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Bond, Patrick (2011) Government’s ‘talk left, walk right’ climate policy
Eye on Civil Society column,  : -.

It’s worth acquiring South Africa’s National Climate Change Response Green Paper, if only to prepare for the deluge of technical and political debate that Durban will host in exactly eight months’ time.

As the Kyoto Protocol’s Conference of the Parties (the Durban ‘COP 17’) draws closer, we will encounter even more frequent public relations blasts than a decade ago before the World Conference Against Racism, and than last year during the World Cup.

The government’s greenwashing challenges this year include distracting us from more imminent multi-billion rand financing decisions on Eskom coal-fired mega power plants (with more price increases), the conclusion of the energy ministry’s multi-decade resource planning exercise – which is run by a committee dominated by electricity-guzzling corporations – and Pretoria’s contributions to four global climate debates: President Jacob Zuma’s cochairing of a UN sustainable development commission, Planning Minister Trevor Manuel’s role within the UN Advisory Group on Climate Finance seeking $100 bn/year in North-South flows, the G8-G20 meetings in France, and the COP 17 preparatory committee meetings.

The Green Paper reveals the narratives Pretoria will deploy. Primary authors include Department of Environment officials Joanne Yawitch and Peter Lukey, both from struggle-era backgrounds in land and ecology NGOs, and once dedicated to far-reaching social change. But people like this (yes, me too) are notoriously unreliable, and I was not at all surprised to hear last week that Yawitch is moving to the National Business Initiative, following the path through the state-capital revolving door that so many tread.

At the Copenhagen COP in December 2009, lead G77 negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping accused Yawitch of having “actively sought to disrupt the unity of the Africa bloc,” a charge she forced him to publicly apologise for, even though within days Zuma proved it true by signing the Africa-frying Copenhagen Accord.

Since the public comment period expires in ten days, let’s rapidly glance through the Green Paper. Right from the initial premise – “South Africa is both a contributor to, and potential victim of, global climate change given that it has an energy-intensive, fossil-fuel powered economy and is also highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and change” –this document seems to fit an all too predictable Pretoria formula: talking left, so as to more rapidly walk right. (And having drafted more than a dozen such policy papers from 1994-2002, I should know.)

This formula means the Green Paper can claim, with a straight face: “South Africa, as a responsible global citizen, is committed to reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions in order to successfully facilitate the agreement and implementation of an effective and binding global agreement.”

My suggestion for a reality-based rephrasing: “South Africa, as an irresponsible global citizen, is committed to rapidly increasing its own greenhouse gas emissions by building the third and fourth-largest coal-fired power plants in the world (Kusile and Medupi) mainly for the benefit of BHP Billiton and Anglo American which get the world’s cheapest electricity thanks to apartheid-era, forty-year discount deals, and to successfully facilitate the agreement and implementation of an ineffective and non-binding global agreement – the Copenhagen Accord – which is receiving support from other countries only because of coercion, bullying and bribery by the US State Department, as WikiLeaks has revealed.”

But there is honesty, too. A sure climate hit to Durban is via our airport and harbour, Africa’s biggest, the Green Paper admits: “economic risks emerge from, among others, the impacts of climate change regulation, the application of trade barriers, a shift in consumer preferences, and a shift in investor priorities.” Already, Europe’s “directive on aviation and moves to bring maritime emissions into an international emissions reduction regime could significantly impact” SA tourism, air freight and shipping.

Why, then, are Durban’s planners pushing massively-subsidised ‘economic development’ strategies reliant upon revived beach tourism (minus blue flags), mega-sports events to fill the Moses Mabhida White Elephant, port widening and a new dug-out harbour at the old airport site (or maybe instead more auto manufacturing), a competing Dube trade port next to the King Shaka Airport, new long-distance air routes, expansion of South Durban’s hated petrochemical complex, and a massive new Durban-Joburg oil pipeline and hence doubled refinery capacity?

The shortsighted climate denialism of Mike Sutcliffe’s team is breathtaking.

Yet the Green Paper passes the buck downwards: “Most of our climate adaptation and much of the mitigation efforts will take place at provincial and municipal levels.” Even Durban’s oft-admired climate specialist Debra Roberts cannot prevent dubious carbon trading deals – such as at the controversial Bisasar Road landfill in Clare Estate – from dominating municipal policy.

The Green Paper repeatedly endorses “market-based policy measures” including carbon trading and offsets, at a time that Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme has completely collapsed due to fraud, hacking and an extremely volatile carbon price, and the main US carbon market in Chicago has all but died.

The Green Paper is chock full of false solutions; for example, attempting to “kick start and stimulate the renewable energy industry” requires “Clean Development Mechanism projects.” Yet the miniscule €14/tonne currently being paid by investors for the Durban methane-electricity conversion at three local landfills shows the futility of that mechanism, not to mention the historic injustice of keeping Bisasar Road’s dump (Africa’s largest) open in spite of resident objections to environmental racism.

Similarly dubious policy ideas are “a nuclear power station fleet with a potential of up to 10 GWh by 2035 with the first reactors being commissioned from 2022” and, just as dangerously, a convoluted waste incineration strategy that aims to “facilitate energy recovery” through “negotiation of appropriate carbon-offset funding.”

Talking left (with high-minded intent) to walk right (for the sake of unsustainable crony-capitalist profiteering) is a long-standing problem. But the Green Paper fibs too far, in once again arguing that SA will achieve an “emissions peak in 2020 to 2025 at 34% and 42% respectively below a business as usual baseline.”

Earthlife Africa’s Tristen Taylor already reminded Yawitch in 2009 that the ‘baseline’ was actually called “Growth Without Constraints” (GWC) in an earlier climate policy paper: “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” in 2007, leading Taylor to conclude, “The SA government has pulled a public relations stunt.”

And if, realistically, we consider South Africa’s entire climate policy as a stunt, required so as to not lose face at the Conference of Polluters’ global meeting, then the antidote (short of Tunisia/Egypt-style bottom-up democracy) is louder civil society demands for genuine solutions not found in the Green Paper:

• turning off the aluminium smelters so as to forego more coal-fired plants;
• direct regulation on the biggest point emitters starting with Sasol and Eskom, compelling annual declines until we cut 50 percent by 2020;
• strengthening the Air Quality Act to name greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants (as does even the US Environmental Protection Agency now); and
• dramatic, urgent increases in investments for public transport, renewable technology and retrofitting of buildings to lower the emissions.

(Patrick Bond’s next book is Politics of Climate Justice.)

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