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Monday’s local elections, with results expected to trickle in this week, may — or may not — have represented an existential crisis for the ANC and its hold on power.       

That may have been enough justification for President Cyril Ramaphosa to skip the UN Climate Change conference, known as COP26, that got under way in Glasgow, Scotland, a day earlier. A debate may well be had which of the events was of more importance for the interests of SA, as opposed to those of the ruling party.

Eskom CEO André de Ruyter is there, though back at home the concern is more about keeping the lights on than a green transition years down the line. The utility is the main driver in making SA the 12th biggest global emitter of greenhouse gases, despite barely being among the top 40 largest economies.

On the conference itself, it is easy to be sceptical despite the greater sense of urgency since the release in August of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which UN secretary-general António Guterres called a “code red” for humanity.

The host of COP26 is UK prime minister Boris Johnson, a former sceptic who used his previous career as a newspaper columnist to rubbish scientific warnings on the effects of climate change. Now he is warning about potential global competition for food and a decline in civilisation brought about by mass immigration due to climate change and extreme weather events.

That does not augur well for the credibility of the summit and what may come out of it. Even those who accept the sincerity of the leaders attending it in Glasgow, might question if anything concrete has ever emerged from such conferences.

And they might not be encouraged by what came out of the G20 summit in Rome that preceded COP26. The commitments there were seen as mild and an indication that countries will still be guided by short-term domestic considerations, and getting consensus will not be easy.

Their commitment to end “international public finance” for “unabated” coal-powered energy “abroad” by the end of 2021 should, however, concentrate doubting minds at SA’s department of mineral resources and energy. Building new coal power stations might be part of SA’s resources plan, but it is unlikely to fit in with the agenda of potential funders.

The conference is likely to be the same as others before it, but there is consensus on the need for a “just transition” to help countries adapt. 
That could favour SA even if previous promises have not been honoured, with the promised $100bn a year funding for developing economies now delayed to 2023.

As envoys from rich countries travelled to SA ahead of COP26, there was optimism that SA presented an opportunity for the conference to demonstrate a clear win by agreeing to a plan that helps Eskom transition to greener sources of energy.

On the conference itself, it is likely that reaffirming the goal of limiting global heating to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels will be the easy part. The question is whether countries will go past the fudges that they normally settle on in order to produce a communique that they can all live with. 

And if they do agree on ambitious goals, who is to believe them on implementation? The UK broke its pledges on foreign aid and is constantly in dispute with its EU partners over a Brexit deal it agreed to less than two years ago, while France goes into the conference on the back of a grievance that it was betrayed by the US, the UK and Australia over a security pact signed by those three.

None of this makes for a climate of trust. And Africa’s most recent grumble with the rich countries over access to Covid-19 vaccines may have convinced Ramaphosa, with the ANC potentially facing disaster at the polls, that there was no point in risking political capital at home by flying to Scotland.

For the broader national interest, he should have gone anyway, and maybe he might have clinched that Eskom deal.


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