||Last Tuesday’s launch of an Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) report, Towards a Low Carbon City: Focus on Durban, offers an early chance to test whether new municipal leadership will, like the ex-mayor and nearly-departed city manager, be climate greenwashers, attempting to disguise our high-carbon economic policies. Might mayor James Nxumalo and probable city manager Cyril Xaba instead get serious about the threat we face – and that major industries pose – as a result of runaway greenhouse gas emissions?
We needn’t rehearse concerns about future rising sea levels, extreme storms, flooding that will overwhelm dirty Durban’s decrepit stormwater drainage system, landslides on our hilly terrain, droughts that draw new ‘climate refugees’ from the region into a xenophobic populace, the disruption of food chains and other coming disasters.
However, what might be termed SA’s “mitigation-denialism” remains a big problem. Not only did planning minister Trevor Manuel announce last week that he expects the North to pay us up to $2 billion/year through the Green Climate Fund he co-chairs – when in reality it is SA which owes a vast climate debt to Africa – but Assaf seeks to persuade politicians that Durban can “entrench its reputation as SA’s leading city in terms of climate change actions” (sic).
This is pure hot air, because Assaf’s 262-page study shies away from critical mention of high-carbon Durban’s unprecedented public subsidies on long-distance air transport, shipping, fossil-fuel infrastructure, highway extension and international tourism.
The study tells us nothing about the R250 billion that “Back of Port” planners have in mind for South Durban: displacing Clairwood residents to allow more expansion of the vast harbour (and its ships’ dirty bunker fuel), more container terminals and supertoxic petrochemical facilities (including doubling oil flows through a new pipeline to Joburg via black neighbourhoods), expanding the automotive industry, and digging a huge new harbor on the old airport site. Not a mention.
Assaf says nothing about the damage done by building King Shaka airport way too early and way too far north, nor – aside from a throwaway reference in the governance chapter – about mostly-empty Moses Mabhida Stadium, nearly rewarded with a 2020 Olympics Bid before Cabinet had a rare common-sense moment in June.
In an historic failure of analytical nerve, Assaf researchers appear too intimidated to discuss these in polite company, much less argue for a detox-rehab of Durban’s carbon-addicted corporates.
Yet it makes no sense to avoid the harsh reality of fast-rising emissions in sectors that make our city exceptionally vulnerable when world carbon taxes do finally kick in, given how far we are from the main markets and given the adverse implications for tourism.
At one point, buried in a dry table, are the names of Durban’s biggest emitters measured by consumption of municipal electricity: Mondi paper, Sapref and Engen refineries, Toyota, Frame Textiles and the Gateway and Pavillion shopping malls. But the city’s biggest contributor to climate change via the national grid’s coal-fired power plants is a deadly manganese smelter, completely forgotten in Assaf’s study even though Assore’s most recent annual report concedes, “Electricity consumption is the major contributor to Assmang’s corporate carbon footprint and reflects energy sourced from Eskom grid supply, particularly by the Cato Ridge Works.”
Nor in Assaf’s chapter on “The national context” do we learn that SA is building the world’s third and fourth largest coal-fired power plants, Eskom’s Kusile and Medupi, in spite of fierce opposition from civil society. Not mentioned, either, are apartheid-era Special Pricing Agreements that give BHP Billiton and Anglo American Corporation the world’s cheapest electricity, about 1/8th what ordinary households pay, or the millions of disconnected poor people who are unable to absorb 130 percent price increases.
These gaping holes are too wide for even the most skilled greenwashers – like municipal climate adaptation manager Debra Roberts – to hide, and to her credit, joking that “You want to get me fired for publicly agreeing with you,” she did just that when at the Convention Centre launch I drew attention to these white-elephants-in-the-room.
Assaf CEO Roseanne Diab replied that the city’s main mitigation focus should be Durban’s chaotic freight transport, which she claimed can be tackled by air-quality regulation. That might be the case if SA had the USA’s Clean Air Act which considers greenhouse gases to be pollutants – something our SA Air Quality Act doesn’t. And it might also help if the municipality had an effective air pollution monitoring unit, but in March it was stripped of most of its staff and is now considered a joke.
South Durban residents continue to be the main victims, including Settlers Primary School with its 52 percent asthma rate, the world’s highest. I spent an hour last Friday night out on Clairwood’s Houghton Road, where local residents association secretary Mervyn Reddy led 100 community residents blockading Consolidated Transport for letting truck drivers race like Michael Schumacher through the neighbourhood. After ten deaths caused by maniac truckers, who can blame this community for rising up. What Reddy knows but Assaf doesn’t say, is that the sources of climate-threatening CO2 emissions are also responsible for much deeper socio-ecological destruction.
For example, Assaf enthusiastically promotes landfill methane gas-to-electricity conversion at Bisasar Road dump without observing (as do most academic articles) that Africa’s largest “Clean Development Mechanism” (sic) is one of the world’s primary cases of carbon-trading environmental racism, worthy of a front-page article in the Washington Post in 2005 on the day the Kyoto Protocol took effect.
Remembering that La Mercy’s landfill methane-electricity project has failed, Assaf’s study nevertheless forgets that the COP17 will witness the demise of Kyoto, the treaty that mandates Bisasar-type investments, thanks mainly to Washington’s intransigence.
(By the way, hundreds of people have been arrested at the White House over the last two weeks, demanding US rejection of filthy Canadian tarsands oil. In solidarity, Durban climate justice activists will demonstrate at the US Consulate just west of City Hall tomorrow during afternoon rush hour.)
Blithely, Assaf scientists recommend “innovative market-based financing mechanisms” such as “the voluntary carbon market” – while downplaying the emissions-trading fraud, corruption, speculation and collapse now rife across the world.
And Assaf’s emphasis on residents’ behavioural change risks a blame-the-victim mentality: e.g., discouraging flush toilets for poor people so as to avoid increased electricity use at the sewage works. Adds Diab, “We must encourage people to stop using their cars and start using public transport” – yet she is silent about how city officials let crony-capitalists Remant Alton privatize and wreck our municipal bus system.
Not a total write-off, Assaf’s report at least encourages Durban to “produce local, buy local” at a time of inane currency-induced trading patterns that have little to do with rational comparative advantages between competing economies. The report condemns suburban sprawl and much post-apartheid planning, while endorsing the “polluter pays” principle, which if ever implemented would radically improve the city’s environment. All obvious enough, but what hope for implementation given our rulers’ pro-pollution bias?
“Climate smart”, according to Roberts, means a city’s “low-carbon, green economy provides opportunities for both climate change mitigation and adaptation and fosters a new form of urban development that ensures ecological integrity and human well being.”
Precisely. But if Diab is correct that “poor public awareness” is a major barrier to addressing the most serious crisis humanity has ever faced, Assaf scientists now contribute to that very problem with their bland, blind greenwashing of climate-dumb Durban.
Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and is author of the forthcoming book Politics of Climate Justice (UKZN Press).