/ 23 May 2021

Covid may stop SA presence at COP

'fridays For Future' Demonstration In Madrid
Superspreader: Activists from all over the world went to Madrid for the COP25 climate conference. (Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Scores of delegates vital to South Africa’s representation at the United Nations climate change conference (COP26) later this year may not get to see Glasgow airport this year.

Travel restrictions and not having been vaccinated against Covid-19 may prevent delegates from parliament, government departments, nongovernmental organisations, civil society groups and opposition parties from attending the 1 to 12 November gathering.

The United Kingdom, which is hosting this year’s Conference of Parties (COP), recommitted to a physical conference when designate conference president Alok Sharma delivered a virtual address to mark six months before the event in Scotland. He said every possible avenue was being considered to ensure a safe conference. 

But South Africa remains on the UK government’s travel red list, which means travellers are required to quarantine for 10 days on arrival. 

The forest, fisheries and environment department, which will lead the South African delegation, said it had not received any communication from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) regarding travel restrictions and vaccination requirements. 

The UN’s climate conference was postponed last year after debate over the safety of an event that size. 

The International Institute for Sustainable Development warned in March that such conferences of the parties risked becoming Covid super-spreader events. 

The government’s target is to vaccinate 40-million people by February next year. 

“The final phase will target 22.5-million members of the population over the age of 18 years. The target is to vaccinate 67% of the population by the end of 2021, to achieve herd immunity,” the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a statement. 

Academics and others are not convinced this will happen, given the slow pace of the first phase of the vaccine programme. 

Albi Modise, spokesperson for the environment department, had few answers about the logistics of COP26, which, under pre-pandemic conditions, accommodated thousands of delegates. 

The 2019 COP took place in Madrid, Spain, only weeks before the World Health Organisation notified the world on 31 December that it knew of people with pneumonia-type symptoms in Wuhan, China. 

That year 26 706 people registered for COP25. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change recorded 47 delegates in team South Africa, not including people from other organisations. 

“The levels of the SARS-CoV-2 genome coincided with the evolution of Covid-19 cases in the population,” says Albert Bosch, of the faculty of biology at the University of Barcelona. 

South Africa’s department of international relations did not respond to questions about anticipated lifts or limitations posed by restrictions on South African travellers to

the UK ahead of the conference. 

“At this stage we are unable to tell how vaccination will affect the attendance or not of COP26,” Modise said, adding that special arrangements have not been made for delegates to be vaccinated. 

What South Africa’s mandate will be is part of discussions between the president’s climate change coordinating commission and the public, private and civil sectors. 

Five years ago, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement, which committed them to keep global temperatures below 2°C. Developed countries agreed to pay $100-billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries decarbonise their economies.

Last year countries were to have submitted new or updated national climate action plans and develop guidelines on how international carbon markets would work. 

Part of South Africa’s aims is to find the financial muscle to shift to a low carbon economy, adapt to climate change and get developed countries to pay for existing loss and damage from existing climate change.

The UNFCCC did not respond to questions about vaccinations and travel restrictions. 

Tunicia Phillips is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa