STUART THEOBALD: Stakes are high for SA at COP28

International shindigs are often best ignored. From the World Economic Forum to the UN’s Congress of Parties, which is concluding this week in Dubai, they can be little more than a gathering of the well-heeled for backslapping chinwags signifying nothing.

Unless, of course, the stakes are high and decisions will have a material impact on countries’ economies. A series of declarations will be made in Dubai on Monday and Tuesday that could be material to SA’s future.

We are an outlier nation, with many developing country indicators including poverty and inequality, but among the world’s most carbon-intensive economies. That positions us awkwardly. We cannot argue, as many of the least developed economies can, that we make little impact on climate change and therefore should be the focus of investment for adaptation to the effects of climate change.

Barbados has stood out this year because it will suffer greatly from climate change despite having contributed nothing to it. SA has no such moral clarity — we are a major carbon emitter, and yet will also suffer much from climate change.

SA must argue the case for transition: that instead of being punished for high levels of emissions, we should benefit from investment flows to finance the decarbonisation of the economy. The term of art is “just transition” to signify that the goals are justice and economic change in a world in which Western industrialisation has driven climate change far more than the South.

Temperatures have been high from the start. SA was part of a request to add an agenda item at COP regarding “unilateral trade measures” regarding climate change, alongside Brazil, India and China (that has been given the acronym “Basic”, highlighting the absence of politically toxic Russia that would have been implied by “Brics”). The request is motivated by the proposed EU carbon border adjustment mechanism — an EU levy on goods coming into the bloc from carbon-intensive economies.

Political promise

SA is vulnerable to such a levy as it will hit vehicle exports hard, among much else, when it takes effect in 2026, unless SA imposes high domestic carbon taxes. The EU move is understandable given it will be taxing its domestic producers heavily for carbon emissions, so it does not want a situation in which foreign producers are made more competitive. The pushback is being spearheaded by Brazil, which wants the final COP declaration to include wording that the conference “expresses serious concern” about measures like that of the EU.

SA is also negotiating for financing to transition the economy, taking forward a political promise from two COPs ago that a group of developed countries would finance $8.5bn. That evolved into a series of “JET Partnerships” with high-emission developing countries, but in Dubai the JETPs have taken a distinct back seat to conversations about general financing pledges.

Pushing for SA-specific financing is an awkward line to walk — on the one hand resisting the consequences of a carbon-intensive economy, but on the other asking for the funding to decarbonise. There is the prospect of finding a balance by accepting some trade consequences in return for credible financing commitments, even though this will still increase risks to the SA economy if it fails to translate the financing into a real transition.

Accepting such a compromise though, may require breaking ranks with the Basic group. We wait to see what the SA delegation comes home with this week.

Controversial presidency

SA has had a notable impact at COP. Environment, forestry & fisheries minister Barbara Creecy was tasked with Denmark’s minister for development and global climate policy to lead consultations last week on the “global stock take” that is the first comprehensive review since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 and is proving the most contentious statement from the event.

It is in this document that the responsibilities of developed countries and developing countries will be articulated, including any statements regarding trade measures such as the EU’s. It also is being hamstrung by oil and gas nations and wording regarding the intention to “phase out” fossil fuel use rather than “phase down”. The COP presidency of the United Arab Emirates has been controversial, and it faces considerable political pressures in the region but appears to be making an earnest effort to drive agreement.

The battle will be intense over the next two days as the parties thrash out final wording on the declarations, with the event scheduled to conclude on Tuesday morning. There appears to be far greater momentum for material progress in confronting climate change, but it has struggled to overcome the tensions between developing and developed countries on who should be carrying the costs.

It will take the wisdom of Solomon to keep the world united on a common vision that will deliver real progress.