South Africa supported last-minute change to COP26 deal

Two weeks of deliberations at high-level global talks to address the climate crisis have left a bitter taste in the mouths of campaigners, with indications suggesting all is not fair in climate-change diplomacy. 

A landmark agreement was tweaked moments before it was tabled for adoption at marathon negotiations that were extended by another 24 hours, having been scheduled to conclude on Friday 12 November. 

After an emotional and tense closing of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, South Africa said the rejected draft agreement had not been “in line with the principals of the convention, such as equity, common but differentiated approaches, and issues of climate justice”.

COP26 president, the UK’s Alok Sharma, was brought to tears during the closing plenary, when several countries expressed disappointment and disgust over the last-minute changes. He, however, urged countries to accept the agreement.

“We met here under extraordinary circumstances and the negotiations have been far from easy. I can tell you that definitely. But I have been struck by the determination that you have all shown to get our work done to forge consensus on an unprecedented agenda and ultimately agree something meaningful for our people and our planet. Each and every one of you and the nations you represent has stepped up here in Glasgow,” Sharma said.

Many countries under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) accepted the deal with reluctance, condemning a quick private meeting believed to be between the US and China, which led to a slightly different wording at the last minute. 

But South Africa’s chief negotiator, Maesela Kekana, said the country was pleased with the outcome. He confirmed that South Africa backed a last-minute change in the final agreement which went from “phasing out unabated coal and fossil fuel subsidies”, to “phasing down unabated coal and inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies”. 

“The way the issue of coal ‘phase-out’ was framed was not in line with the principles of the convention, such as equity, common but differentiated approaches, and issues of climate justice. Ultimately, we managed to find consensus around that issue and agreed that it is important to phase down coal, while taking into account one’s national circumstances and also looking at issues of support to developing countries and issues of a just transition,” Kekana said.

“In our view, that issue was concluded successfully. It respects the boundaries of the convention and the Paris Agreement.”

During the closing plenary and before the final agreement was adopted, China submitted to the COP26 that, “India, China, South Africa and Bolivian delegates, and like-minded countries and other developing countries expressed concerns [with the final text]”.

“We have talked to the other stakeholders and parties concerned and held consultation with a view to ensuring the success of this meeting. We have found a constructive programme. The elements have been submitted to the president. We thank all the parties for their flexibility,” China’s representative said. 

On Wednesday, South Africa’s Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barabara Creecy said the outcome of COP26 was a positive move towards dealing with climate change. 

“I think that with regards to the issue of coal, we would have seen in that final text of the cover agreement it talks about the phase out of coal and there is a part where it talks about recognition of national circumstances and the just transition,” she told a media  briefing.

“I think that really what that language is all about is that it is saying for developing countries, there is a recognition of the enormous costs that transitioning economies to lower carbon-growth pathways and to be climate resilient will have.” 

Creecy noted that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that developing countries will need $4-trillion to achieve their energy-transition goals.

“We have to do our fair share and we have to be transitioning at a manner and a pace which is determined by our national sovereign interests. We can’t be signing up to a situation where we are not ensuring that we have adequate financial support when the transition is taking place,” Creecy said.

Several countries at the COP26 closing plenary meeting said the amended agreement would make the targets of the climate accord, signed in Paris in 2015, harder to meet. 

Switzerland said: “We would like to express our profound disappointment that the language that we have agreed on, on coal and fossil fuel subsidies, has been further watered down as a result of a parent process. Let us be clear, we do not need to phase down, but to phase out coal and fossil fuel subsidies. We were told in the stocktake meeting that no changes can be adopted to the president text when we tried to close a loophole in the market decision. We do not want to risk that we leave Glasgow without an outcome. Therefore, we did not oppose this additional last-minute change weakening the outcome of Glasgow. But we are disappointed both about the process and about this last-minute change.”

The EU told the closing session that it would have wanted an improved cover decision on coal. “This is a consequence of our own painful experience with coal. We all know that European wealth was built on coal, and if we don’t get rid of coal, European death will also be built on coal. We know full well that coal has no future. And this is what we’re working on with our own plans to put an end to coal in Europe in the foreseeable future. Having said that, then, of course it will be no surprise to you that what was just read out to us is a further disappointment. Not because we want to be right, because we know that the longer you take to get rid of coal, the more burden you put on an actual environment, but also, the more burden you put on your economy because coal is simply not a smart economic proposition either.”

Mexico aligned with Switzerland and condemned the climate talks as being non-transparent and non-inclusive. “At the stocktake we already compromised what we perceived was an agreement by parties, even if we were unhappy with the text. But now we learn that there are even further changes that we were not being made aware of. We all had remaining concerns and we were told we could not reopen the text. Mexico, for example, believes the language on human rights should have been strengthened and we are very very disappointed that such demands were not heard, while others can still ask to water down promises.”

Critical to the final agreement is a deliberate omission of mentioning gas and oil as specific fossil fuels in line for phasing out, or down. 

People close to the talks said India and South Africa shared the view that a decision singling out coal was beneficial for countries like the US, which would be more affected by a decision to phase out all fossil fuels, including oil and gas, which the world’s superpower is still heavily reliant on.

This is among the reasons why the final Paris Agreement in 2015 made no mention of fossil fuels, despite the convention’s emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are mostly derived from fossil fuels. 

The final Glasgow Climate Pact is still considered to be unprecedented in its language and mentioning of coal and fossil-fuel subsidies. 

COP27 in 2022 will be hosted in Egypt. 

Creecy said Africa’s negotiators would make an argument for the continent’s special circumstance to be formally recognised in the context of meeting its international obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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Tunicia Phillips
Tunicia Phillips is an investigative, award-winning journalist who has worked in broadcast for 10 years. Her beats span across crime, court politics, mining energy and social justice. She has recently returned to print at the M&G working under the Adamela Trust to specialise in climate change and environmental reporting.

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