A beginner's guide to the UN climate talks

This November, world leaders will descend on Glasgow to discuss the climate crisis. Photo ops and PR stunts aside, it's a real chance to take action on climate. Read our simple guide to the UN climate talks.
  Published:  13 Aug 2021    |      3 minute read

What and when is COP?

The UN climate conference, COP and the climate talks are all names used to describe the same thing: a yearly conference for world leaders hosted by the United Nations (UN).

This year’s conference in Glasgow, which was delayed due to the pandemic, marks the 26th round of climate talks since they began, which is why you might see them referred to in the press as “COP26”. It's a chance for global leaders to negotiate solutions to the climate crisis and its impacts.

The talks will take place between 31 October and 12 November 2021. The key date to watch out for is 6 November, as you'll see below.

Why should I care?

From floods in Germany and the Philippines to wildfires in Siberia and Greece, summer 2021 has shown just how wide-ranging the climate crisis is. The latest report from UN climate scientists is clear: we're at a tipping point, and we'll cause irreversible damage to ourselves and our planet if we don't drastically reduce carbon emissions. And it'll be the poorest and most vulnerable who bear the brunt, such as those living in poorly built houses or people who don't have the means to move quickly when danger strikes.

Consequences of 2021 flooding in Germany
Man cleans up after flooding in Ahrweiler, Germany
Credit: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/European Commission

This year's talks are particularly important for the UK because we’re hosting the talks. It's a huge opportunity for the public and the media to shine a light on the UK's current and historic role in the climate crisis and push the government to do more.

Although previous climate talks have been frustratingly slow, they're one of the only spaces where countries in the Global South (like those in South America, Africa and parts of Asia) can participate on an equal footing with industrialised countries like the US, the UK and Japan.

That's why we'll be doing all we can to support Global South access and participation at the talks, and ensure that the voices of those most vulnerable to climate impacts and extreme weather are heard.

What happens and who's invited?

Over the course of 2 weeks, participants attend sessions and seminars to discuss topics related to the climate crisis, such as:

  • Ways of adapting changing climate that protect communities, food supplies and natural habitats.
  • Climate finance (how to finance solutions to the crisis and help poorer countries deal with the impacts).
  • Reducing carbon emissions (who needs to reduce what, and by how much).

The most famous talks happened in Paris in 2015, when 195 countries signed an historic agreement to reduce emissions and aim to limit global heating by a maximum of 1.5°C. The catch is, they've made minimal progress against that target. Which is why it's crucial that progress is made and targets are agreed before further damage is done.

Participants who attend the talks include: 

  • Negotiating teams and officials from multiple countries, such as Alok Sharma, the UK minister responsible for the climate talks. 
  • Members of the press and media. 
  • Observers, made up of non-governmental organisations (like Friends of the Earth) and intergovernmental organisations (for example, the International Maritime Organisation).  
  • Representatives from the United Nations and its agencies.  

How can I get involved?

Even though most people can’t attend the formal negotiations, each year activists and members of the public head to the host city to take part in events and make their voices heard.

photo of protest against climate induced migration at COP22
Credit: Friends of the Earth International

This year is a chance to make demands for better outcomes at the talks and highlight government inaction. But most importantly, it's a chance to demand that solutions to the climate crisis are inclusive of the poorest and most vulnerable to its impacts, such as communities in Madagascar suffering the impacts of drought and those from Pacific Islands threatened by rising sea levels.

Providing there aren't COVID restrictions in place, there’ll be loads of exciting events both in Glasgow and in towns and cities across the UK. The main focus will be the Global Day of Action on Saturday 6 November, which is open to everyone.

Groups from across the Friends of the Earth network are joining forces with organisations like the COP26 Coalition to host events across towns and cities and shine a light on climate-related issues. Sign up to our mailing list and get details of our plans and campaign news sent to your inbox.