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The road to COP28 — key debates and expectations for South Africa

- Yashila Govender, Katrina Lehmann-Grube, Sonia Phalatse, Julia Taylor and Imraan Valodia

Discussions and negotiations on climate change will take place at COP28 after another year of record-breaking climate events and extreme weather changes.

After another year of record-breaking climate events and extreme weather changes, discussions and negotiations on climate change will take place at the annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN is hosting its 28th annual COP from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which itself has been a source of controversy because the UAE is one of the world’s top oil-producing countries, and is therefore centrally linked to the high levels of carbon emission

The significance of COP28
One of the central aims of every Conference of Parties (COP) is to review the progress and implementation of the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change adopted in 2015. As of 2023 there are 194 countries that have signed the Paris Agreement. The significance of COP28 is that it will conduct the final phase of the global stocktake, a five-year rotational process that appraises progress countries have made towards meeting their climate targets. The global stocktake will assess the effectiveness of the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that each country submitted and assess progress made towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

The global stocktake will also be a chance for countries to revise their climate ambition towards more aggressive targets. It is clear from existing scientific information that the current level of climate action is not enough to meet the Paris-agreed targets. According to the latest scientific report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), human activities have already caused about 1.1°C of warming, and at the current rate will reach 1.5°C by the early 2030s. The consequences of this will be severe. The IPCC found that if the world exceeds 1.5°C, there will be an intensification of intense heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms, wildfires and sea level rise. 

Ambition towards phasing out fossil fuels
Negotiations at COP28 will be no easy feat and likely to be mired in political contestations over specific climate targets. One of these targets relates to the global ambition towards phasing out fossil fuels. In last year’s COP27 in Egypt a resolution to phase out fossil fuels was removed from the final text. In addition, the UAE-appointed COP28 president-designate Dr Al Jaber, who is also the president of the UAE’s national oil company, has called for a simultaneous increase in global renewable energy capacity with the phasing out of “fossil-fuel emissions” – implying a focus on emissions reductions through the use of technologies such carbon capture and storage. This is a radical departure from climate activists’ calls for the phasing out of fossil fuels altogether. 

Mobilising climate finance
Another ongoing bone of contention will be climate finance, particularly between developing and developed countries. The principle of common but differentiated responsibility for climate change outlines how developed countries, who are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, have a responsibility to provide climate finance to support developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. While developed countries committed to providing and mobilising $100-billion of climate finance each year between 2020 and 2025, the actual finance that has been mobilised has been lacklustre. The US, for example, has only met about 21% of its climate finance targets, even though it is the largest cumulative contributor to carbon emissions. 

Where current climate finance is channelled is also critical. Usually this is between climate mitigation (efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as renewable energy) and adaptation (interventions that would support climate resilience and reduce vulnerability such as improved water management). Finance towards climate adaptation is still significantly underfunded compared with mitigation, which is estimated to still receive more than 90% of climate flows. 

The type of finance is also important – developing countries are increasingly calling for more finance in the form of grants and not loans – whether concessional or not – because these exacerbate debt for many countries who would have to constantly repay money that could be used to support vulnerable communities and adaptation or development projects. 

Loss and damage
One of the most significant outcomes of COP27 was an agreement to establish a fund to help low-income countries pay for the growing loss and damages caused by climate change. Over the past year negotiations have taken place to outline key details of a Loss and Damage Fund, which has culminated in contentions over who will hold the fund, who will pay into it and who will have access to it. COP28 will be critical in meeting consensus towards answering these questions.  

What does this mean for South Africa?
South Africa will also present how it will implement the Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET-IP). The JET-IP effects a partnership formed in COP26 between South Africa, the European Union, the UK, France, Germany and the US, where an agreed initial amount of $8.5-billion (R160-billion) would be mobilised into South Africa’s energy transition between 2023 and 2027. 

However, this initial amount is a drop in the ocean compared with the more than $98-billion (R1.5-trillion) that Environment Minister Barbara Creecy estimates South Africa will need to effectively implement the energy transition over the same period. Since the initial announcement of the JET-IP in 2021, more pledges of about $3.1-billion from other international donors have been made. 

The South African government hopes the JET-IP will “catalyse” more financial commitments from donors at this year’s COP in Dubai, particularly as South Africa faces an acute energy crisis that has shown no signs of abating soon. This week alone, the country has again been plunged into severe power cuts that amount to more than half a day without electricity. At stake is a financially moribund coal-dependent energy provider, Eskom, that is in debt of more than R400-billion, and the surrounding coal communities that will be affected by governments’ planned transition towards a decarbonised energy sector. DM

The writers are with the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick