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So, what is a Climate Change Conference like?

By Emily Gvino and Felix Dodds, the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Setting the stage

It has been two years since the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid. What has happened in those two years? Primarily, we have all experienced a worldwide health crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic. You may all be asking the question: why hadn’t we been warned?

In reality, we had been warned!

On 23 September 2019, the United Nations General Assembly held a high-level meeting on universal health coverage. The political declaration said (emphasis ours):

“Promote strong and resilient health systems, reaching those who are vulnerable or in vulnerable situations, and capable of effectively implementing the International Health Regulations (2005), 11 ensuring pandemic preparedness and the prevention and detection of and response to any outbreak.” (UN, 2019)

This declaration was a reminder of commitments made 15 years previously, which the Heads of State had not yet acted on: governments had not built a resilient structure around health response. This would become glaringly apparent when COVID-19 emerged less than four months after Heads of State agreed the text above, and the pandemic devastated individuals and communities, overwhelmed healthcare systems, and halted economies.

We mention this as an introduction to our comments on building disaster risk reduction and resilience as part of the current process during the COP26 Climate Summit. We have been warned about the dangers of climate change as far back as the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on Human Environment. It has taken us 50 years to build the political will to make the commitments that might… just might enable us to keep under a 1.5°C increase on preindustrial times.

What happens at a Climate Summit?

For readers who have not attended a Climate Summit, we would like to share a glimpse of the four major types of activities that occur.

First, the Climate Summit generally involves a review of previous commitments. A commitment under review in 2021—originally planned for 2020—is the allocation of an annual $100 billion to help developing countries deal with mitigation and adaption issues.

Second, countries aim to report their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Around 119 countries have submitted new NDC targets during COP26, which have been the focus of many headlines during this Summit. These commitments bring the projected temperature increase by the end of the century to between 2.7°C and 3.4°C. While this temperature increase is lower than the projection of 4-5 degrees rise in the 2000s, we are not yet anywhere near the 1.5°C target. As the August 2021 IPCC report warned, the 1.5°C target should be our priority to avoid catastrophic consequences.

The third activity is the work under the different subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, Article 6 focuses on carbon markets, which are absolutely critical to creating an integrated way of not only addressing trading between countries, but also between companies. There are also other negotiations on a broad range of issues such as gender, transparency, data, agriculture, national adaptation reports, and many others.

The primary participants of these negotiations are governmental party delegations. However, more recent UNFCCC structures have allowed for greater stakeholder involvement under the Paris Agreement recognition that stakeholders can—and should—play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These constituencies fall under the categories of NGOs (business and industry, environmental, farmers and agricultural, research and independent [NGOs], trade union), indigenous peoples’ organizations, local government and municipal authorities, women and gender, and youth.

Finally, the Climate Summit facilitates the voluntary commitments that ‘Coalitions of the Willing’ create with groups of governments and/or stakeholders. Examples include the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), or the Coalition to end deforestation by 2030.

On top of these activities, endless opportunities abound to attend fascinating presentations, best practice case study discussions, and workshops.

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