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Bond, Patrick & Dada, Rehana  (2005) Carbon trading is the new 'greenwash'. The Sunday Independent  : -.


Damage from climate change, the subject of a major government-sponsored Midrand conference this week, is apparent to anyone following the news.

The ferocity of hurricanes Katrina and Rita last month was blamed by a leading British climate scientist upon a 3 degree rise in the Gulf Coast water temperature. Siberia's tundra is thawing, releasing unprecedented amounts of methane. Polar icecaps are melting. Last week's Sunday Independent documented poignant animal extinctions amongst the 37% of the terrestrial species which are likely to disappear due to global warming by 2050.

Less understood is South Africa's responsibility for the world's overdose of greenhouse gases. The economy inherited from apartheid is addicted to fossil fuel, but the post-apartheid government has made the situation much worse.

And matters are worsening, because we are classified as 'developing' in the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions from 'developed' countries by 2012, at a level 5,2% lower than 1990 levels.

That target won't be met, and most scientists agree that instead, a 60% reduction is needed to undo the severe climate damage now underway. The Protocol came into effect in February 2005, but South Africa is not subject to emissions reduction targets at this stage.

However, since we will be in future, some state officials, international financiers and local corporations - and even a few NGOs which should know better - are promoting a gimmick, the Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which substitutes investments in carbon-reducing projects for genuine emissions reductions.

To critics, including dozens of environmental justice networks which signed last year's 'Durban Declaration on Climate Justice' (, the CDM, and especially the new carbon market that permits trade in pollution rights, represent misleading greenwash.

Carbon trading justifies letting the US, EU and Japan continue their emissions, in exchange for a small profit payout to dubious South African firms and municipalities for reductions in local carbon. Those reductions we should be making in any event.

For example, methane that escapes from Africa's largest landfill, at Bisasar Road in the Durban residential suburb of Clare Estate, should be captured, cleaned and safely turned into energy. Ethekwini officials instead aim to burn the methane on site, and in the process that entails keeping the toxic dump open at least another seven years - though the ANC had promised its closure in 1996 due to community opposition.

The officials' goal is to sell carbon credits via the World Bank to big corporations and Northern governments. But a famous community activist, cancer-stricken Sajida Khan, appears to have frightened the World Bank off for now.

Unfortunately, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism supports this form of carbon colonialism. DEAT issued the National Climate Change Response Strategy last September, insisting we must understand 'up-front' how the 'CDM primarily presents a range of commercial opportunities, both big and small. This could be a very important source of foreign direct investment.'

Last week, a gathering of environmental activists at the University of KwaZulu-Natal rejected outright the CDM policy. Their declaration concluded, 'Real solutions are needed, and with our world-leading CO2 emissions, South Africans must be at the cutting-edge of progressive climate activism, not partners in the privatisation of the atmosphere.'

Indeed, the economy's five-fold increase in CO2 emissions since 1950 and 20% increase during the 1990s, can largely be blamed upon the attempt by Eskom, the mining houses and metals smelters to brag of the world's cheapest electricity. Emitting twenty times the carbon tonnage per unit of economic output per person than even the United States, South African capital's reliance upon fossil fuels is scandalous.

Not only are vast carbon-based profits fleeing to the mining houses' offshore financial headquarters. There are very few jobs in these smelters, including the proposed $2,5 billion Coega aluminium project for which the notorious Canadian firm Alcan has been promised lucrative sweetheart deals from Eskom, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Industrial Development Corporation. Less than 1000 jobs will be created in the smelter, though it will consume more electricity than nearby Port Elizabeth.

Researchers at the UCT Energy for Development Research Centre confirm that South Africa is 'the most vulnerable fossil fuel exporting country in the world'; scores extremely poorly 'on the indicators for carbon emissions per capita and energy intensity'; suffers a 'high dependence on coal for primary energy'; offers 'low energy prices' which in part is responsible for 'poor energy efficiency of individual sectors'; and risks developing a 'competitive disadvantage' by virtue of 'continued high energy intensity' which in the event of energy price rises 'can increase the cost of production'.

Aside from carbon trading, the main answer to the climate question provided by public enterprises minister Alec Erwin is fast-tracking the dangerous, outmoded Pebble Bed technology rejected by German nuclear producers some years ago. That reckless strategy will continue to be fought by Earthlife, who won twoo important preliminary court battles against Erwin's special advisor, former DEAT director-general Chippy Olver.

Renewable sources like wind, solar, wave, tidal and biomass are the only logical way forward for this century's energy system, but still get only a tiny pittance of government support, a fraction of the hundreds of millions rands wasted in nuclear R&D.

Meantime, because of alleged 'resource constraints', communities like Kennedy Road bordering Bisasar landfill - where impoverished people rely upon dump scavenging for income - are still denied basic services like electricity.

Hence the new generation of municipal protests, including a march by several thousand march against Clare Estate's ANC councillor on September 14. President Mbeki expresses sympathy about grievances, but aside from passing the buck to local government, hasn't yet shown any commitment to redirecting resource flows, which today so illogically favour the biggest corporate consumers of fossil fuels.

While Kennedy Road activists are promised a few jobs and bursaries, the plan to burn the landfill's methane gas on-site could release a cocktail of new toxins into the already-poisoned air. Gas flaring would increase 15-fold under the scheme Durban has tried selling to the World Bank. The generator's filters would never entirely contain the aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, dioxins and furans.

An even more dubious carbon trade is now being marketed: Sasol's attempt to claim credits for its new Mozambique gas pipeline, on grounds the huge investment would not have happened without them. That this is a blatant fib was conceded offhandedly to researchers by a leading Sasol official in August, and is the sort of incident which discredits the whole idea of commodifying the air through unverifiable carbon reductions.

Aside from the World Bank, the cash-rich companies which most need to cut these deals to protect their future rights to pollute are the oil majors, beneficiaries of windfall profits as the price per barrel soared from $11 in 1998 to more than $70 this year.

The Bank itself even admits in a new study that these and other extractive firms' depletion of Africa's natural resources drain the national wealth by hundreds of dollars per person each year in the Gabon (whose citizens lost $2,241 each in 2000), the Republic of the Congo (-$727), Nigeria (-$210), Cameroon (-$152), Mauritania (-$147) and Cote d'Ivoire (-$100).

In the process, the oil fields are attracting a new generation of US troops to bases being developed in the Gulf of Guinea. According to NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General James Jones, 'The carrier battle groups of the future and the expeditionary strike groups of the future may not spend six months in the Mediterranean Sea but I'll bet they'll spend half the time down the West Coast of Africa.'

Once again, Pretoria is amplifying the worst trends, as HSRC researchers John Daniel and Jessica Lutchman recently concluded of sleazy oil deals - not only by Imvume in Saddam's Iraq replete with transfers to ruling party coffers - that encompass the Sudanese and Equatorial Guinean dictatorships: 'In its scramble to acquire a share of this market, the ANC government has abandoned any regard to those ethical and human rights principles which it once proclaimed would form the basis of its foreign policy.'

Those ethical principles should be urgently revisited now, since our future generations' very survival is at stake. And if the National Climate Change Conference can't engage seriously with these critiques, we will look back on its attendees as a large part of the problem.

* Bond and Dada are editors of Trouble in the Air: Global Warming & the Privatised Atmosphere (2005), from the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Centre for Civil Society.

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