What is COP26? Your guide to this year’s climate change conference

With the 26th UN climate change conference fast approaching, we provide a rundown of what to expect and why business leaders should be paying attention


Between 1 and 12 November, world leaders will descend on the city of Glasgow for what is being billed as “the world’s best last chance to get climate change under control”. 

Each Conference of the Parties, or COP, is an annual gathering of the 197 party members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As the 26th conference, COP26 will be held at Glasgow’s Scottish Event Campus where climate experts, campaigners, policy makers and world leaders will debate how best to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The climate conference was originally scheduled for 2020 but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. This summit represents the first chance for the attending countries to provide an update on their progress towards the goals of the Paris agreement, which were first set out during COP21 in 2015.

As part of the agreement, 191 countries have now formally joined the Paris agreement and committed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees – a temperature rise that scientists believe would significantly reduce the risks of global warming.

Under the terms of the Paris treaty, each nation agreed to provide an update of their plans to reduce emissions at every fifth COP summit. COP26 will therefore be an opportunity to explore the current state of play and how far along each country is in achieving its net-zero targets. 

Who will be attending?

All countries and territories that have signed up to the UNFCCC – an international treaty to combat climate change – will be in attendance. It is estimated that a total of 30,000 people will travel to Glasgow as representatives of more than 200 countries, as well as business leaders, NGOs and faith groups.

Among the most high-profile guests are Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Francis, who plans to attend if his health allows. However, climate activist Greta Thunberg remains undecided on whether she will travel to the conference, claiming she will only go if doing so is “considered safe and democratic” for all countries.

What are the goals of COP26?

For many, COP26 is considered one of the last chances for the world to find a way to curb the worst effects of climate change. The latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released last month, highlighted the lack of sufficient action from political leaders to combat the climate crisis and warned that many changes were now irreversible and the 1.5 degree target would be exceeded if immediate action is not taken.

To that end, there are four key goals of the Glasgow COP26 summit: 

• To secure global net zero by 2050, keeping the 1.5-degree global warming limit within reach

• Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats around the world, to improve their resilience against climate change

• To mobilise finance through developed countries delivering on the promise to raise $100bn in climate finance per year to support developing countries

• To work together to agree on, deliver and rise to the challenges of climate change.

What should we expect from this year’s COP26 summit?

Countries are expected to come forward with ambitious targets for reaching net zero and reducing their carbon emissions. Restoration of natural ecosystems will also be a priority, as well as protecting existing ones, from the impacts of climate change, such as through the construction of more resilient infrastructure, defences and warning systems.

Discussions around financing the transition to a more sustainable world are also set to continue. The Paris agreement reaffirmed a commitment from developed nations to pledge $100bn per year to combat climate change by 2020. With that deadline now passed, COP26 is an opportunity to reassess the climate finances. There is also likely to be greater emphasis on financial institutions and private finance to support the public sector finance in achieving this goal.

What does it mean for business leaders?

It is recognised that these targets for net-zero emissions can only be achieved with collaboration between governments, businesses and wider society. Business will therefore have an important role to play and many are reassessing their climate change commitments ahead of COP26. 

During the G7 summit earlier this year, COP26 president Alok Sharma called on businesses to take action to address climate change. He said: “In the fight against climate change, it is vital that we have the ingenuity, influence and energy of the private sector on our side.” 

Since the start of the year, there has been a 47% increase in major companies signing up to the United Nations’ ‘Race to Zero’ campaign. To date, 3,067 businesses and 173 investors have joined the coalition committing to halve carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050, at the latest. Some of the international businesses to sign up to the campaign include Nissan, Netflix and Mastercard. 

With the UK hosting this year’s conference, there has been increased attention on climate change and net-zero goals within the business community here. Conservative MP and race to net zero champion Andrew Griffith, recently wrote to the CEOs of the FTSE 100 encouraging them to set net zero targets ahead of COP26. So far, almost half of these companies have signed up to the race to zero campaign.

Companies will also be present at the summit in Glasgow. Among the businesses that have partnered with COP26 are Microsoft, Unilever, Sky, Natwest Group, Sainsbury’s and the National Grid.