What is COP 27 and why does it matter

For almost three decades, world governments have met nearly every year to forge a global response to the climate emergency. Under the 1992 UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC), every country is treaty-bound to “avoid dangerous climate change” and find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally in an equitable way.

Cop stands for conference of the parties under the UNFCCC, and the annual meetings have swung between fractious and soporific, interspersed with moments of high drama and the occasional triumph (the Paris agreement in 2015) and disaster (Copenhagen in 2009). This year is the 27th iteration and promises to be a difficult follow-up to the landmark summit last year, Cop26 in Glasgow.

When did it start?

The conference will be hosted by the Egyptian government in Sharm el-Sheikh, opening on 6 November. For two days after that, Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 November, world leaders will gather for a series of closed-door meetings and direct their officials to get the kind of deal needed. They will then depart, leaving the complex negotiations to their representatives, mainly environment ministers or similarly senior officials.

The talks are scheduled to end at 6pm on Friday 18 November but past experience of Cops shows they are likely to extend into Saturday and perhaps even to Sunday.

Who do we need a Cop when we have the Paris agreement?

Yes – under the landmark Paris agreement, signed in 2015, countries committed to holding global temperature rises to “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels, while “pursuing efforts” to limit heating to 1.5C. Those goals are legally binding and enshrined in the treaty.

However, to meet those goals, countries also agreed on non-binding national targets to cut – or in the case of developing countries to curb – the growth of – greenhouse gas emissions in the near term, by 2030 in most cases.

Those targets – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – were inadequate to hold the world within the Paris temperature targets. If fulfilled, they would result in 3C or more of warming, which would be disastrous.

Everyone knew at Paris that the NDCs were inadequate, so the French built into the accord a “ratchet mechanism” by which countries would have to return to the table every five years with fresh commitments. Those five years ended on 31 December 2020, and at Cop26 in November 2021, countries assembled to set out new targets.

Are we nearly there on 1.5C

No. Even if all the long-term and short-term pledges made in Glasgow were met, temperatures would still rise by about 1.8C above pre-industrial levels, according to the International Energy Agency – a vast improvement on the NDCs submitted in Paris but still far off where the world needs to be.

What is worse, those estimates place a lot of emphasis on meeting long-term goals for which most countries have only the barest plans in place, making them highly optimistic. If only countries’ short-term goals – their NDCs, setting out emissions cuts to the end of this decade – are counted, then according to the UN temperatures could rise to about 2.5C by the end of this century.

 That leaves a lot remaining to be done at Cop27, and the signs are not good so far. Only 24 countries have updated their NDCs between Cop26 and Cop27, far fewer than were hoped for under the updated ratchet system. Of those, many will make little difference. Australia stands out as having made significant progress on its NDC under its new government.

Why is 1.5C so important?

As part of the Paris agreement, the world’s leading authority on climate science – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – was charged with examining closely what a 1.5C temperature rise would mean for the planet. They found a vast difference between the damage done by 1.5C and 2C of heating, and concluded that the lower temperature was much safer.

An increase of 1.5C would still result in a rising sea levels, the bleaching of coral reefs and an increase in heatwaves, droughts, floods, fiercer storms and other forms of extreme weather – but these would be far less than the extremes associated with a rise of 2C.

Further findings from the latest IPCC reports, published since Cop26, have underlined these warnings and concluded that there was still a slim chance for the world to stay within the 1.5C threshold but that it would require concerted efforts. Crucially, they also found that every fraction of a degree of increase is important.

How far do we have to go?

Temperatures around the world are already at about 1.1-1.2C above pre-industrial levels, and greenhouse gas emissions are still rising.

Carbon dioxide output plunged during the Covid-19 lockdowns but emissions rebounded as economies recovered. To stay within 1.5C, global emissions need to come down by about 7% a year for this decade. Yet they are still rising.

What about Net Zero?

To stay within 1.5C, we must stop emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases – from burning fossil fuels, from agriculture and animal husbandry – which create methane – from cutting down trees and from certain industrial processes – almost completely by mid-century. Any residual emissions remaining by then, for instance from processes that cannot be modified, must be offset by increasing the world’s carbon sinks, such as forests, peatlands and wetlands, which act as vast carbon stores. That balance is known as net zero.

Long-term goals are not enough, however. The climate responds to cumulative emissions, and carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for about a century after it is released, so we could reach net zero by 2050 but still have emitted so much in the meantime that we exceed the 1.5C threshold irrevocably.

That is why scientists are calling the 2020s the crucial decade for the climate – if emissions can peak soon and be reduced rapidly, we can keep cumulative emissions from growing too much, and still have a chance of staying within 1.5C.

For a more detailed market analysis and advice on how a carbon reduction strategy can reduce both carbon footprint and electricity costs please feel free to e-mail