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What is COP26 – and why does it matter?

It could be a landmark turning point in the global response to climate change – and it starts in Glasgow on 31st October 2021. So what exactly is COP26, and why should we care about the outcome?

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What is COP26?

COP26 is an international event bringing together world leaders to discuss climate change and agree how to tackle the issues facing us.

COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and is attended by representatives from around 200 countries which have signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). There have been 25 meetings so far, and this one will be the 26th

What was the impact of COP25?

The last summit, COP25, was held in Madrid in November 2019.  There were hopes that world leaders would really acknowledge the urgency of the environmental situation and commit to significant change… but even though the conference ran over schedule by an extra two days, countries couldn’t reach agreement on some key issues.

One of those issues is loss and damage. Some places in the world are already dealing with catastrophic effects from climate change, so how should the international community support these vulnerable areas? Especially as these vulnerable countries are not just feeling the fallout from their own activity, but also from actions taken (or not taken) by other, usually much richer countries.  

Happier Beauty dry river basin

Should there be more financial aid and investment to help developing countries make technological changes which would have a worldwide benefit?

At COP25, attendees did set some targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but most scientists and environmentalists felt there had been little progress. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, said he was disappointed with the outcome, and Greta Thunberg, who spoke at the event, said that ‘our leaders are not behaving as if we are in an emergency.’

In fact, the conference is more memorable for the news that Greta turned up on an eco-friendly yacht than any of the decisions made. Because of this ‘minimum compromise’, COP26 will be even more important for agreeing significant steps forward. Plus, it’s time to review progress on the Paris agreement.

What’s the Paris agreement?

In 2015, when COP21 was held in Paris, an international agreement to address climate change was reached and signed by 195 countries. The Paris Agreement says nations must:

  • Keep global temperature increase well below 2C
  • aim to limit temperature increase to 1.5C (considered the threshold for dangerous climate change)
  • Reduce the amount of harmful greenhouse gasses produced
  • Review progress every 5 years

The United States rejoined the Paris agreement earlier this year under President Biden (Donald Trump pulled the country out during his term in office).

What’s the UK doing about climate change?

The UK government has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, meaning that emissions from homes, transport, farming and industry will have to be avoided completely or offset.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared 2020 a "defining Year of Climate Action" and announced a 10 point plan for the UK, which includes maximising green energy sources, using electric vehicles and zero-emission transport solutions, making homes and buildings more efficient, protecting and restoring our green spaces, and technological innovation. 

However, environmental campaigners have pointed out the ‘international embarrassment’ of Johnson’s government allowing plans to progress for the controversial Cambo oil field off the coast of Shetland, as they prepare to host the summit in (relatively) nearby Glasgow. Cambo is believed to contain over over 800 million barrels of crude oil, which will increase the UK’s emissions beyond agreed targets if extracted and used. 

In 2019, people protested in the streets of Madrid about their disappointment over world leaders’ responses to climate change – we’re likely to see concerned protesters at COP26 as well.

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Why is COP26 important and what’s going to be discussed?

Because so many important decisions and discussions were deferred at COP25, nations now need to agree on actual plans with immediate actions. It’s clearer than ever that we’re heading in a dangerous direction, with extreme weather events on the rise and key climate indicators accelerating. Secretary-General António Guterres has called this ‘the make it or break it year’.

We’re already behind on reviewing the Paris Agreement (COP26 was scheduled for 2020, but got delayed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic). And, as well as checking in on everyone’s targets, the debate will open up again about how richer countries support poorer ones in the face of global climate change. 

The UN has also highlighted the need for women’s input. Women are consistently under-represented in decision-making on climate change, even though they are more affected by the problems it causes: about 80% of people displaced by climate change are women, for example. The average representation of women in national and global climate negotiating bodies is below 30%. It will be interesting to see if there’s a difference at COP26.

Why is COP26 so important to Happier Beauty?

Even though we’re a small company, from the beginning we’ve firmly believed that it’s possible to balance purpose and profit. We’re working towards the lengthy process of B Corp accreditation, to acknowledge how important it is that these principles are embedded in everything we do.

But simply creating a sustainable toothpaste brand (or even seeing loads of sustainable brands changing the industry together) won’t solve climate change. We can all make a valuable contribution by reducing our individual carbon footprint, reducing plastic use and overall waste… it is important, but much, much more is needed. We know that around 100 big companies produce around 71% of all carbon emissions, so it’s essential that governments agree how to regulate these companies more effectively. To see the future we hope for, meaningful agreements have to be made at COP26, and wholeheartedly committed to by international governments and big businesses.

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