The most important event of the year is this November — Here’s what you need to know (& how you can help)

Cassia Attard
10 min readJun 22, 2021


COP26 is the make-or-break event for climate change that will dictate the course of global action for the next 5–10 years. It is the 26th annual UN-led gathering of political powers to discuss climate change. The conference exists to increase ambition on climate action and keep powerful people accountable for their environmental goals.

COP21 yielded the well-known Paris Climate Agreement. This year is the opportunity for nations to decide to drive real action towards mitigating the threats of global climate change.

“The Most Important Event of the Year” is a bold claim. Allow me to provide some supporting evidence:

  1. Climate change is the largest confirmed threat to humanity today. Neglecting climate change also neglects nearly any other issue you might care about: world hunger, poverty, racial inequality, sanitation, water scarcity, education, refugee crises, global health, violent conflict, and more.
  2. The U.N. has declared 2021 “the make it or break it year” for climate change. Many are calling it the “decade to deliver”.
  3. We are less than 9 years away from the Paris Climate Agreement deadline of halving global emissions.
  4. Every 5 years, the U.N. reviews global climate action and makes dramatic intentional steps towards ensuring progress. 2021 is one such year.
  5. Compared to previous COPs, more people are publically demanding action as concern about climate change grows. More public pressure = a higher chance that sh°t will get done.
  6. David Attenborough agrees with me. Actually, he thinks these are the “most important decisions humanity has ever taken”.

So, given this conference yields the make-or-break decisions at the make-or-break time concerning the make-or-break issue (of humanity), I’d say it’s safe to say it’s shaping up to be the most important gathering of the year.

For better or worse, COP26 will be a turning point. Not just for environmentalists and oil companies, but everyone.

To understand this, we must first understand why policy reform is important to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The Politics of Climate Change

A year ago, if you told me that national governments were a key player in solving an urgent, complex global crisis, I’d say “well folks, we’re f°cked”. In my mind, national governments are comprised of morally and politically divided old white men spending half their time making painfully slow decisions and the other half laying down red tape.

I’ve always had an inherent bias towards solving climate change with advanced technologies, not policy reform. It took me a lot of time and research to realize I was wrong: the technologies we need will a) not advance fast enough to “solve” the entire problem, and, b) fail to develop quickly without political support.

Let’s take solar energy for example. Solar is the cheapest form of energy in history. Clean energy is cheaper than coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear, thanks to technological advancement. But, if this is the case, why aren’t we powering the world with the sun's energy?

The adoption of solar energy is prevented by systemic barriers dating back to the 1800s. The industrial revolution moulded society to fit its needs. As oil energy grew, our systems grew around it. Our electricity system only accommodates non-renewable energy sources. Many governments still subsidize fossil fuels, giving oil companies a large competitive advantage over renewables.

To adopt solar energy across a nation, we would need to build millions of miles of power lines, mass-energy storage systems, and the solar farms themselves (not to mention other challenges). “Going solar” is not a simple task with the infrastructure we currently have.

Luckily, policy reform is a decently efficient way to overcome systemic barriers. If we had more time to solve this issue, our systems would eventually change without government aid; the world would run out of fossil fuels to burn, and clean energy technology would improve. However, our temporal budget does not allow for that leeway. This is where policy comes in.

As confirmed in the FY22 Budget, President Biden will be investing significantly in renewable energy transformation (if passed through congress). This is a critical start for the transformation of energy systems in America, and around the world.

The way I see it, the world is being faced with an incredibly pressing problem, that, if gone ignored, will have extreme consequences. The longer we delay action, the worse effect that climate change will have on almost all other problems that we’ve fought so hard to solve. Powerful people have the opportunity to make an obvious choice and go down in history as a hero. Seems like a good deal to me. COP26 is the opportunity to make these obvious choices.

What is COP26?

COP26 is the 26th annual Conference of the Parties, a summit lead by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This year, it will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, making it the largest summit the UK has ever hosted. Set to occur in 2020, the event was delayed a year due to COVID-19. COP26 will take place 1–12 November 2021.

Each COP summit has different goals but does not stand alone. Year after year, progress is built upon. The most critical building block was laid in 2015: the Paris Climate Agreement.

Paris Climate Agreement

COP21 set out with an ambitious goal: to finalize a new legally binding agreement that demands participating countries (or “parties”) do their part to keep warming to below 2°C since pre-industrial levels. The UNFCCC succeeded and the Paris Climate Agreement was signed by 196 parties in 2015. Without this conference, a legally binding agreement to limit warming likely would not exist.

The Paris Climate Agreement is not a “how-to” guide on solving climate change. It only sets goals… really f°cking important goals. This means that eventually the UNFCCC must hold parties accountable and demand specific plans of action. This is why the agreement works on a 5-year cycle of increasingly ambitious climate action and increasingly specific demands. This year (at the 5-year cycle mark), countries are required to submit their more specific action plans by COP26.

Why COP26 Isn’t Just Any Other COP

All COP summits are important, but COP26, in particular, is extremely critical to driving climate action for the next 5–10 years.

1. Countries have a deadline (NDCs)

As mentioned, COP26 lands on a point in the 5-year cycle of the Paris Climate Agreement. This year, countries are required to submit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). NDCs embody efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. These are the specific goals and action plans determined by each country.

In other words, this year, for the first time, COP is about more than just broad climate goals—it’s about demanding real action and plans. The U.N. has responded to the NDC reports that have already been submitted (as they were technically due in 2020), and stated that nations must redouble efforts and submit stronger, more ambitious national climate action plans in 2021.

2. The U.S. is back in the game

In 2020, the U.S. formally withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement under the presidency of Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the U.S. remains the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses globally. Past that, the entire world is seeking leadership from the global superpower. If the U.S. fails to lead the charge, we’re in trouble. They’re back now and under significantly more promising leadership.

3. We’re running out of time

The U.N. has declared 2021 “the make it or break it year” for climate change. With less than 9 years to reach the Paris Climate Agreement target of halving global emissions, policy reform will be absolutely essential to tackling this problem. If countries fail to make significant progress at COP26, we will likely wait another 5 years for a meaningful iteration on goals and action items.

🚩 Warning: Past this point, we’re going into the nitty-gritty details of COP26 for those who are interested in the inner workings of the event itself. However, the final section describes what you can do to help. I’d recommend skipping to that section if you’re not interested in the details.

How is COP26 Going to Work?

The key to a successful COP26 is the submission of ambitious NDCs by all parties. As mentioned, this hasn’t happened yet.

Before COP26, there is a string of events aimed to increase ambition on NDCs. These include Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate, the G7 Summit, London Climate Action Week, official Pre-COP, and more. These events are a critical indicator of how effective COP26 will be. So far, it’s not looking great. The G7 Summit essentially yielded another plan to make a plan on climate action… but I truly hope the leaders enjoyed their jet show.

Pre-COP is a closed-door meeting happening in early October for 30–40 countries. The purpose of this meeting is to provide a selected group of countries with an informal setting to discuss and exchange views on some key political aspects of the negotiations and offer political guidance for subsequent negotiations.

G7 watches jet plane aerobatics release GHGs into the atmosphere as they fail to make plans on climate action

Who Goes to COP26?

The summit will involve upwards of 30,000 people, representing over 200 countries, businesses, NGOs, faith groups and many more.

COP26 is split into two zones: the negotiating halls (the “Blue Zone”) and the public/corporate exhibition (the “Green Zone”).

The Blue Zone

This is where sh°t goes down. Within the Blue Zone, you will find global political leaders, representatives of trusted organizations, and the press.

The political leaders represent two groups of countries: those that did sign the Kyoto Protocol (the Paris Climate Agreement’s baby brother), and those that did not. The former are considered Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP) and have much more involvement at the conference.

From there, the parties are further divided into “blocks, which are essentially alliances. Some examples include the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), and BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China).

Further, the UNFCCC has categorized countries based on their levels of climate responsibility: Annex I includes developed nations and countries in transition, Annex II includes only developed countries, and Non-Annex includes developing countries.

Aside from political representatives, members of trusted organizations are also allowed into the Blue Zone to consult on negotiations. They have no formal part in the negotiations but do occasionally make interventions to the process. Their presence helps to maintain a level of transparency and provides a wider stakeholder review of the progress of the negotiations. Observers include United Nations Specialized Agencies such as SBSTA, IGOs such as EPA, IEA, and NGOs such as WWF, WRI.

The Green Zone

The Green Zone is a bigger space accessible to much wider participation. Exhibitioners are not allowed in the Blue Zone. Here, organizations will host workshops, panel discussions, and keynote speeches. There’s also super fun stuff like IMAX theatres and planetariums.

Negotiations at COP25

What is going to happen at COP26?

The official negotiations take place over two weeks. The first week is primarily technical negotiations by government officials. The second week is dominated by the high-level Ministerial and Heads of State meetings. The most challenging issues of the negotiations go to the Ministers to make the final negotiated decisions.

COP26 has four main goals:

  1. Agreeing a step change in commitments to emissions reduction
  2. Strengthening adaptation to climate change impacts
  3. Getting finance flowing for climate action
  4. Enhancing international collaboration on energy transition, clean road transport and nature

Beyond this, there are also key negotiations that were not settled at COP25 and are being carried over. These include carbon market mechanisms, funding for loss and damage, nature-based solutions, the $100 billion finance target, and Paris Climate Agreement common timeframes.

In a nutshell, carbon market mechanisms would allow countries to purchase carbon credits from another country to allow the purchasing country to continue to emit within its borders. They may also include trade in ‘negative’ emissions such as carbon absorption through forestry. This is commonly referred to as “Article 6” of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Funding for loss and damage encompasses funding responses when vulnerable countries experience, well, loss and damage.

The $100 billion finance target addresses the need for developed countries to aid developing countries in initiating climate action.

An increasingly important aspect of the climate debate is around ‘nature-based solutions' (NBS). That is how nature (forests, agriculture and ecosystems) can become a climate solution for absorbing carbon and protecting against climate impacts.

The debate over common timeframes covers whether NDCs should be discussed on a 5-year or 10-year basis. This, of course, has massive implications for the speed of climate action.

What You Can Do

Whether you are a world leader, climate activist, grocery-store clerk, or stay-at-home dad, the outcome COP26 will impact you in ways you cannot imagine. I mean that sincerely.

The UNFCCC is making ambitious requests, yes. However, they would not do so in any other case but an emergency. Our ability to grow food, find water, fight disease outbreaks, educate children, lift people out of poverty, and so much more is being threatened. The good news is that you are not powerless.

I have one task for you: take 5 minutes to contact your local government. This could mean your municipal, state/provincial, or federal government. The shocking reality is that they do listen to you. All they really want is votes—your opinion is their top priority.

Here’s how to contact your local government

I’m from Ontario, Canada, but this method applies everywhere:

  1. Find out who your state/province representative is. Mine is Doug Ford.
  2. I Googled “How to Contact the Ontario Premier” (sounds silly but trust me).
  3. I got this and this.
  4. Do some quick research into what would be an effective change in your area. In Ontario, transportation is our largest emitter.
  5. Politicians typically respond better to phone calls than they do emails, so I called the phone number that I found online.
  6. I got an answer from a representative whose literal job is to pass messages onto the Premier. I could hear him taking notes, which was very promising.

I recorded my (pretty lame) phone call:

This action item might sound trivial, but compare this to what you’re typically told to do: do vegan, ride your bike, and use a metal straw (which was stage-right in the video above FYI).

You have political influence. Politicians care what you think—their job depends on it.

Whether COP26 seems daunting or exciting, I ask this one favour of you: take 5 minutes to contact your local government.

For those interested, I’ve written a comprehensive document on COP26 for even more information.

See you on the other side of climate change ✌️

For a more constant stream of climate news & my opinions, you can follow me on Twitter or (recently) TikTok!



Cassia Attard

Hey, I'm Cassia! I'm a 23 y/o Sustainability student at McGill. Previously, I've worked as a climate consultant and with various climate-tech projects :)