South Africa: Durban's greenwash ahead of climate conference

September 3, 2011

Will the host city for the November-December United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP17) clean up its act?

The August 23 launch of a major Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) report,  Towards a Low Carbon City: Focus on Durban, offers a chance to test whether new municipal leaders are climate greenwashers.

Will they try to disguise high-carbon economic policies with pleasing rhetoric, as their predecessors did?

Will Durban Mayor James Nxumalo and a new city manager, still to be named, instead get serious about the threat we face as a result of runaway greenhouse gas emissions?

We needn’t rehearse concerns about future rising sea levels, extreme storms, flooding that will overwhelm dirty Durban’s decrepit stormwater drainage system, landslides on hilly terrain, droughts that draw new “climate refugees” from the region into a xenophobic populace, the disruption of food chains and other coming disasters.

However, what might be termed South Africa’s “mitigation denialism” remains a problem.

Planning minister Trevor Manuel announced in August that he expects the global North to pay South Africa up to US$2 billion a year through the Green Climate Fund he co-chairs. In reality, it is South Africa that owes a vast climate debt to Africa given our world-leading rate of CO2/GDP/person.

For its part, Assaf seeks to persuade politicians that Durban can “entrench its reputation as SA’s leading city in terms of climate change actions”.

This is pure hot air. Assaf’s 262-page study shies away from critical mention of high-carbon Durban’s unprecedented public subsidies on long-distance air transport, shipping, fossil-fuel infrastructure, highway extension and international tourism.

For example, the study tells us nothing about the US$35 billion that “back of port” planners have in mind for South Durban.

This will displace residents of the 140-year-old Clairwood neighbourhood to allow more expansion of the vast harbour (and its ships’ dirty bunker fuel), a new highway leading to more container terminals and super-toxic petrochemical facilities (including doubling oil flows through a new pipeline to Johannesburg via Black neighbourhoods), expanding the automotive industry, and digging a huge new harbor on the old airport site.

Not a mention.

Assaf said nothing about the damage done by building the $1.2 billion King Shaka International Airport way too early and way too far north of the city.

Nor ― aside from a throwaway reference in the governance chapter ― about the mostly empty $430 million Moses Mabhida Stadium built for the 2010 World Cup, next door to an existing world-class rugby stadium that should have been used instead.

Durban was nearly rewarded with a climate-destabilising 2020 Olympics bid before the South African cabinet had a rare commonsense moment in June and withdrew.

In a failure of analytical nerve, Assaf's scientists appear too intimidated to discuss these expensive mistakes in polite company, much less argue for a detox-rehab of Durban’s carbon-addicted corporates.

Yet it makes no sense to avoid the harsh reality of fast-rising emissions in sectors that make our city exceptionally vulnerable when carbon taxes do finally kick in. Durban is located far from the world’s main markets and given adverse implications for tourism.

At one point, buried in a table, are the names of Durban’s biggest emitters measured by consumption of municipal  electricity: the Mondi paper mill, Sapref and Engen oil refineries, Toyota, Frame Textiles and the Gateway and Pavillion shopping malls.

But the city’s biggest contributor to climate change via the  national grid’s coal-fired power plants is a deadly manganese smelter.

This is missing in Assaf’s study, despite the mining company Assore’s most recent annual report conceding: “Electricity consumption is the major contributor to Assmang’s [of which Assore owns 50%] corporate carbon footprint and reflects energy sourced from Eskom grid supply, particularly by the Cato Ridge Works.”

Nor in Assaf’s chapter on “The national context” do we learn that South Africa is building the world’s third- and fourth-largest coal-fired power plants, Eskom’s Kusile and Medupi, with a $3.75 billion loan from the World Bank. This is despite fierce opposition from civil society.

Not mentioned either are apartheid-era special pricing agreements that give BHP Billiton and Anglo American Corporation the world’s cheapest electricity ($0.02/kiloWatt hour), about 1/8th what ordinary households pay.

Nor is there a word about the millions of poor South Africans disconnected from electricity, unable to absorb the 130% price hike Eskom has imposed since 2008 to pay for the coal-fired generators.

These gaping holes are too wide for even Durban’s most skilled greenwashers, such as municipal climate adaptation manager Debra Roberts, to hide.

To her credit, Roberts joked, “You want to get me fired for publicly agreeing with you” at the International Convention Centre launch when I drew attention to these white-elephants-in-the-room.

Assaf chief executive Roseanne Diab replied that the city’s main mitigation focus should be Durban’s anarchic truck-freight transport mess, which she claimed can be tackled by air-quality regulation.

That might be the case if South Africa had the US's Clean Air Act, which considers greenhouse gases to be pollutants ― something the South African Air Quality Act doesn’t.

And it might also help if the municipality had an effective air pollution monitoring unit. But in March, it was stripped of most of its staff by the city manager and is now considered a joke.

In South Africa’s petrochemical armpit, South Durban residents continue to be the main victims, including Settlers Primary School with its 52% asthma rate ― the world’s highest.

I spent an hour on August 26 out on Clairwood’s Houghton Road, where local residents’ association secretary Mervyn Reddy led 100 people blockading Consolidated Transport for letting truck drivers race like Michael Schumacher through the neighbourhood.

After 10 deaths caused by maniac truckers, who can blame this community for rising up.

What Reddy knows, but Assaf doesn’t say, is that the sources of climate-threatening CO2 emissions are also responsible for much more immediate socio-ecological destruction.

For example, Assaf enthusiastically promotes landfill methane gas-to-electricity conversion at Durban’s infamous Bisasar Road dump. But Assaf doesn't acknowledge (as do most academic articles) that Africa’s largest “Clean Development Mechanism” is actually one of the world’s key cases of carbon-trading environmental racism.

Placed in a black neighbourhood during apartheid, Bisasar Road ― Africa’s largest landfill ― should have been closed when Nelson Mandela came to power. African National Congress pamphlets in the 1994 election promised this would happen.

But thanks in part to World Bank encouragement, Bisasar became the leading pilot for carbon trading and still pollutes the area to this day. There is no prospect for closure before it fills up around 2020.

A sister landfill in northern Durban, La Mercy, also had a methane-electricity project funded by the World Bank, but Assaf concedes that it failed to properly extract the gas.

In its enthusiasm for such financing, the Assaf study forgets that COP17 will witness the demise of the Kyoto climate agreement, the treaty that mandates these kinds of carbon-trade investments.

The end of the only binding multilateral climate treaty is mainly due to Washington’s intransigence.

It is heartening that hundreds of people have been arrested at the White House in recent weeks, demanding US rejection of filthy Canadian tar sands oil.

In solidarity, Durban climate justice activists demonstrated at the US Consulate just west of City Hall August 31.

Blithely, Assaf scientists recommend “innovative market-based financing mechanisms” such as “the voluntary carbon market” ― while downplaying the emissions-trading fraud, corruption, speculation and collapse now rife across the world.

As even a February 2011 report by the US Government Accounting Office revealed, for such voluntary market offsets to be considered genuine requires proof of “additionality”.

But this “is difficult because it involves determining what emissions would have been without the incentives provided by the offset program. Studies suggest that existing programs have awarded offsets that were not additional.”

As for measuring CO2 in the voluntary emissions markets, “it is challenging to estimate the amount of carbon stored and to manage the risk that carbon may later be released by, for example, fires or changes in land management”.

Verification of offsets is a challenge because “project developers and offset buyers may have few incentives to report information accurately or to investigate offset quality”.

Regrettably, Assaf believes in a few other “false solutions” to the climate crisis, such as biofuels (Durban is a sugarcane centre) and co-incineration of tyres in cement kilns.

In another disturbing development, Assaf’s emphasis on residents’ behavioural change risks a blame-the-victim mentality.

For example, discouraging flush toilets for poor people so as to avoid increased electricity use at the sewage works.

Diab adds: “We must encourage people to stop using their cars and start using public transport” ― yet she is silent about how city officials let a crony-capitalist firm, Remant Alton, privatise and wreck our municipal bus system.

Assaf’s report at least encourages Durban to “produce local, buy local” at a time of inane currency-induced trading patterns that have little to do with rational comparative advantages between competing economies.

The report condemns suburban sprawl and much post-apartheid planning. It endorses the “polluter pays” principle, which, if ever implemented, would radically improve the city’s environment.

But what hope is there for implementation given our rulers’ pro-pollution bias?

“Climate smart”, according to Roberts, means a city’s “low-carbon, green economy provides opportunities for both climate change mitigation and adaptation and fosters a new form of urban development that ensures ecological integrity and human well being”.


But if Diab is correct that “poor public awareness” is a major barrier to addressing the most serious crisis humanity has ever faced, Assaf scientists now contribute to that very problem with their bland, blind greenwashing of climate-dumb Durban.

[Abrdiged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Patrick Bond directs the  UKZN Centre for Civil Society  and is author of the forthcoming book Politics of Climate Justice (UKZN Press).]


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