UK to host 2020 UN climate summit, COP26

The UK has been chosen to host the major UN climate change summit at the end of 2020.

The eyes of the world will zero in on the UK as senior politicians from all the world’s countries come to Glasgow to negotiate the acceleration of efforts to tackle climate change.

This is the most important climate summit since the landmark Paris Agreement was agreed at COP21.

Host nations play a pivotal role at COPs, chairing much of the negotiations; the UK’s diplomatic machinery will play a crucial role leading up to, and during, the summit.

Because the UK recently set a net zero emissions target, that puts it in a position of leadership to call on other nations to increase climate ambition and strengthen mitigation targets.

UNFCCC delegates celebrate historic adoption of Paris Agreement. Image: UNclimatechange, Creative Commons licence
UNFCCC delegates celebrate historic adoption of Paris Agreement. Image: United Nations

What is a UN climate summit?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN’s climate body, holds an annual summit known as a COP, or Conference of the Parties, attended by national ministers and, for the key ones, heads of state. All of the world’s countries are 'parties to the Convention', and the COP is its supreme decision-making body.

Regional groupings of countries take it in turns to select a host. For 2020, the Western European and Other States group (the "Other States" include Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the United States) has backed a bid from the UK and Italy, under which the UK will host the main event, with Italy running a preliminary set of meetings called the ‘pre-COP’. The decision will be officially approved at the COP in Chile in December 2019.

UNFCCC Credit: United Nations/Flickr
UNFCCC Image: United Nations

Significance of the 2020 summit

COP26 will take place five years after the landmark Paris Agreement was reached at COP21, and is essentially when the Paris Agreement comes into effect; as such, it will be the most significant UN climate summit since Paris in 2015. All of the world’s countries signed the Agreement, the central aim of which is to restrict global temperature rise this century to 'well below' 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and ‘to pursue efforts’ to limit warming to 1.5°C.

The Paris Agreement includes a five-yearly ‘ratchet mechanism’ and COP26 will be the first time that countries can upgrade their pledges on tackling climate change, most importantly for their emissions targets through to 2030. Since Paris, climate science has advanced significantly. The UN’s climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published a special report on the impacts of global warming which reset the ‘safe’ level of warming from 2°C to 1.5°C, and outlined the scale of action required to meet it [click here for a briefing on the 1.5°C warming target].

The IPCC report has already spurred a number of countries to strengthen their domestic emissions reductions targets so that they are aligned to the 1.5°C goal, with the UK and France among countries pledging to cut their emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050 [click here to see a tracker detailing net zero commitments globally].

Why the UK?

The UK is recognised among major economies as a leader on climate change — 30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher was the first leader of any major nation to call for a UN treaty addressing the issue — but has never hosted a summit before. Since bringing in the landmark Climate Change Act in 2008, which contained the world's first legally binding national commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the UK recently committed to reduce emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050, the first G7 economy to do so.

UK - Net Zero by 2050

The UK is also widely recognised for its diplomatic machinery and has played an important role in behind-the-scenes diplomacy at previous climate negotiations. The Foreign Office, for example, includes a dedicated team of climate change diplomats based all over the world.

The cross-party support for action on climate change makes the UK, from a political perspective, a relatively ‘safe pair of hands’. A cross-party group of 160 MPs as well as CEOs from FTSE 100 companies have urged the Government to bid to host the summit.