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Publication Details

Reference
Bond, Patrick (2011) South Africa prepares for ‘Conference of Polluters’. Sunday Independent, 8 February  : -.

Summary
At the past two United Nations Kyoto Protocol’s ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COPs) climate summits, Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancún in 2010, as well as at prior meetings such as Nairobi, how did South African leaders and negotiators perform?

Sadly, they regularly let down their constituents, their African colleagues as well as the global environment.

Most embarrassingly, going forward to the Durban COP 17 in November, the new Green Paper on climate under public debate this month promotes two dangerous strategies – nuclear energy and carbon trading – and concedes dramatic increases in CO2 emissions.

South Africa is building two massive coal-fired plants at Kusile and Medupi (the world’s third and fourth largest), opening an anticipated forty new coal mines in spite of scandalous local air and water pollution, and claiming that more ‘carbon space’ to pollute the air and thus threaten future generations is required for ‘development’.

SA was not required to cut emissions in the first (1997-2012) stage of the Kyoto Protocol. But when it comes to a potential second stage, which ideally would be negotiated in Durban, South Africa’s negotiators are joining a contradictory movement of emerging economic powers which both want to retain Kyoto’s North-South differentiation of responsibility to cut emissions, and to either gut Kyoto’s binding targets or establish complicated, fraud-ridden offsets and carbon trades which would have the same effect.

The 2006 Nairobi COP helped set the tone, because Pretoria’s minister of environment and tourism at the time was Marthinus van Schalkwyk, formerly head of the New National Party. (He is today merely tourism minister.)

A new Adaptation Fund was established in Nairobi, but its resources were reliant upon revenues from the controversial Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) carbon trading mechanism. Last week the European Union announced a ban on the main source of CDM credits, Chinese refrigeration gas emissions that are responsible for nearly two thirds of recent payments, because they incentivized production of more greenhouse gases.

The CDM market is worth less than $8 billion/year at present, and Africa has received only around 2 percent, mostly for South African projects like the controversial Bisasar Road dump in Durban’s Clare Estate neighbourhood. Community activists led by the late Sajida Khan had demanded that Bisasar be shut but in 2002 the World Bank promised R100 million in funding to convert methane from rotting rubbish into electricity, hence downplaying local health threats and environmental racism (Clare Estate is a black suburb and for that reason was sited to host Africa’s largest landfill). Durban politicians put profit ahead of people once again.

Because of the CDM officials’ increasing embrace of biofuels and genetically engineered timber, civil society experts from the Global Forest Coalition, Global Justice Ecology Project, Large Scale Biofuels Action Group, the STOP GE Trees Campaign and World Rainforest Movement condemned the Nairobi summit.

But van Schalkwyk reported back in a leading local newspaper that Pretoria achieved its key Nairobi objectives, including kick-starting the CDM in Africa, and welcomed UN support for more ‘equitable distribution of CDM projects’, concluding that this work ‘sends a clear signal to carbon markets of our common resolve to secure the future of the Kyoto regime.’

But immediately disproving any intent to support Kyoto emissions cuts, van Schalkwyk’s Cabinet colleagues confirmed the largest proposed industrial subsidies in African history just days later, for Port Elizabeth’s Coega smelter, entailing a vast increase in subsidised coal-fired electricity. Within a year, national electricity supplies suffered extreme load-shedding, so the project ultimately failed in 2008. But the plan was to build a R20 billion smelter, which would then apply for CDM financing to subsidise the vast coal-fired power input even further.

One of the country’s leading climate scientists, Richard Fuggle, condemned Coega in his University of Cape Town retirement lecture: ‘It is rather pathetic that van Schalkwyk has expounded the virtues of South Africa’s 13 small projects to garner carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s CDM, but has not expressed dismay at Eskom selling 1360 megawatts a year of coal-derived electricity to a foreign aluminium company. We already have one of the world’s highest rates of carbon emissions per dollar of GDP.’

Given this background, it is revealing that van Schalkwyk became, in March 2010, a leading candidate to run the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate (UNFCCC) after the resignation of its head, Yvo de Boer (who took a revolving UN door to industry and is now a high-paid carbon trader) following the 2009 Copenhagen COP where the UNFCCC lost all credibility. The COPs were now called the ‘Conference of Polluters’.

If UN leader Ban ki-Moon needed an environmentalist of integrity to head the UNFCCC, van Schalkwyk should not have applied, given his chequered career as an apartheid student spy and a man who sold out his political party for a junior cabinet seat. Moreover, if van Schalkwyk was a world-class climate diplomat, why did President Jacob Zuma demote him by removing his environment duties in 2009?

On the last occasion he stood on the world climate stage, in 2007 in Washington, van Schalkwyk enthusiastically promoted a global carbon market, which in a just world would have disqualified him from further international climate work. But another carbon trader, Christiana Figueres, was leapfrogged in last May to get the UNFCCC leadership job.

In addition to environment ministers who consistently failed in their duties to address the climate crisis, a handful of Pretoria technocrats must also shoulder blame. In December 2009 in Copenhagen, South Africa’s negotiators were already criticized by G77 climate leader Lumumba Di-Aping for having ‘actively sought to disrupt the unity of the Africa bloc.’

One SA official, Joanne Yawitch, then forced a humiliating apology from Di-Aping for his frank talk (to an African civil society caucus), as reported by Noseweek blogger Adam Welz.

Yet by joining the presidents of the US, China, Brazil and India to sign the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, Zuma did exactly what Yawitch had denied was underway: destroyed the unity of Africa and the G77 in a secret, widely-condemned side-room deal.

US President Barack Obama’s Kenyan family and Zuma’s Zulu compatriots would be amongst those most adversely affected by climate chaos, as suggested by recent KwaZulu flooding. Di-Aping asked, poignantly, ‘What is Obama going to tell his daughters? That their relatives’ lives are not worth anything?’ Di-Aping quite accurately described the Copenhagen Accord as ‘an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dependence of a few countries.’

In Copenhagen and Cancun, the main diversionary tactic used by Pretoria negotiators was a claim to willingly cut 34 percent of 2020 emissions below ‘business as usual’. However, Tristen Taylor of Earthlife Africa begged Pretoria for details about the 34 percent pledge, and after two weeks of delays in December 2009, learned Yawitch’s estimates were from a ‘Growth Without Constraint’ (GWC) scenario used by government negotiators as a bargaining chip, and was quite divorced from the reality of the industrially stagnant SA economy.

According to Taylor, ‘GWC is fantasy, essentially an academic exercise to see how much carbon South Africa would produce given unlimited resources and cheap energy prices.’ Officials had already conceded GWC was ‘neither robust nor plausible’ eighteen months ago, leading Taylor to conclude, ‘The SA government has pulled a public relations stunt.’

And again at the 2010 COP 16 in Cancún, the new Minister for Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, played the ‘development’ card against urgent binding emissions cuts: ‘We believe that it is quite important that as developing countries we also get an opportunity to allow development to happen because of poverty.’

Molewa implies that SA’s extremely high emissions contribute to poverty-reduction, when in fact the opposite is more truthful. Eskom’s supply of the cheapest electricity in the world to two of the biggest mining/metals companies in the world (BHP Billiton and Anglo American Corporation) requires a 127 percent price increase for ordinary households from 2009-12 to pay for new capacity. This is leading to mass electricity disconnections.

Did Zuma know what he was doing, authorizing a climate policy that serves major corporations instead of his mass base? Do these firms keep SA’s ruling party lubricated with cash, Black Economic Empowerment deals and jobs for cronies? Do they need higher SA carbon emissions so as to continue receiving ultra-cheap coal-fired electricity, and then export their profits to London and Melbourne?

Perhaps the answers are affirmative, but on the other hand, two other explanations – ignorance and cowardice – were, eight years earlier, Zuma’s plausible defenses for promoting AIDS denialism. He helped President Thabo Mbeki during the period in which 330,000 South Africans died due to Pretoria’s refusal to supply anti-retroviral medicines, as a Harvard Public Health School study showed.

To his credit, Zuma reversed course by 2003 (rather late in the day) and endorsed public supply of AIDS medicines, as public pressure arose from the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and its international allies. TAC continued to condemn Zuma, in part because of misogyny during his 2006 rape trial.

It is that sort of intensive pressure that local activists in Climate Justice Now! SA are aiming to repeat, at the risk of otherwise allowing Zuma to remain a signatory to a far greater genocide.

The COP 17 in Durban’s International Convention Centre, from November 28-December 9, is a chance for civil society to hold Pretoria to account. The last such opportunity was in 2001 when the World Conference Against Racism attracted more than 10,000 protesters angry that Mbeki had agreed with Washington, to remove from the UN’s agenda their demands for apartheid reparations and for a halt to Israeli apartheid against Palestine.

This year, as in previous COPs, civil society will demand that political elites cut emissions 50 percent by 2020 (as science requires), decommission the dysfunctional carbon markets, pay the North-South (and SA-African) ‘climate debt’ and transform to a post-carbon economy.

The negotiators from Pretoria, along with those from Washington, Brussels and Beijing, will not stand up to the challenge, as they’ve proven again and again. As in earlier conflicts, then, the spirit of anti-apartheid resistance and lessons of AIDS medicines access are amongst the weaponry civil society will need, in order to save the species’ and the planet itself. The strategies and tactics they will deploy are already being hotly debated.

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