Zone for artists, activists and more to host events outside the formal conference. Those who live outside Scotland can follow along remotely on the COP26 YouTube channel or look for a live stream of specific events here.

The European Union will also be hosting side events accompanying COP26, and you can register to view those events digitally.