A delegate walks past a sign during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 11 2021. Picture: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN
A delegate walks past a sign during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 11 2021. Picture: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN

Code red for humanity was how UN secretary-general António Guterres described the findings of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That was about two months before the latest UN climate conference concluded in Glasgow, Scotland, at the weekend. Ahead of COP26, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson used a soccer analogy and said humanity was about 5-1 down at halftime.

US President Joe Biden arrived in Scotland promising that the country, after Donald Trump’s America First presidency, is ready to “lead by example” as the world seeks to limit global heating to less than 1.5°C of preindustrial levels. President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of an unprecedented climate crisis and committed SA to a “significant reduction” in fossil fuel use, in line with its plan published in September.

After all the warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of climate change, some of which we are seeing already in the disappearance of whole islands and the regularity of extreme climate events such as deadly floods, it is more than disappointing that COP26 ended up as just another conference.

Instead of a determination for a deal that saves everyone, the text of the final communique was subject to last-minute haggling and horse trading, with countries driven by narrow self-interest. The reporting on the deal was dominated by the haggling that resulted in the wording on coal being watered down at the insistence of China and India.

There were successes at COP26, such as the agreement among countries to review their nationally determined contributions next year, and the setting up of rules to give life to some of the objectives set down in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. From the US to India, countries rushed to commit to net zero by the middle of the century, though scepticism remains about whether they will actually deliver.

The subject that was the source of the most disappointment is of great relevance to SA: coal. That dirty fuel, responsible for generating most of SA’s electricity, has been the big focus of activists, with “make coal history” one of the more recognisable slogans of the conference.

The initial draft of the agreement committed countries to phase out coal, a big export earner for SA that does rather well, for now at least, for investors in companies such as Exxaro and Thungela Resources. China and India insisted that this be changed to “phasing down”. This will probably be welcomed by mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe and his department.

It has been noted that the type of evasive language that ensues as participants seek a declaration everyone can live with will often leave one without a clear sense of anything being achieved. This is also true of the deal that was struck for SA and Eskom.

The agreement by the US, UK and European countries to “mobilise” $8.5bn (R129bn) to enable Eskom to retire coal-powered stations earlier could potentially set the standard for rich countries helping poorer ones to decarbonise, while at the same time protecting the livelihoods of entire towns and provinces that depend on coal. But much of this is subject to conditions that haven’t yet been made explicit.

Rich countries, the main beneficiaries of activities that have caused climate change, still haven’t agreed on an acceptable model for compensating developing nations for the damaged caused. They are understandably reluctant to agree to a deal that opens a can of worms and themselves to huge liabilities and lawsuits. The promised $100bn a year for developing countries to fund the transition had not materialised either, though new promises have since been made.

Johnson was right that the “direction of travel is pretty much the same”, even if governments have watered down their commitments to phasing out coal. Market forces are likely to drive the transition anyway, and it would be unwise for those reluctant to move away from coal to think that SA can hope to slow or prevent the process, no matter the shortcomings of COP26. 

It was called a ‘historic' deal while many expressed disappointment at last-minute changes. So, what was actually achieved at COP26?

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