The ceremonial opening of COP 26

International

Sunday morning saw the opening of COP26 in Glasgow.

For the next two weeks, global heads of state, climate experts, and civil society will participate in a series of talks, negotiations, and events, all with the common goal of accelerating action to tackle the climate emergency.

The conference began with the opening plenary meeting, attended by delegates of all parties, which formally opened the 26th conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and which will also serve as the 16th  meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol and the 3rd conference of the parties to the Paris Agreement (the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement being international climate agreements which have been adopted under the UNFCCC).

We take a look below at some of the key opening speeches which set the tone for the rest of the conference.

Carolina Schmidt, President of COP25

Success lies in our determination

The ceremony was opened by Carolina Schmidt, Minister of the Environment for Chile and President of COP25 (who due to the COVID-19 pandemic holds the title for the longest serving COP President) and began with a minutes silence for all those lost during the pandemic.

Carolina’s opening speech focussed on the importance of building our regulatory regime on the indisputable science on climate change; the transformative changes required across finance, energy, transport, agriculture and other sectors to tackle climate change; the need for business and civil society to participate in driving change and the fast pace of change needed to achieve our current goals.

She set out three areas of focus for COP26 - ambition, finance and rules. A need to tackle the great gap in our ambitions by enforcing, abiding by and fulfilling the aims of the Paris Agreement.  A need to close the gap on the $100 billion of finance already committed to combat climate change. A need to establish a set of clear rules for the international community to follow, particularly with regards to transparency under the Paris Agreement.

Alok Sharma, President of COP26

Paris promised, Glasgow delivers

The first key item on the agenda for the opening ceremony was the formal election of Alok Sharma as the President of COP26, complete with a ceremonial switching of seats between Carolina Schmidt and Alok Sharma. 

The theme of Alok Sharma’s speech was ambition and positivity. He began by referring to the most recent IPCC report, agreed to by 195 governments, which makes clear that human activity is unequivocally the cause of global warming and that the window to keep global temperatures below a 1.5 degree rise is closing.

He called on the COP to protect people and nature from climate change, to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees and to pursue a limit of 1.5 degrees, and to mobilise finance flows. He designated the Glasgow conference as the “last best hope to keep 1.5 alive”.

He set a tone of positivity that COP26 could resolve outstanding issues and launch a decade of ever increasing ambition and action, seizing opportunities for growth, if the international community hits the ground running. The work starts now.

He closed with a call to action - “Paris promised, Glasgow delivers”

Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC

Now is the day, now is the hour

Patricia Espinosa was fourth to take the podium, giving an opening speech on behalf of the UN. She began her speech by quoting Scottish poet Robert Burns, "Now is the day, now is the hour”, noting that we stand at a pivotal point in history.

She called for increasing adaption efforts for the current effects of climate change. She called for us to recognise that “business as usual” is not working. She noted it is not only about the environment, but about peace, stability and the well-being of all.

She reflected that the Paris Agreement has everything we need to achieve our climate goals and what we need now is full implementation of its provisions. She called for parties to finalise outstanding work under the Paris Agreement as a matter of urgency.

She recognised the significance of the task ahead whilst concluding that success is entirely possible, calling upon delegates to look beyond individual agenda items to the overall goal of COP26, to rise to the enormous challenge of our time and to achieve success for all generations to come.

Hoesung Lee, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Seize the moment, seize the opportunity

Next to address the conference was Mr Lee, giving an address on behalf of the IPCC. The IPCC is a scientific intergovernmental body of the United Nations which is responsible for advancing knowledge on human-induced climate change.

The IPCC released in August the first part of its ongoing Sixth Assessment Report, which sets out the most up-to-date scientific understanding of climate change. Hoesung Lee described the report as a sobering read, reflecting the magnitude of the challenge faced by the world. The current findings of the IPCC cannot be understated, as they are the scientific foundation on which decisions of COP26 will be made.

Mr Lee’s role was to set the scientific context for the conference. He noted that the Sixth Assessment Report had concluded that the effects of climate change are widespread, rapid, more intense and effecting every part of the world, and that it is unequivocal that human interference is causing climate change, making extreme events more frequent and severe.

He encouraged delegates to seize the moment and opportunity that COP26 provides, importantly reflecting that we share one climate system, which knows no borders. He concluded that the true measure of effectiveness of delegates collective efforts will be state of the planet’s condition and that science will attest to that.

India Logan-Riley, New Zealand Climate Activist

In the impacts of climate change our fates are intertwined

India is a young climate activist from New Zealand whose speech represented the interests of both indigenous peoples and the global youth.

Her speech helped to set the approaching COP negotiations within the context of real effects on real people. She began with a personal story, of how catastrophic wild fires in eastern Australia last year, turned the sun red in her native New Zealand and how smoke travelling on the air led to breathing issues within the population. She reflected on how her people’s health was bound to the struggles of land and people in another country and how in the impacts of climate change our fates are intertwined. 

India is the same age as the UNFCCC COP negotiations themselves, and she reflected on how her life has progressed whilst COPs have taken place and whilst emissions have continued to rise. She called for rights frameworks to be entrenched in the Paris Agreement Rulebook, for finance to be re-distributed to address climate change loss and damage in a just transition and for rich countries to commit to steep emission reductions in this decade. She closed by inviting the COP to listen to the stories of indigenous peoples, the honour their knowledge and to align with their goals.

Key themes

Key themes can be drawn from each of the opening speeches.

Climate change knows no borders

Both Hoesung Lee and India Logan-Riley touched on the fact that climate change knows no borders, and the fates of all peoples are intertwined. This is a key point for negotiators to keep in mind. Whilst each negotiator is there to represent the interests of their own country, it must be remembered that climate change is an international issue and that the goals, actions and decisions of each individual state will have consequences for the world.

Urgency

Each speaker touched on the urgency of the task ahead of the conference and the need for delegates to achieve the key goals. Carolina Schmidt referred to the “pace of change” required to address climate change; Alok Sharma to “hitting the ground running”; Patricia Espinosa to “now is the hour”; Hoesung Lee touched on the increasingly frequent and severe impacts of climate change; and India Logan-Riley on the adverse effects which are already being felt.

The science shows that the time to avert irreversible damage due to climate change is short and urgent action must be taken by those at COP26 to set the world on the correct path.

We have the tools we need

Patricia Espinosa reflected that the Paris Agreement has everything we need to achieve our climate goals and what we need now is full implementation of its provisions – we have the tools we need, but we need to use them now. Carolina Schmidt also called for parties to finalise and abide by the Paris Agreement. “Paris promised, Glasgow delivers” – that is the target set by Alok Sharma to focus the attention of delegates.

Ambition

All speakers acknowledged that the task ahead of us is vast, but that with ambition and positivity there is still time to achieve our goals.