By Enock Mwangilwa

As the custom has been for the past 27 years, the Conference of Parties (COP) was held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates from 30 November to 12 December 2023. This gathering united more than 70,000 delegates representing diverse entities, including governmental bodies from various countries, civil society organisations (CSOs), academia, the private sector, and climate activists from all spheres of society. Their collective aim was to tackle the pressing global climate crisis. 

COP can be termed the largest global conference where the highest level of decisions about the fight against climate change are negotiated and agreed upon under the Paris Agreement. The primary aim of this agreement is to prevent worldwide catastrophic outcomes resulting from climate change. It outlines a dual objective: firstly, to hold global temperature increase “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. Secondly, the pursuit of efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, is acknowledged as the aspirational and more ambitious goal for mitigating climate impacts due to its recognition as a safer threshold.

Nonetheless, achieving the 1.5-degree target requires global cooperation and commitment beyond the Paris Agreement. It demands ambitious national climate pledges, innovative solutions, and sustained public pressure for action. Limiting global warming below this threshold offers a chance to minimise the devastating impacts of climate change and preserve a habitable planet for future generations. While the task is monumental, every effort counts in tackling this defining challenge of our time.

However, many people still question and pass sentiments implying that governments waste time and resources at this climate conference, with the just-ended COP28 hosted in the globally recognised business and tourism hub of Dubai not being spared of such sentiments and speculations.

 Some of the debates and discussions that arose surrounded the African delegation who were cited to have taken hundreds and thousands of delegates to participate in COP28. Nigeria led the pack with 1,411 delegates, followed by Morocco 823, Kenya 765, Tanzania 763, Ghana 618, and Uganda 337. This sparked a conversation of both praise and questioning.

Numerous queries have arisen, some of which this article hopes to address. Is COP participation a waste of resources and time instead of advancing climate action at local levels? Is the COP all about tokenism without concrete outcomes? Is it necessary for the developing world to spend its limited resources at these gatherings?

Critical to these debates and questions are three key conclusions in the fight against climate change. Firstly, the resolution of the climate crisis does not rest solely on one country or continent. Undoubtedly, it relies upon the collaborative and collective action of the globe at large. Therefore, it is imperative to establish a global platform where countries unanimously must address the common threat to human life on the planet as we know it.

Secondly, the principle of ‘nothing for us without us’ emphasizes the vital importance of inclusive decision-making. It is strongly argued that true representation cannot exist when relevant stakeholders are absent from the discussion table. Therefore, all interested and affected stakeholders must be actively involved in decision-making processes. Otherwise, their viewpoints, insights, and needs may never receive adequate or authentic representation in the final decisions, leaving much to chance.

Speaking at the closing of the conference UN Climate Change Chief Executive Secretary Simon Stiell expressed the importance of all parties, specifically ordinary people, raising their voices on climate change. “Every one of you is making a real difference. In the crucial coming years, your voices and determination will be more important than ever. I urge you never to relent. We are still in this race. We will be with you every single step of the way,” he said.

For Africa, a continent whose contribution to the major causes of climate change (emissions of greenhouse gases) is less than 4 degrees Celsius, yet is the most affected due to various reasons, the continent’s unique perspectives and state must be well represented in decision-making forums, with a clear and amplified voice. This view extends similarly to other vulnerable developing nations and small island states.

Thirdly, it is worth noting that a considerable number of delegates that attend the COP are not directly sponsored by their respective governments. Support was received from civil society organisations (CSOs), the private sector, and other concerned developing nations recognising the importance of amplifying the voice of Africans. For instance, an increased presence of African youth, including delegates from Zambia, at COP28 was made possible through support from CSOs via various climate engagement initiatives and training programs. While national funds are allocated by each participating government for their delegations (negotiators), a significant portion, if not most of the funds utilised for additional participants come from alternative sources. This explains why often representation for African countries remains relatively small.

Lastly, advocacy often requires a significant presence and influence, with adequate evidence. The growing interest among Africans in the COP and its processes indicates a recognition of its importance and the necessity for representation. A unified voice, conveying coordinated messages to drive mutually beneficial outcomes, holds great importance. The main objective is for Africa to be visibly present, actively heard, and duly respected at the pinnacle of the agenda. Therefore, the term “tokenism” should not define the proceedings unless the focus refers explicitly to outcomes that lack tangible and positive changes. This could potentially prompt a deeper discussion on the nature of such outcomes and their characterisation as mere symbolic gestures devoid of substantive impact.

Regarding COP28, several critical agenda items directly involved Africa and other developing countries. These included matters concerning the Global Stocktake, the implementation of the Loss and Damage Fund, the Global Goal on Adaptation, facilitating the Green Transition, and the important topic of Climate Finance, particularly focused on Adaptation Finance. Various outcomes arising from these discussions are now accessible, presenting avenues for subsequent actions at local, national, and continental levels – matters of significant interest for Zambia, and the rest of Africa.

In a statement released by the United Nations Climate Change, it highlighted the global stocktake as the central outcome of COP28 which contains all elements under negotiation, providing a guide for countries to develop stronger climate plans due by 2025.  

This outcome provides critical information about where we urgently need to take more action to ensure that the course of global climate action is corrected. The acknowledgement of Africa and other developing nations’ vulnerability laid a solid foundation and provided substantial evidence for Africa to continue its advocacy for just climate action. This advocacy aligns with the principle of the Paris Agreement regarding common but differentiated responsibilities.

In addition, the statement indicated that the parties reached a historic agreement on the operationalization of the Loss and Damage Fund. Essentially it was approved, and it became a great shining light in the early days of COP28 as a big win. This saw an initial pledge of USD 725 million to help countries respond to the impact of climate change. While others clothe it as a deceptive move by the developed countries, this is a major win for Africa, the small island states, and other developing countries that continue to bear the burden of climate change impacts that lead to irreversible losses and damages.

The closing of the conference saw an agreement reached that signals the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era by laying the ground for a swift, just, and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emission cuts and scaled-up finance.  

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” said Simon Stiell in his closing speech. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”

The reliance of developed countries on fossil fuels has been longstanding, while many African economies still heavily depend on them. Transitioning away from these fuels would demand radical preparation, as limited technology transfer, skilled labour shortages, and insufficient climate finance pose considerable challenges. Therefore, this outcome calls on Africa to frame its climate action policies and strategies with caution, realism, boldness, and economic vigilance. Without this, the outcome may be unjust.

Despite the challenges arising from other expected outcomes of COP28, resolutions will eventually be reached. Perhaps what matters the most is how we utilize these present solutions while striving for betterment. With such critical issues tabled at such an inevitable global conference, being absent is a mega disadvantage, and the risk of not being seen or heard is not worth it. Accountability to the present and the future starts with having positive answers regarding the responsible actions taken by the current generation.

So, in revisiting the question: Is participation in COP a waste of time and resources for African countries?


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