What is COP26?

COP (or ‘Conference of Parties’) is a yearly conference which brings together all countries which are party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In 2020, COP26 was due to be held in Glasgow, but was delayed due to Covid-19. This year, the conference is due to go ahead in Glasgow from 1 – 12 November.

What will be discussed? And, what is the Paris Agreement?
COP26 is a crucial opportunity to assess, reaffirm and strengthen existing commitments made by the international community to decarbonise. Specifically, it will be a chance to review commitments made under the Paris Climate Agreement which was adopted by 196 Parties at COP 21 in Paris, in 2015.

The Paris Agreement is a landmark agreement, being the first to bring all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century.

What is a Nationally Defined Contribution? (NDC)
Under the Paris Agreement countries must submit a ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (or NDC), which lays out the actions they intend to take to decarbonise, including dates by which they will have reached defined milestones. These plans must be submitted every five years, so they were due to be published by all 196 parties in 2020. A key feature of the agreement is the so-called ‘ratchet system’, under which every new NDC published must commit to stronger action that the last. 

Forecasted rise in global mean temperatures, according to different emissions pathways. Many climate scientists believe that the Paris Climate Agreement is not sufficient to limit warming to “well below 2°C”, as intended (Graph after Our World in Data, 2019).

What has the UK committed to?
As hosts, it’s essential that the UK’s NDC is ambitious – to encourage strong action by other nations. In October 2020, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) wrote to the Prime Minister, and the Minister in charge of delivering COP26, Alok Sharma (known as COP President), calling for the government to announce the UK’s NDC as soon as possible. We asked that it was:

  • Consistent with the aims to limit the rise in global mean temperatures to 1.5°C,
  • Achieved entirely through domestic action, without the use of international credits, and in a way that is fair and equitable, abiding by the UNFCCC principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

On 12 December, the UK announced its plans – committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

While the UK’s NDC was published just before the deadline, the large majority of countries (118 as of February 2021) have not. 

Our Calls for Action

As a national coalition of health professionals, a founding member of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, and given our obligation to protect and promote public health and wellbeing, we believe that this process must be taken more seriously by all parties to the UNFCCC if we are to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change on environmental and human health.

We call on governments, civil society, and business to take urgent action that will more rapidly de-carbonise the world economy, support and protect vulnerable populations, enhance biodiversity and regenerative agriculture, and help people, economies, and the environment adapt and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

We call for:

  • All countries to achieve net zero emissions by 20401 with countries with high emissions of carbon making much bigger cuts than those with low emissions2

  • Countries with the greatest responsibility for carbon emissions (mostly high income countries) to transfer funds to countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis, enabling them to adapt and prepare

  • All fossil fuel subsidies to end (while protecting the vulnerable who may be unfairly disadvantaged) coupled with a massive investment in renewable energy and storage, green infrastructure, and green jobs

  • All fossil fuel companies to become net zero by 2040

  • All health services to become net zero as soon as possible and before 2040

1. The ultimate aim must be absolute zero, but net zero means that the carbon that cannot be removed by 2040 can be sequestered. Importantly only internationally validated amounts of sequestered carbon can be considered in net calculations.

2. The necessary actions to meet these commitments are arrived at from the concept of ‘Contraction and Convergence’, which, as with the UNFCCC and the UK Climate Act, is based on principles of precaution and equity. This means that to reach net zero global emissions by 2040 all countries first converge to the average global per capita emissions, then reduce to zero by 2040.

Those countries with high carbon emissions have to make large reductions, whilst most countries with low emissions will have entitlements of increased per capita emissions initially, with all countries reaching net zero by 2040. The implication for a high emitting country like Britain (present average per capita emission 5.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide) is each person rapidly converging to the global average (4.8 tonnes/capita), and then reducing to zero by 2040. This further reduction has to be extremely rapid as the global share of carbon for each Briton is about 0.5 tonnes for each year between 2020 and 2040. The average British home emits 2.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from domestic heating, and a return flight from London to New York emits 1.0 tonne of carbon dioxide.

These examples illustrate the dramatic changes we need to make in how we live, eat, travel, and work to keep below a global temperature increase of 1.5°C.

Add your support to our call for climate action

Events this year

This year the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change and our members will be holding a series of free events to highlight the threat of climate change to health, and to build support for stronger climate action in the health sector. Upcoming events are listed below:

Recording now available: Net Zero Carbon General Practice: what will it look like, how will we get there? (RCGP)

Introduced by Dr Richard Smith, and including a panel discussion chaired by Prof Martin Marshall. Guests discuss:

  • Dr Terry Kemple – What is net zero practice?
  • Dr Georgie Sowman – What will it look like?
  • Dr Aarti Bansal – How will we get there?
Watch now

Recording now available – Clinicians for Climate Action: Why is the climate emergency a mental health emergency, and what role can psychiatry play? (RCPsych)

The impacts of the climate and ecological emergency and our health are intrinsically linked, and in ways which we are learning more about each year. In this free webinar, Richard Smith, chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (of which RCPsych is a member), Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief of the BMJ, Nick Watts, Chief Sustainability Officer of NHS England, and Lisa Page, Chair of the RCPsych Sustainability Committee, discuss why climate change is a mental health issue, the NHS’s plans for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, and the role that Psychiatry can play in improving the health of people and the planet.

Watch now

Thursday 6th May, 10am-12.30pm – Achieving net zero in the health service (BMA)

The publication of the greener NHS report and the BMA climate change and sustainability report both outline how the NHS intends to be the first net zero health service. This event, hosted by the BMA’s board of science, will include a keynote address from Lord Deben, the chair of the UK’s independent committee on climate change, as well as a panel discussion on achieving net zero in the NHS, chaired by Dr Richard Smith and featuring the following guests:

  • Dr Aarti Bansal – co-chair, RCGP climate emergency advisory group
  • James Dixon – head of sustainability, Newcastle NHS Foundation Trust
  • Dr Nick Watts – chief sustainability officer for the greener NHS team
  • Dr Jenny Mack – specialty registrar, Public Health Agency Northern Ireland.

Attendees will have the opportunity to submit questions to ask the speakers both before and during the event. The BMA will be applying for CPD accreditation for these online events.

Register now

Tuesday 27th April, 6-7pm – Hazardous temperatures and cardiac health (RSM)

This webinar, the fourth episode of the RSM’s Health emergency of climate change series, will explore the links between climate change and cardiovascular health.

Last year, The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change reported that between 2000 and 2018, heat-related mortality in people over-65 had increased by 53%. This episode will cover the scale of this cardiovascular crisis, the range of conditions affected, and the groups who are most at risk. It will also outline the implications for health professionals treating these diseases, their role in communicating with patients about these health threats, and the benefits of a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.

Register now