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Patrick Bond (2009) Africans finally getting tough on climate damage. Eye on Civil Society column : -.


The announcement last week that the African Union leadership is now dedicated to addressing climate change via huge reparations demands may actually be useful, a development that struck many environmentalists as rather odd.

After all, the AU generally represents, as Zimbabwe finance minister Tendai Biti once put it, a ‘trade union of dictators.’ The AU climate team is led by Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi, who is also head of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and thus gets invited to G20 gatherings along with South Africa.

Sometimes seen merely as a US puppet – thanks to the disastrous, Washington-sponsored 2007 invasion of neighbouring Somalia – Zenawi is more complex. He was once a self-described Marxist (like Mbeki and a certain Durban municipal official) but is now a brutal tyrant whose forces killed scores of students and other democrats, and who has just imposed a ban on international funding of local civil society aimed to intimidate critics.

Quite ridiculous, isn’t it, for Zenawi to lead the charge, reportedly demanding a minimum of $65 billion from the North by 2020?

Well, no, not considering how much Africa will be devastated. Even Zenawi’s voice, and role in Copenhagen, are potentially crucial in the struggle ahead.

What a struggle it is. The most shocking probable outcome of climate change I’ve encountered is that 90% of the African peasantry will be out of business by 2100 due to drought, floods, extreme weather events, disease and political instability, according to UN experts.

There is no question that the people and corporations responsible for this damage should pay reparations. The amounts can be debated, for of course the $65 billion/year Zenawi reportedly wants for the continent is way low, given how many incalculably valuable species will be lost, how much devastation to individuals and communities is already underway, how many economies will falter, how much ecology is threatened.

Like the USA’s ‘Superfund’ legislation or any other damages paid by corporations for messes made – such as Thor Chemicals’ KZN mercury spillage – the point is to get a general estimate of clean-up costs and a rough estimate of damages done.

Flows of grant funding are required – hopefully via an accountable, fair, transparent system such as a Basic Income Grant for all residents of Africa – as climate compensation, instead of the kinds of corrupting finance that dictators or big corporations currently grab hold of and redirect to adverse ends.

Unfortunately, it is just such financing – the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ (CDM) from the carbon markets – that our own South African negotiators most desire as a North-South funding flow.

Pretoria is supremely hypocritical, taking G77 climate leadership while simultaneously building hundreds of billions of rands worth of new coal and nuclear power plants, so as to continue providing the cheapest electricity in the world to huge mining and metals firms, whose profits escape to London and Melbourne.

Pretoria’s climate strategy was, until May, developed by environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk (later demoted to tourism minister), who at a 2007 Washington meeting of the International Emissions Trading Association Forum insisted, “An all-encompassing global carbon market regime which includes all developed countries is the first and ultimate aim.”

What is a carbon market regime and why is it counterproductive? Emissions trading allows corporations and governments generating greenhouse gases to seemingly reduce their net emissions. They can do this, thanks to the Kyoto Protocol, by trading for others’ reductions (e.g. CDM projects in the Third World) or emissions rights (e.g. Eastern Europe’s ‘hot air’ that followed the 1990s economic collapse).

Why do they do it? The pro-trading rationale is that once property rights are granted to polluters for their emissions, a ‘cap’ can be put on a country’s or the world’s total emissions (and then progressively lowered if there is political will). So as to minimize adverse economic impact, corporations can stay within the cap even by emitting way above it, by buying others’ rights to pollute.

But the carbon market isn’t working, for several reasons:

  • The idea of inventing a property right to pollute is effectively the privatization of the air;
    the corporations most responsible for pollution and the World Bank – which is most responsible for fossil fuel financing – are behind the market, and can be expected to engage in systemic corruption to attract money into the market even if this prevents genuine emissions reductions.

  • Many of the offsetting projects – such as monocultural timber plantations, forest ‘protection’ and landfill methane-electricity projects – have devastating impacts on local communities and ecologies;
    the price is haywire, having crashed by half in a short period in April 2006 and by two-thirds in 2008.

  • There is a serious potential for carbon markets to become an out-of-control, multi-trillion dollar speculative bubble, similar to exotic financial instruments associated with Enron’s 2002 collapse (indeed, many Enron employees populate the carbon markets);
    as a ‘false solution’ to climate change, carbon trading encourages merely small, incremental shifts, and thus distracts us from a wide range of radical changes we need to make in materials extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal; and
    the idea of market solutions to market failure is an ideology that rarely makes sense, and especially not following the world’s worst-ever financial market failure.

    Recall that scientists insist an 80% cut in emissions will be necessary within four decades at most. To achieve this, carbon markets won’t work, as the leading US climate scientist, James Hansen, remarked in opposition to Barack Obama’s cap and trade scheme.

    In short, carbon trading is a ‘false solution’. Very different forms of climate finance are required at the Copenhagen Summit in December, including the North’s payment of ecological debt. But Zenawi and others from Africa – especially civil society – will have to work much harder to put climate compensation on the agenda, because carbon trading is now at the heart of Copenhagen negotiations.

    Founded in October 2004, the Durban Group for Climate Justice is the main civil society network explicitly fighting carbon trading. Says one of our gurus, UKZN honorary professor Dennis Brutus, “My own view is that a corrupt deal is being concocted in Copenhagen with the active collaboration of NGOs who have been bought off by the corporations, especially oil and transport. They may even be well-intentioned but they are barking up the wrong tree.”

    Instead of a bad deal, Brutus recommends that we all ‘seattle Copenhagen’, i.e. the insiders like Zenawi and others in the AU work with the civil society outsiders to prevent the North from doing a deal in their interests, against Africa’s. A decade ago, that formula stopped the World Trade Organisation’s Millennial Round from succeeding in Seattle.

    To seattle Copenhagen would entail civil society protesting outside and African governments working for Africans’ interest inside, to halt a dirty deal that makes matters worse. Even with less than 100 days to go, Brutus insists its feasible, and would then allow us to move on to the real emissions reduction and alternative energy and production systems the world desperately needs.

    (Patrick Bond is co-editor of the UKZN Press book Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society: Negative Returns on South African Investments.)

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