The COP28 you didn’t see

Heidi Barends: Head of Sustainable Finance – Absa CIB

Heidi Barends: Head of Sustainable Finance – Absa CIB

Published Apr 10, 2024


By Heidi Barends

At the tail-end of 2023, stakeholders came together in Dubai for the UN Climate Change Conference under the banner of the 28th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP28).

The event provided an engagement platform for people from a variety of backgrounds including government, private sector, sustainable financing, academia, civil society and the media.

Theoretically, this presented a remarkable opportunity for cross-collaboration, learning and engagement.

In practice, there was a deep sense of non-integration or “splitting”.

Splitting is a concept used in psychology, which refers to the tendency to view things in a false dichotomy of either “good” or “bad”. Activists held emotive panel discussions - in which the bankers and businesspeople were absent - and vice versa.

The narrative on both sides shuts down any opportunity to engage. Financiers believe activists views are too extreme, too emotive, not implementable or practical, while activists see financiers and businesspeople as disconnected with the reality, unemotional and sometimes just fundamentally bad.

The bridge between these worlds, and others was missing. For us to move forward, at pace, with solutions that serve the greater good, all perspectives need to be integrated into holistic solutions.

This is challenging amidst the “Global North / Global South” divide that was tangible on all levels at COP 28.

Germany, Australia and the UK offered free coffee at their pavilions, while South Africa, Botswana, India and Kenya did not. The student pavilion had stands from most of the leading “Global North” international universities, while there was no representation from those representing the “South” bloc. Similarly, close to 100 activists were in attendance from Germany and Canada, whereas only a handful participated from South Africa.

These were subtle symptoms of the global inequality, which creates an uneven base to negotiate from.

Negotiations were fascinating to observe. In essence, text is being negotiated by all countries that set out global climate commitments. Imagine a legal negotiation, and instead of two-to-five parties, as is typical in business and finance, 100 different parties and interest groups, sitting along a long table with two-to-three chairpeople facilitating discussions.

The many parties consolidate into subgroupings and represent a region or specific interest, for example the African Group of Negotiators, the Arab States, the European Union and the Least Develop Countries.

Theoretically, this creates a stage for all voices to be heard and considered. In practice, the major gap in these negotiated outcomes is the missing accountability mechanism. Countries and regions can commit to a plethora of intentions, but if they fail to meet them, there is no repercussion, bar the “name and shame” strategy, employed by activists.

Youth and Civil Society remind us: “Later is too late”. Thus, while the negotiated outcomes and policy frameworks may be imperfect, it is critical to remember the power we hold as individuals, or as players in the private and financial sector.

To practice listening skills in a time of echo-chambers and splitting, to hear other perspectives, to consider those who are less fortunate, to build solutions that serve the whole.

Heidi Barends: Head of Sustainable Finance – Absa CIB