2021: A Watershed Year for Sustainability?

Written by: Julia Bolotina, Editor of For All the Fish

2021 holds great potential for systemic shifts in responses to climate change, with several major international climate conferences set to take place before the year is out. As world leaders are due to make major decisions on biodiversity, food systems and greenhouse gas emissions, these meetings are vitally important to the future of our planet.

Here, we give a brief overview of the conferences and their goals. In the run-up to the summits, we will also publish a series of interviews with thought leaders in sustainable food, asking them to put these events into context and discuss the outcomes they hope to see. Read our first interview with Sir Charles Godfray, director of the Oxford Martin School, here.

But First … What is a COP?

This year you will hear a lot about COP26, COP15 and maybe even COP21 as it relates to the Paris Agreement. COP stands for Conference of the Parties. It is the designation for the main decision-making body of the relevant UN conventions, representing delegates from all countries who are signatories of that convention. 

Convention meetings are often designated by ‘COP’ followed by a number indicating which meeting it is in the series. So the COP26 that everyone is talking about this year is the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

It was during COP21 of the UNFCCC that the Paris Agreement was signed. This legally binding treaty saw countries commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to work towards a temperature increase of no more than 1.5°C. 

The Conferences

The first event, set up as a milestone on the path to COP26, is the Leaders Summit on Climate Change, convened by US President Joe Biden on April 22–23, 2021. 40 world leaders are expected to attend the virtual event, which is being streamed for public viewing (catch the livestream here). According to the US State Department, ‘the primary objective of the Summit is to encourage the world’s major economies … to enhance ambition to keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach.’

Another major meeting is the United Nations Food Systems Summit. A pre-summit gathering in Italy in July, 2021, will be followed by the Summit in New York in September, 2021, in conjunction with the UN General Assembly. The Food Systems Summit is the first meeting of its kind. Unlike the other conferences discussed here, it focuses specifically on food systems and adopts a participatory approach. In their own words: 

‘The UN Food Systems Summit will launch bold new actions, solutions and strategies to deliver progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), each of which relies on healthier, more sustainable and more equitable food systems. The Summit will awaken the world to the fact that we all must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food.’ (UN Food Systems Summit, Summit Vision).

Built into the conference are multiple ways for stakeholders in all aspects of food systems – from farmers to NGOs, businesses and the general public – to get involved and have their voices heard.

Also coming up is COP15 to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which will meet in Kunming, China, and is tentatively scheduled for October 11–24, 2021. The convention has 3 main goals: ‘the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources’ (Convention on Biological Diversity: Sustaining Life on Earth).

Finally, COP26, the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, will take place in Glasgow on November 1–12, 2021. COP26 is particularly significant in the cycle of meetings on the Paris Agreement, because countries must submit new long-term goals every five years. This will be the first such submission since the agreement was signed in 2015, and all eyes will be on whether the new goals submitted at COP26 are sufficiently ambitious to address the current climate emergency.

What Will These Conferences Achieve? 

That is a big question, and one that cannot be truly answered until after they take place. Focusing specifically on the Food Systems Summit and COP26, we have invited some of the leading thinkers in food sustainability to give their perspective on the conferences’ potential, and share which outcomes they themselves are advocating. Read more here.

Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash

Peer review declaration:  This article is an explainer. It was reviewed for accuracy by a researcher in the field. However, as it was written by a member of our editorial team, the review was not blind.

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