What’s happening at COP26?
Earthrise. Credit: NASA

What’s happening at COP26?

11/11/2021Written by Alex Thompson

The highlights from the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow as countries plan to tackle climate change.

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mascot Telescope Right
Climate stripes visualisation courtesy of Prof Ed Hawkins and University of Reading with Getty image of Earth

Described as humanity’s ‘last best hope’ in combating climate change, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) has captured the public and media’s imagination unlike any environmental summit before. Scientists have long warned about the importance of limiting our planet’s rising temperature at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, or the results could be irreversibly catastrophic. So, what’s happening at COP26?

For two weeks in Glasgow (31 October – 12 November 2021), world leaders, delegates and experts from across the globe have been discussing ways of how to achieve this goal whilst committing to pledges to help them make it a reality. The way we farm, the amount of fossil fuels we burn and our use of renewable energy sources have all come up for debate amongst many other topics. Here are our top ten moments from the conference, in chronological order, including how space will continue to help us in the ongoing goal of protecting our planet.

India commits to renewable energy

India commits to renewable energy
India at Night from Space. Credit: NASA

The first big news came towards the end of the first day when Indian PM Narendra Modi pledged his country would be getting half its energy resources from renewable sources by the end of the decade, and emissions would be net zero by 2070. Though there was a push to get India to hit the latter target by 2050, to get a country of nearly 1.4 billion people to commit to these goals this early in the summit was a big deal.

Deforestation

Deforestation
Jeff Bezos at COP26. Credit: PA Media

A massive moment took place very early on the second day as world leaders agreed to halt and reverse deforestation by the end of the decade. A total of 110 signatories pledged to protect around 85% of the world’s forests, perhaps most significantly from Brazil where large stretches of the Amazon lie. A further $2 billion was also pledged for landscape restoration by Amazon (the company) and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos. The American billionaire described how his recent trip to space made him realise how “finite and fragile” our planet really is.

Methane Cuts

Methane Cuts
Earth from space. Credit: NASA

This announcement was followed by a similar number of countries agreeing to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Methane is thought to be responsible for up to a third of global warming since the industrial revolution and US President Joe Biden described curbing these emissions as “the lowest hanging fruit” in fighting climate change. Though most of the cuts will likely come from more efficient oil and gas wells, some of it may link into the day’s earlier announcement, as both pledges will probably effect animal agriculture and farming in some form. Whilst a lot of the world’s biggest methane emitters agreed to the deal there were several, including Russia and China, who are yet to commit.

TRUTHS

TRUTHS
Artist Impression of TRUTHS. Credit: ESA and Airbus

As many world leaders departed Glasgow, leaving delegates to finalise remaining deals, the European Space Agency came forward to announce a new satellite that will become the benchmark in detecting climate change.

Led by the UK Space Agency, TRUTHS (Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial and Helio Studies) will be a ‘climate and calibration observatory in space’ which will set a new standard for satellites observing the Earth, Moon and Sun. In addition, its measurements will be compared to those of other missions when their orbits meet, building confidence in the most precise data ever collected on our climate from space. It will do this using a unique on-board calibration system in conjunction with a camera that can split energy into a spectrum from ultraviolet to infrared.

The new satellite will be built by Airbus in the UK with collaboration from other European countries such as Greece, Switzerland, Romania and Czech Republic.

Coal Goal

Coal Goal
Coal Power. Credit: Reuters

It was announced on Thursday that the number of countries that had committed to phasing out coal power had doubled from 23 to 46, however, at the time of writing, several big coal users, including China, India and the US, failed to make the pledge. A coal phase out is seen as a top priority at the summit but the number of signees fall short of what was hoped.

Promising Signs

Promising Signs
Looking back at Earth. Credit: NASA/OSIRIS-REx

In more positive news scientists predicted that the pledges made to this point by countries across the world could reduce global warming to 1.8°C by the end of the century, a massive reduction on the 2.7°C predicted a couple of months ago. This is still higher than the target of 1.5°C, and of course relies on each country sticking to their pledges, but with several days of the summit still to go the announcement renewed optimism that getting to that target is realistically achievable.

Several days later another report stated that the pledges would only lead to limiting warming to 2.4°C and that more drastic measures would need to be taken. This burst the optimism bubble that had been floating over the conference and was the clearest indicator yet how much further we must go in our fight against climate change.

The People Want More

The People Want More
Greta Thunberg in Glasgow. Credit: PA Media

The main story coming out of day five of the summit wasn’t provided by pledges or statements from the people inside the conference. Rather, the headlines belonged to the youth of the UK as thousands of children joined their classmates, parents and teachers on the streets of Glasgow to demand that the politicians and leaders inside COP26 go further in their promises to halt climate change. Amongst them was prominent environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who called the summit and failure that had proved to be nothing more than a “PR event.”

More protests in Glasgow the next day spread to various major cities throughout the world, with tens of thousands of people demanding more action at the summit as far and wide as Istanbul and Sydney.

Sea Life

Sea Life
Turtle. Credit: Getty

Whilst the protests were taking place, the focus inside COP26 turned to oceans, with a further ten countries signing up to the ‘30 by 30’ target. The pledge, led by the UK and now supported by over 100 different nations, aims to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030.

Farming

Farming
UK from Space. Credit: Tim Peake ESA NASA

The UK was among 45 countries to build further on the deforestation pledge earlier in the week by agreeing £3.5 billion worth of investments to make farming more efficient, environmental and cost-productive. £500 million was committed by the UK to protect five million hectares of rainforest, roughly around the size of 3.5 million football pitches.

Help from Space

Help from Space
Meteosat in orbit (artist's impression). Credit: EUMETSAT 2012

11 organisations in the UK were granted a share of just under £7 million of government funding by the UK Space Agency to use trailblazing technology that will help protect our Earth from space. The majority of the projects focus on climate change and environmental management, amongst them an infrared camera that can measure thermal emissions from buildings and a venture that will study the health of trees from our orbit.

The funding comes from the UK Space Agency’s National Space Innovation Programme (NSIP), with this £7 million coming in addition to another £7 million provided last year for the development phase of the projects. The new innovations will continue space’s essential role in the fight against climate change by monitoring our Earth from above.

Green Health Machine

Green Health Machine
UK from Space by the Suomi NPP Satellite. Credit: NASA

An unlikely greenhouse gas emitter is health services, with nearly 5% of gases coming from this sector. It was for this reason on the ninth day of the climate that 47 countries agreed to build more climate-resistant health services. Amongst them were all four UK health secretaries, with the pledge fitting into the UK’s overall commitment of being a carbon-neutral country by 2050.

About the author: Alex Thompson is a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Centre.