COP26: The story of world’s climate conference

RHODA JENNINGS is part of a UCC delegation attending COP26. Here she reflects on the history of climate change and the annual conference, which is currently underway
COP26: The story of world’s climate conference

Rhoda Jennings, EPA postgraduate scholar, Centre for Law and the Environment/ERI, UCC. She is currently attending COP26. Picture: Dan Linehan

WHILE COP26 and what we can do to stop global warming is the story of the moment, the history of climate change started long before world leaders gathered in Glasgow.

It is a story created by humankind, a puzzle pieced together by many scientists and a problem that has to be solved by those that created it, humans.

The saga begins when coal was first used as a fuel in 4000BC in China. Jump forward to more modern times and the industrial use of coal began with the invention of the first coal powered steam engine in the 1700s.

The link between certain gases, our atmosphere and a rise in temperature was first identified by French physicist, Joseph Fourier in the 1820s, who explained how the Earth’s atmosphere may act as an insulator. He was describing the ‘greenhouse’ effect unbeknownst to himself. The link between carbon dioxide and the absorption of heat, so potentially resulting in a warming planet, was demonstrated by Eunice Newton Foote in 1856, an amateur scientist. While Irish physicist John Tyndall (after whom the Tyndall National Institute is named) published work in 1859 also on the link between carbon dioxide and temperature increase. Therefore, by the mid-1800s, ironically, aligning with the peak of the Industrial Revolution, there was strong indication that gases in the Earth’s atmosphere trapping the sun’s heat could lead to a warming climate.

The link between human-based emissions of CO 2 and a warming climate was the next step in the puzzle. 

By the mid-1900s research was being carried out linking rising CO 2 levels to rising atmospheric temperatures. At this stage, fossil fuels were firmly established as the main source of energy across the industrialised world. Charles Keeling was the first to offer definitive proof that CO 2 concentrations were rising. He began measuring atmospheric CO 2 and developed a graph, now known as the Keeling Curve, that represents the concentration of CO 2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Measurements are ongoing today and, as we are all now aware, the levels are still rising.

The issue of climate change was first tackled at an international political level in 1988. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed in order to gain a better understanding of the science of climate change.

Its first report fed into the negotiation and creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UNFCCC, the key international treaty on reducing global warming and the foundation for convening COP26.

Demonstrators at a Extinction Rebellion protest during the Cop26 summit in Glasgow.
Demonstrators at a Extinction Rebellion protest during the Cop26 summit in Glasgow.

The Convention entered into force in 1994 with 196 parties. Under the Convention, a Conference of the Parties or COP was established as the ‘supreme body.’

The COP is mandated to meet every year unless decided otherwise. 

The first COP was held in Berlin in 1995 and there has been a COP every year since, except for 2020, which was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the UNFCCC sets an overall framework on how to tackle climate change, it is not a binding document. It encourages the parties to stabilise their greenhouse gas emissions but it does not require them to do so. It is the agreements negotiated at the various COPs over the years that have established binding commitments.

The Kyoto Protocol negotiated in 1997 at COP3 (although it didn’t come into force until 2005) set targets for individual countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Ireland’s target was set at limiting greenhouse gas emissions to 13% above 1990 levels in the period 2008-12. We met this target under the EU burden-sharing agreement.

Greta Thunberg alongside fellow climate activists during a demonstration at Festival Park, Glasgow, on the first day of the Cop26 summit. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Greta Thunberg alongside fellow climate activists during a demonstration at Festival Park, Glasgow, on the first day of the Cop26 summit. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

A second commitment for the period 2013-2020 was entered into at COP18 but this has been superseded by the Paris Agreement, of which there has been a lot of talk recently. The Paris Agreement is legally binding. Its goal is familiar at this stage as it has been reiterated by the World leaders at COP26: the aim is to limit average global warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

Under the Paris Agreement 2020 was the deadline for countries to submit their climate action plans, their framework for achieving the 2°C/1.5°C limit. These action plans were submitted at COP26 and the key points summarised by the World leaders earlier this week.

Ireland indicated its commitment to the Paris Agreement, setting an ambitious target of cutting emissions by 51% below 2018 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. This reflects the targets set out in our Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021.

While the EU and US have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, the saga continues as the heads of state of China and the Russian Federation are not attending COP26 and India committed to carbon neutrality by 2070, 20 years after the COP26 goal of 2050.

Global warming is a problem created by humankind and a story that will rumble on for some time to come. The only question is will there be a happy ending?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rhoda Jennings, EPA postgraduate scholar, Centre for Law and the Environment/ERI, UCC. She is currently attending COP26.

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