||It is tragic but understandable that South African society ranks - with
the United States and China - at the bottom of a recent worldwide
climate-consciousness survey by polling firm Global Scan: only 45% of us
believe global warming is a serious problem.
Latin Americans rank above 80%, and Europeans near 70%, while the US's
consciousness is at 48% and China's is at 39%.
It is understandable that we have been kept in the dark, because even in
the midst of the worst national energy crisis in South Africa's living
memory, the simple act of questioning who abuses our coal-burning power
generators is off the agenda. Instead, to get a meagre conservation
reduction of 40MW, energy minister Buyelwa Sonjica tells us: Switch off
all lights in the home when not in use and go to sleep early so that you
Critics rightly call this a trivialising blame-the-victim game, whose
broader aim appears to be distracting attention from those who are most
to blame: the government and crony corporations like BHP Billiton.
In a presentation he delivered to big business on January 21, Eskom CEO
Jacob Maroga bragged that at $0.03 (23c) per kiloWatt hour for
industrial customers after 2007 increases, his prices still remained
That's the understatement of the year, given that US electricity is
three times and Danish electricity eight times more expensive than what
the average firm here pays.
South African households pay more than double the industrial rate; with
BHP Billiton trying to take over Rio Tinto, which is taking over Alcan,
Eskom's smelter incentive at Coega will offer even cheaper power, less
than $0.02 (15c) per kWh.
So it is not surprising - though something of a secret from the public -
that measured by carbon dioxide emissions per unit of per-person
economic output, South Africa emits 20 times more carbon dioxide than
the US. That's correct: Our economy's carbon intensivity is 20 times
worse than that of that Great Climate Satan, the US.
Although most electricity consumers, the service industries,
manufacturers and some gold mines have taken a hit, it appears that the
foreign-owned electricity-guzzling aluminium smelters have been
untouched by the crisis. According to business journalist Mathabo le
Roux: For the duration of the power cuts, BHP Billiton's Bayside,
Hillside and Mozal smelters received their full electricity complement -
a formidable 2 500MW.
The smelters' consumption of electricity is hedonistic; their metals
prices are 10% higher for local consumers than for international
markets; they employ only a few hundred workers; their profit streams go
to Melbourne; and their employees have, in the past decade, included
former finance minister Derek Keys, former Eskom treasurer Mick Davis,
and former national electricity regulator Xolani Mkhwanazi.
That wide a revolving door with the state tells you something about what
academics term captive regulation.
What's worse, these men are having the party, they are making the carbon
dioxide mess, and now they hope to profit from the main Kyoto Protocol
clean-up strategy, which is known as carbon trading.
Recall that in 1997 at the Kyoto negotiations, US vice-president Al Gore
told delegates that in exchange for adopting carbon trading as a central
climate strategy, Washington would adopt the treaty - but US support
Instead of cutting emissions at the rate we need to avoid climate
disaster, large foreign corporations like BHP Billiton are taking
advantage of Gore's gimmick.
Big greenhouse gas polluters have, in effect, been given trillions of
dollars in historic property rights to keep polluting, so long as they
gain an overall cap in emissions and kickstart the trade in clean air.
Interviewed by Responsible Investor magazine last October, financier
George Soros ridiculed this approach: The cap and trade system of
emissions trading is very difficult to control and its effects are
diluted. It is pretty much breaking down because there is no penalty for
developing countries not to add to their pollution.
According to Newsweek magazine's investigation of third world carbon
trading - through the clean development mechanism - last March: It
isn't working . . . (and represents) a grossly inefficient way of
cutting emissions in the developing world.
The magazine called the clean development mechanism trade a shell game
which has transferred $3 billion (R23.4 billion) to some of the worst
carbon polluters in the developing world.
Lacking an emissions cap at present, South African policymakers like former environmental minister and Eskom chairman Valli Moosa - who now makes money from the clean-development-mechanism trade (not only through conflict-of-interest-ridden ANC-Eskom deals) - were wooed by big capital and strongly support the mechanism as primarily a commercial opportunity, as the 2004 climate policy paper put it.
Encouraged by Moosa, South African cities generated a variety of clean
development mechanism projects - some attractive, like energy
retrofitting in Khayelitsha township, but some dreadful, like keeping
open Durban's vast Bisasar Road dump so as to extract more methane -
whose overall effect will exacerbate not solve the climate crisis.
Throughout the electricity crisis, big smelting companies are protected
with reliable supply and the world's cheapest electricity; and
throughout the climate crisis, the government is negotiating hard on
behalf of big capital so they receive a lucrative property right to
pollute, which they can then trade for more profit.
In Durban, Sajida Khan fought carbon trading before her death by cancer
There are similar struggles in many parts of the world, generating a
wholly different strategy and demand by civil society activists: leave
the oil in the soil and the resources in the ground.
In my own neighbourhood, which includes two of Africa's largest oil
refineries, the South Durban Community and Environmental Alliance
mobilises strenuously against corporate and municipal environmental
crime, including three explosions and fires since September and a
massive fish kill.
The highest-stake cases in South Africa at present are the vast Limpopo
platinum fields and the titanium and other minerals in the Wild Coast dunes.
Communities are resisting multinational corporations, but will need
vigorous solidarity, because the extraction of these resources is
extremely costly in terms of local land use, peasant displacement, water
extraction, energy consumption and political corruption.
The recent Bali conference featured an alternative movement-building
component outside the main jamboree, a Climate Justice Now! coalition,
which criticised carbon trading and called for genuine solutions.
These included reduced consumption; huge financial transfers from North
to South based on historical responsibility and ecological debt for
adaptation and mitigation costs paid for by redirecting military
budgets, innovative taxes and debt cancellation; leaving fossil fuels in
the ground and investing in appropriate energy-efficiency and safe,
clean and community-led renewable energy; rights-based resource
conservation that enforces indigenous land rights and promotes peoples'
sovereignty over energy, forests, land and water; and sustainable family
farming and peoples' food sovereignty.
As our climate consciousness hopefully rises to levels found in
politically-alive societies, we should take advantage of renewed
attention to electricity justice, to ask why the big, well-connected
smelting and energy firms get such an insanely good deal from
politicians who claim to be building a developmental state - not
merely crony capitalism.
Patrick Bond is director of the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and
co-editor of the recent UKZN Press book Climate Change, Carbon Trading
and Civil Society.
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