South Africa

Rearranging deck chairs on the climate change Titanic

Monday 28 November 2005, by Patrick BOND, Rehana DADA

Climate change damage, the subject of a major Montreal ‘Conference of Parties 11’ which aims to update the Kyoto Protocol from November 28-December 9, is apparent to anyone following the news.

The ferocity of recent Gulf Coast hurricanes was blamed by a leading British climate scientist upon a 3 degree (centigrade) rise in water temperatures. Siberia’s tundra is thawing, releasing unprecedented amounts of methane. Polar icecaps are melting. An estimated 37% of terrestrial species are likely to disappear due to global warming by 2050. Droughts and floods are intensifying.

Here in South Africa, society is slowly coming to grips with apartheid’s responsibility for the world’s worst relative overdose of greenhouse gases. The economy inherited from pro-corporate racist rule is addicted to fossil fuels, and unfortunately the post-apartheid government’s neoliberal orientation has made the situation much much worse.

South Africa is 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: Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which substitutes investments in carbon-reducing projects for genuine emissions reductions.

Critics include dozens of environmental justice networks which signed last year’s ‘Durban Declaration on Climate Justice’ ( against the CDM and especially the new carbon market that permits trade in pollution rights.

Carbon trading justifies letting the US, European Union 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 (where Dada lives), should be captured, cleaned and safely turned into energy. The neighbourhood’s residents are Indian and African; the vast dump’s location smack in the middle of a residential area typified racist urban planning under apartheid.

Instead of closing the dump and extracting the methane cleanly, Durban officials aim to burn the methane on site - in the process, raising the level of methane flaring by a factor of fifteen. Moreover, the Durban plan entails keeping the toxic dump open at least another seven years so as to make the venture profitable, even though the ruling African National Congress had promised Bisasar Road’s closure in 1996 due to community opposition.

The Durban bureaucrats’ 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, South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism supports this form of carbon colonialism, which we term the ’privatisation of the air’. The government issued its National Climate Change Response Strategy in September 2004, arguing opportunistically that the ‘CDM primarily presents a range of commercial opportunities, both big and small. This could be a very important source of foreign direct investment.’

Indeed, South Africa’s five-fold increase in CO2 emissions since 1950 and 20% increase during the 1990s, can largely be blamed upon the attempt by state electricity company Eskom, the mining houses (led by Anglo American) and huge metals smelters (especially BHP Billiton) 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 and other state agencies. Less than 1000 jobs will be created in the smelter, though it will consume more electricity than nearby Port Elizabeth, South Africa’s fourth largest city.

Researchers at the University of Cape Town 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 South African public enterprises minister Alec Erwin is to fast-track dangerous ‘Pebble Bed’ nuclear technology rejected by German producers like Siemens some years ago. That reckless strategy will continue to be fought by the superb environmental advocacy NGO Earthlife, which has won two important preliminary court battles against Erwin and former environment minister Valli Moosa in the past year.

(After leaving the South African cabinet in 2004, Moosa became chairperson of Eskom and also director of a local carbon trading company. He also won a tense vote to become president of the Geneva-based World Conservation Union, where many officials are appalled by Valli’s blatant conflicts of interest, especially given the body’s anti-nuke stance and Eskom’s ongoing Pebble Bed investments.)

Likewise in Nigeria, powerful advocacy work by Iwerekhan community activists led the Federal High Court of Nigeria to judge gas flaring in Delta State a ‘gross violation’ of the right to life and dignity as promised in the Nigerian constitution ( Yet the World Bank may give flaring mitigation official status as an investment in its Prototype Carbon Fund.

According to the Climate Justice Programme, the proposed investments would justify flaring that should, in a just society, be outlawed outright, because they ‘contain a toxic cocktail, including dioxins and particulates, and contribute to acid rain, respiratory illnesses, cancer and premature death’, problems that the Nigerian court now considers a ‘gross violation’ of Iwerekhan people’s human rights.

The most famous carbon trade scam is the Plantar timber plantation in Brazil, which is meant to serve as a carbon sink but which in reality is having a devastating impact upon the local communities.

Whether in Nigeria, Brazil, South Africa or elsewhere, 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.

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

Hence there has arisen a new generation of municipal protests in South Africa, including a march by several thousand residents of shack settlements here in Durban on November 14. The week before, Durban city manager Mike Sutcliffe had the march banned, showing that neoliberalism and state repression are often two sides of the same coin. The community activists marched anyway, and the police attacked them, leading to more than 40 arrests and dozens of injuries from rubber bullets. The police also used live ammunition but fortunately no one was killed (

South Africa has witnessed nearly 900 illegal protests over inadequate municipal water, sanitation, electricity and housing services over the past year. President Thabo Mbeki passes the buck to local government, and hasn’t yet shown any commitment to redirecting resource flows, which today so illogically favour the biggest corporate consumers of fossil fuels.

While Durban’s Kennedy Road activists are promised a few jobs and bursaries by the municipality and World Bank, the plan to burn the landfill’s methane gas on-site could release a cocktail of new toxins into the already-poisoned air. 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 in South Africa by another state agency, Sasol, which makes petroleum from coal. Sasol’s attempt to claim credits for its new Mozambique gas pipeline is based on claims 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 these deals to protect future pollution profits 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 (see Bond’s analysis at

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 Human Science Research Council writers John Daniel and Jessica Lutchman recently concluded of sleazy oil deals 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. In South Africa, the National Climate Change Conference last month failed to engage seriously with these critiques, and will be looked back on by ecological historians as a large part of the problem.

At the world scale, the Montreal conference will probably also be considered a travesty by future generations. Tragically, although Friends of the Earth International has joined the critique of carbon trading, the other giant environmental NGOs -many of which like Greenpeace appear to have been coopted by their relationships with Big Oil - believe in market solutions.

Which ones are fighting carbon trading? The small, cutting-edge groups and networks we like are the Durban Group for Climate Justice, Chesapeake Climate Action Network,The Corner House, Energy Action, Environmental Justice Climate Change Initiative, FERN, Global Justice Ecology Project, the Indigenous Environment Network, Sierra Youth, Sustainable Energy & Environment Network and Transnational Institute. They will be at Montreal, lobbying and protesting the carbon trade fiasco. They need more support, including endorsement of the Durban Declaration against Carbon Trading:

If you’re not near Montreal, there will be 70 local US protests against the Bush regime’s recalcitrance on climate change on December 3 ( If you’re not part of these, and if your taxes support the World Bank and your purchases of gasoline contribute profits to the oil majors which in turn trade carbon, then you’re implicitly buying into the privatization of the air, in a way that will hasten - not mitigate - global warming, and prolong toxic dumps and similarly destructive projects across the Third World.


Bond ( and Dada ( are editors of a new book, Trouble in the Air: Global Warming and the Privatised Atmosphere, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society ( Dada’s documentary film on Bisasar Road aired nationally in South Africa last month.

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