What is COP26 and how can it improve air quality around the world?

Updated: Mar 16

COP26 is everywhere in the news at the moment with most world leaders set to visit Glasgow from 31st October - 12th November for the COP26 summit. But what is COP26 and how can it improve air quality around the world?



What is COP26?


COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference. It normally takes place each year but was cancelled last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result of the pandemic - the way viruses spread in the air and how cities benefited from lockdowns with vehicles off the road - there is now more interest than ever before on climate change and how the world can help. Alongside, the release of the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has forced countries to sit up and take notice. That makes COP26 one of the most important events of the year and explains why the world’s press are talking so much about it.


How can it improve air quality around the world?


The Paris Agreement was signed by almost all countries in 2015 at COP21, with the aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to keep the rise in global temperature to ‘below 2 degrees’ but ideally 1.5 degrees. Each country formally agreed to ‘submit enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) every five years, to ratchet up ambition to mitigate climate change. As the 2020 Climate Change Conference wasn’t possible, 2021 is the first year that each country will submit their plans.


Interestingly, COP26 might be more beneficial to climate change than if it had taken place last year; under President Trump, the US had left the Paris agreement but has since rejoined under President Biden. The US rejoined in January 2021.



What is expected to happen at COP26?


The 2021 IPCC report said that the 1.5 degree target is still possible, but only if unprecedented action is taken now. As such, all eyes will be on the countries submitting their NDC proposals. The hope is that between them, the efforts of each country involved will ensure that the global rise in temperature is kept under control.


The problem is that the 1.5 degree target is ambitious and perceived as difficult for many countries to achieve, particularly those in the third world. In order to hit the 1.5 degree target, emissions have to halve by 2030 and be reduced to net zero by 2050. No easy task, especially when so many world leaders are supported by industry lobbyists who would like to protect their companies’ bottom line. Many leaders know that bowing to environmental concerns could mean them losing their seat at a future election.


Pollution in China. Photo by photoholgic on Unsplash.

What actions to improve air quality have happened ahead of COP26?


There have been a number of recent articles on how countries will seek to improve air quality and stem climate change ahead of COP26, one of the most important being China’s commitment to stop funding new coal plants abroad. China funded 5x more than South Korea and Japan, the second and third largest financiers respectively, but now each of these countries have committed to stop funding coal plants abroad.


Unfortunately, China recently announced it would be building more coal plants within the country due to a shortfall in energy output, contributing to the most severe blackouts in a decade. Even so, analysts believe that China may even improve its ambitions at COP26. Hopefully that proves to be true as China currently emits 29% of the world’s carbon dioxide, which is more than the other 19 countries of the G20 combined. Elsewhere, Australia is on track to hit their emissions targets for 2030 due to individual state commitments but believe the national government needs to do more.


Which countries are holding back improvements in air quality?


Although many countries are doing their best, it is difficult for some governments to commit to targets owing to a country’s wealth and other factors. Developing countries struggle in particular because of a lack of resources, while their increased population size can also make things difficult.


For example, projections show that India is expected to increase its emissions by 43% based on current models, while emissions in Africa could increase by a quarter over the next ten years owing to improved standard of living and population growth. If the COP26 targets are to be achieved, governments around the world have to drastically reduce their emissions and those with the means to do so perhaps have to subsidise other countries’ efforts in the short term. There is a long way to go to improve air quality and this is just the beginning...


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