COP26: recapping the conference's purpose and end result

19th November 2021
Sam Holland

With COP26 now finished, Sam Holland recaps some of the key points of the climate change event – and ultimately considers what it could mean for the electronics industry.

About COP26

COP26 (the Conference of the Parties' 26th annual summit) was the name of the UN’s Climate Change Conference that was held in Glasgow and ran from the 31st of October to the 12th of November 2021. It followed the Paris Agreement, adopted on the 12th of December 2015 at COP 21 in Paris, which entered into force on the 4th of November 2016.

To quote the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the goal of the Paris Agreement was to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels”.

Now, almost exactly five years later at the time of writing, COP26 has recently taken place, following the gathering of major world leaders and thousands of delegates.



What was the chief focus of COP26?

At its crux, the purpose of Glasgow’s COP26 2021 event was clear: to see many of the major countries of the world (excluding China and Russia, who did not attend) making plans to combat climate change.

The principal criterion for achieving this is to ensure that the world’s global average temperature does not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius.

As explained by the UNFCCC, there are four main indicators of a successful outcome of COP26:

  1. World leaders keep the promises that they’ve made to developing countries
  2. Outstanding negotiations between world leaders are finalised
  3. Countries lower emissions and increase their climate ambitions
  4. A “unity of purpose”, to quote the UNFCCC, is achieved by engaging with non-party stakeholders and other observers

More information on the criteria for success in climate change reduction can also be found by visiting the UNFCCC’s list of NDCs (nationally determined contributions) that are specific to each country who was part of the Conference of the Parties.

What was the outcome?

Upon completion of COP26, the agreement that was made, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, called for countries to do the following: republish their plans for climate change reduction, particularly by 2030; protect countries already affected by climate change; and phase down – rather than phase out – coal, the chief driver of greenhouse gas emissions.

While the effects of the former two points will become clearer with time, it is the latter point that has already been met with the most controversy, as so many people were hoping to see an agreement made to end coal reliance altogether. And while many have taken solace in the very fact alone that climate change awareness has received so much publicity, the truth remains that COP26 has largely been considered an act of ‘greenwashing’ (wherein eco-friendly discussions are used as marketing tools more than as a viable approach to environmentalism).

In fact, Greta Thunberg deemed the conference “a PR event, where leaders … [announce] fancy commitments and targets – while behind the curtains, governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action”.

The backlash may well have been inevitable, given that the said criteria for a successful conference was hard to quantify anyway. After all, outside of the long-stated – and easier-said-than-done – target to avoid a 1.5°C rise in global warming, conditions such as ‘keeping promises’ and ‘finalising negotiations’ may be considered less an exact science and more the buzzwords of a political campaign. (More information on the difficulties of reaching the 1.5°C target alone can be found on the IPCC’s page here.)



Considering the electronics industry

Despite the almost unavoidable backlash that COP26 has received, perhaps what we are left with is a sign that environmental improvements can be made, but it is too early to tell which promises (if any) can be realised.

First and foremost, the reduction – rather than removal – of coal is a clear reflection of the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are set to remain indefinitely a part of our industries, from transport to energy generation. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that, had COP26 led to an agreement to rid the world of coal reliance altogether, the question of how that could be realised would almost certainly have proved impossible to answer with certainty. At least, that is, at the time of writing.

Because, so far, no alternative energy source is perfect. Consider the fact that the world’s increasing reliance on electric vehicles (along with other transport electrification, such as electric scooters) reflects the public’s growing interest in using battery-powered technology over fossil fuel-based alternatives. Those good intentions do not change the fact that electrification remains far from perfect.

In fact, electric scooters alone have a problematically low lifespan (often a matter of months if they are of the rideshare variety), meaning that the level of electronic waste that they produce is a fast-growing concern. And, on top of this, the dangers of cobalt mining for rechargeable electronics’ (from smartphones to electric cars) lithium-ion batteries cause uncontrollable societal and environmental damages, meaning that electrification proves to be once again a far-from-ideal solution. In fact, the absence of electronic waste discussions from the COP26 event was considered a controversy in itself.

As is so often the case, the answers to the countless questions lead to more questions still. But at least, no matter what the future holds, COP26 has led more people – from activists and politicians to scientists and engineers – to ask those questions!

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