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Science | Geography | Citizenship

World leaders gather to save Planet Earth

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Is this a real turning point? When the history books are written, will they say this was the week when the human race finally took action to save our fragile and beautiful home? 

This weekend, world leaders and diplomats flocked to Glasgow for the event billed as “the world’s best last chance”. Cop26 is a crunch climate summit that will determine whether the most catastrophic scenarios of global heating can be averted.

After years of preparation, the work of the conference begins today. Representatives from over 200 countries, alongside NGOsNon-governmental organisations, such as charities or political campaign  , activists and others, are holding round-the-clock meetings, frantically attempting to agree on practical measures to curb climate change.

The issues are sprawling and complex. But what is at stake can be boiled down to a few figures:

2.7 – The temperature in centigrade by which the global average temperature is on course to rise since pre-industrial times. If this comes to pass, life on Earth will become harsh. Droughts will last up to ten months, making swathes of the planet uninhabitable. Deadly heat waves will be annual events for almost half the world’s population. The rising seas will displace hundreds of millions and engulf entire countries. This is the world that future generations are set to inherit – even if countries follow through on pre-existing commitments.

1.5 – The target temperature rise in centigrade agreed at Paris 2015. This would still result in rising oceans, crop failures, migration crises and extreme weather events. About one in five insect species could go extinct. Still, the cliff edge of spiralling disasters could yet be avoided.

413.2 – The proportion of the atmosphere as a fraction of a million that is currently carbon dioxide (CO2). This is the greenhouse gasGases in the Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat, contributing to global warming. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour are all greenhouse gases. most responsible for climate change. Whereas Paris was about agreeing shared goals, the central task at Cop26 is to get individual countries to commit to policies to stop burning the fossil fuels which produce greenhouse gases.

30,000 – The estimated number of attendees at the summit. All of them come with the goal of lowering emissions, but they also have their own interests to consider. The challenge is to get leaders to commit their countries to costly programmes like building sustainable energy, even if that is difficult in the short term.

60 – The percentage of CO2 emitted so far that comes from just a few countries: the USA, the EU and China. China has committed to carbon neutralityWhen there is a balance between carbon emissions and the CO2 being removed from the atmosphere. It is also known as net zero. by 2060, which experts say is far too slow, and its leader Xi Jinping has chosen not to attend the conference – a setback to hopes for major progress.

12 – The number of days that Cop26 participants have to commit to policies that will set the world on course for 1.5C. 

“The pathway is extremely narrow,” says sustainable energy expert Fatih Birol. “We really don’t have much time left to shift course.” The clock starts now.

Is this a real turning point?

A lot of hot air?

If we’re trusting in politicians and pen pushers to save the world, pessimists say, then truly we are doomed. They might talk a good game, but ultimately our leaders are more concerned with power than principle. Summits like this are just fiddling while the Earth burns.

Wrong, say optimists: this is a real chance to unite for a better future. The changes being made are agonisingly slow and many obstacles remain, but the world is waking up to the coming crisis and little by little we can turn the tide. Now is the time for ordinary citizens to ramp up the pressure on our leaders to do the right thing.

Cop26 – COP stands for “conference of parties”, a name for a gathering under a framework developed by the UN for countries to work together in tackling climate change. This is the 26th time the “parties” have met.

NGOsNon-governmental organisations, such as charities or political campaign   – Short for non-governmental organisations, this term usually refers to charities and other independent, non-profit institutions.

Pre-industrial – The Industrial Revolution, which began in the eighteenth Century was fueled by burning coal, oil and gas. As a result the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has almost doubled, which is the main cause of climate change.

Cliff edge – Experts say that the projected results of climate change are “non-linear”. This means that the risks do not always rise steadily: there may be tipping points when global systems suddenly shift and suddenly cause much more drastic changes.

Greenhouse gas – A gas that absorbs radiation and therefore keeps heat within the atmosphere. Other greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide and ozone.

Sustainable energy – Energies sources such as wind, solar and hydro power, which do not depend on burning fossil fuels.

Carbon neutrality – The point at which a country reduces overall carbon emissions to zero, by drastically reducing the burning of fossil fuels as well as removing carbon from the atmosphere (for instance by planting trees).


NGOs – Non-governmental organisations, such as charities or political campaign  

Greenhouse gas – Gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat, contributing to global warming. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour are all greenhouse gases.

Carbon neutrality – When there is a balance between carbon emissions and the CO2 being removed from the atmosphere. It is also known as net zero.

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  • Some people say

    • “As a species, we are expert problem solvers. But we haven’t yet applied ourselves to this problem with the focus it requires.”
    • David Attenborough (1926 - ), British presenter of natural history documentaries
    • “Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming whether you like it or not.”
    • Greta Thunberg (2003 - ), Swedish environmental activist
  • Dive in deeper

    • The conference organisers explain what Cop26 is about and why it is so crucial. COP26 (3:46)
    • A scary glimpse into a possible future: what it's like to experience the record temperatures that recently hit Kuwait. BBC (3:58)
    • A straightforward explainer of the process and the issues on the table. The New York Times (500 words)
    • A news report on the mood and situation ahead of the summit. Financial Times (1,000 words; paywall)
    • A beautifully animated guide to climate change, targeted at kids but useful for anyone who wants a clear understanding of the key issues. The New York Times (1,500 words)

Six steps to discovery

  1. Draw on what you already know, to understand what you do not yet know

    • 1. Read the bold paragraph under the photo. What do you think about this topic?
    • 2. How does it make you feel?
  2. Identify the questions that will best guide your investigation

    • 1. Watch the first video on the Dive in deeper panel.
    • 2. Note the questions it answers and the questions it raises.
  3. Read the article thoughtfully and make sure you understand the key words

    • 1. Make two columns on a sheet of paper. Go through the article noting down factual claims in one column and opinions in the other.
    • 2. Explain why these facts and opinions are important.
  4. Make sense of what you have read and think about the opinions in Some people say

    • 1. Why might the topic of this article matter to you?
    • 2. To make a better world, what kind of things need to change?
  5. Make a case for your point of view

    • 1. Imagine you are an activist protesting at Cop26. In groups, design a poster or placard calling for world leaders to commit to policies to curb climate change.
    • 2. In groups, hold your own climate summit, but for individuals rather than countries: what commitments is each member of the group willing to make to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global heating?
  6. Describe what you have learned from this inquiry

    • 1. You are a negotiator at a key meeting at Cop26. Write a speech outlining what you think needs to happen for the world to avoid climate catastrophe.
    • 2. Imagine you are a historian in the year 2300 writing about the response to climate change in the present day. Write an account of how world leaders acted and what the results were – including the role of this month's summit.