COP17’s Dirty Secret

by Patrick Bond

As the Durban Conference on Climate Change begins, we present the first of several pieces about climate change and the climate justice movement: an extract from the newly published Politics of Climate Justice by the South African activist and academic, Patrick Bond. Here Bond argues that another failure in UN climate talks will please certain South Africans. 

One of the world’s most extreme cases of climate injustice happens to be the site for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties 17 (COP17) climate summit. According to our government’s National Climate Change Response White Paper: ‘potential impacts on South Africa in the medium- to long-term are significant and potentially catastrophic’ for under conservative assumptions, ‘after 2050, warming is projected to reach around 3–4°C along the coast, and 6–7°C in the interior’.

Still, put aside banal ‘Working together, saving tomorrow today’ spin-doctoring. Instead, ask whether the COP17’s certain failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2050 – as scientists tell us is required and as was shunned in 16 prior meetings largely thanks to big-power sabotage – will also be catastrophic for South Africa’s ruling party and ruling class.

Superficially, an easy gut response is no – for otherwise, why give the COP17 presidency to foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who less than four months ago revealed her commitment to the planet by hiring a R240 000 executive jet to take her from Norway to Bulgaria when she refused to board a commercial flight which required that her handbag be whisked through the Oslo airport metal-detector, as for all such dignitaries?

Such frivolity appeared again when Nkoana-Mashabane ignored applications for the Dalai Lama’s visa, as far back as June, so he could attend last month’s celebration of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday party – reminding us of the same situation 30 months earlier when Beijing proudly announced Pretoria was under its thumb. Accusing Nkoana-Mashabane of being ‘very economical with the truth’, Tutu announced: ‘Our government is worse than the apartheid government, because at least you were expecting it from the apartheid government. Hey Mr Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests.’

The COP17 host’s ‘own interests’ appear to be grounded in the crony-capitalist ‘minerals-energy complex’, in which Zuma’s family has been dabbling, in the process exhibiting extreme environmental irresponsibility as witnessed by a nephew’s and legal advisor’s destruction of the Aurora mines and surrounding environs. Although Pretoria claims a desire for the Kyoto Protocol’s extension after 2012, this appears a rhetorical gambit to bait-and-switch on the other African delegates, now holed up at the Hilton, because satisfying both Washington and Beijing also ensures our own elites’ prosperity.

If President Jacob Zuma’s government really cared about his closest historical constituencies in rural KwaZulu-Natal villages, who are amongst those most adversely affected by worsening droughts and floods, then it would not only halt the R250+ billion worth of coal-fired electricity generators being built by Eskom at Medupi and Kusile. The state would shut the world’s single largest CO2 emissions source, Sasol’s Secunda plant which makes oil from coal, and also reverse the R80 billion heavy oil refinery authorized for construction at Coega, north of Port Elizabeth. It would reverse its trillion-rand nuclear energy fantasy and also deny approval to 40 proposed new coal mines in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal allegedly needed to supply the plants and export markets in coming years on grounds that – just as at the Cradle of Humankind northwest of Johannesburg, which is suffering threats of debilitating acid mine drainage – these will cause permanent contamination of rivers and water tables, increased mercury residues and global warming. Pretoria would offer a Just Transition package to all affected workers, transforming their thousands of lost jobs in fossil fuel industries into employment in renewables, public transport, building refurbishment, appropriate production and disposal, reformed agriculture, healthcare and education, as demanded by labour, environmentalists and communities in the Million Climate Jobs campaign.

No, aside from minor PR embarrassment when Greenpeace nails Kusile or Earthlife points out Eskom and Sasol reps on its COP17 delegation, Zuma’s government doesn’t care, as witnessed in the blatantly corrupt African National Congress deal with Hitachi to supply boilers to Medupi and Kusile, a multimillion rand bonsala approved by former environment minister, Eskom chair and ANC finance committee member Valli Moosa. As both victim and villain, South Africa is a poster-child for elite mismanagement of the climate threat. A good measure of our economic elites’ addiction to fossil fuels is carbon intensity per capita unit of output, and we have amongst the world’s highest, far worse than even that great climate Satan, the US. An insignificant contribution to the energy grid – less than 4 per cent in 2010 – comes from South Africa’s incredible renewable potential in solar, tidal and wind sources.

Instead, electricity produced by burning filthy coal is cross-subsidised so it is the cheapest available anywhere in the world for the world’s largest mining and metals corporations, BHP Billiton and Anglo American Corporation. Their smelters were revealed in 2010 to be paying less than R0.15/kilowatt-hour thanks to ‘Special Pricing Agreements.’ The NGO Earthlife squeezed that data from Eskom via the Access to Information Act, now surely impossible thanks to Parliament’s Secrecy Bill passage last week. Other large corporations received electricity in 2009 at R0.40/kWh, still the world’s lowest price – and although rates have soared dramatically, to more than R1/kWh for many small pre-paid meter household consumers, the lowest increases were imposed on the biggest firms, locked in ultra-cheap for BHP Billiton and Anglo by 40-year apartheid-era deals cut just before 1994.

Worse, these are not SA companies reinvesting in our economy, for the main metals/mining firms export their profits both through illegal transfer pricing – a general practice costing us a fifth of GDP in 2007, according to a recent Wits study – and through straight repatriation of dividends to shareholders in London (Anglo) and Melbourne (BHP Billiton), given the relocation of so many megafirms’ financial headquarters out of SA a decade ago. And SA internal consumption of their metals is constrained due to notorious local over-pricing.

Meanwhile, millions of poor people are regularly disconnected or denied access to the grid due to extreme poverty, affecting nearly half the country’s families. Warfare is underway against municipalities and Eskom in the form of ubiquitous ‘service delivery protests’ whose recent root causes in high-priced electricity can be traced to climate change via the bill for Medupi/Kusile construction, controversially financed by the World Bank’s largest-ever loan. The Bank claims Medupi will help the poor, once again standing reality on its head. Moreover, because of backsliding from clean electricity to dirty household energy like coal, wood or paraffin, the passage from HIV-positive to full-blown AIDS status is rapid via respiratory-related opportunistic infections, including the raging TB epidemic, especially affecting women exposed to particulates when cooking over biomass.

In addition to these factors, the ANC government contributes to climate injustice via convoluted global geopolitics. Tellingly, Zuma joined the US, Brazil, India and China as co-sponsors of the Copenhagen Accord in December 2009. The Copenhagen gambit meant that the World Trade Organisation’s notorious divide-and-rule politics – endorsed to Africa’s dismay by SA trade minister Alec Erwin at the 1999 Seattle, 2001 Doha and 2003 Cancún summits but vetoed by the African delegation at the first and third – would become the norm for UN climate negotiations.

Another UN process, the High-Level Advisory Group on Finance, included SA planning minister Trevor Manuel. Last November, Manuel suggested making up to half the anticipated North-South climate financing – supposedly, $100 billion/year by 2020 – available via the stuttering carbon markets. Manuel was named co-chair of the Transitional Committee to design the Green Climate Fund in March, and against other countries’ wishes he ruled the World Bank could continue as Fund trustee even though that violates UN conflict-of-interest rules.

Meantime the price of pollution in the European carbon markets favoured by Manuel fell from a high of more than 30 euros/tonne in 2006 to less than 8 this week, with Zurich’s UBS bank last week predicting a coming low of 3 euros/tonne. Not only do carbon markets avoid the North’s needed emissions cuts and energy transformation, they are subject to the kind of fraud, gaming and extreme volatility we have come to expect from financiers.. Would you want control of the world economy by the likes of Goldman Sachs – repeated violator of even deregulated financial laws in the wild-west US – to extend, now, to our planet’s survival?

If so, you will more honestly change the COP acronym to ‘Conference of Polluters’, and revise your slogan to clearly reflect Pretoria’s interests: ‘Warming together, stealing tomorrow today.’

...

Excerpted from Politics of Climate Justice, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press (November 2011)

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First published: 28 November, 2011

Category: Corporate power, Environment, International, Politics

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