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In the dark about global warming

Tuesday 26 February 2008, by Patrick BOND

It is tragic but understandable that South African society ranks — with the United States and China — at the bottom of a recent worldwide climate-consciousness survey by polling firm Global Scan: only 45% of us believe global warming is a “serious problem”.

Latin Americans polled above 80%, and Europeans near 70%, while the US’s consciousness is at 48% and China’s is at 39%.

It is understandable that we have been kept in the dark, because even in the midst of the worst national energy crisis in South Africa’s living memory, the simple act of questioning who abuses our coal-burning power generators is off the agenda. Instead, to get a meagre conservation reduction of 40 megawatts, energy minister Buyelwa Sonjica tells us: “Switch off all lights in the home when not in use and go to sleep early so that you can grow.”

Critics rightly call this a trivialising blame-the-victim game, whose broader aim appears to be distracting attention from those who are most to blame: the government and crony corporations like BHP Billiton.

In a presentation he delivered to big business on January 21, Eskom CEO Jacob Maroga bragged that at US$0.03 per kilowatt hour (kWh) for industrial customers after 2007 increases, his prices still remained competitive.

That’s the understatement of the year, given that US electricity is three times and Danish electricity eight times more expensive than what the average firm here pays.

South African households pay more than double the industrial rate; with BHP Billiton trying to take over Rio Tinto, which is taking over Alcan, Eskom’s smelter incentive at Coega will offer even cheaper power, less than $0.02 per kWh.

So it is not surprising — though something of a secret from the public — that measured by carbon dioxide emissions per unit of per-person economic output, South Africa emits 20 times more carbon dioxide than that Great Climate Satan, the US.


Although most electricity consumers, the service industries, manufacturers and some gold mines have taken a hit, it appears that the foreign-owned electricity-guzzling aluminium smelters have been untouched by the crisis. According to business journalist Mathabo le Roux: “For the duration of the power cuts, BHP Billiton’s Bayside, Hillside and Mozal smelters received their full electricity complement — a formidable 2500MW.”

The smelters’ consumption of electricity is hedonistic; their metals prices are 10% higher for local consumers than for international markets; they employ only a few hundred workers; their profit streams go to Melbourne; and their employees have, in the past decade, included former finance minister Derek Keys, former Eskom treasurer Mick Davis, and former national electricity regulator Xolani Mkhwanazi.

That wide a revolving door with the state tells you something about what academics term “captive regulation”.

What’s worse, these men are having the party, they are making the carbon dioxide mess, and now they hope to profit from the main Kyoto Protocol clean-up strategy, which is known as “carbon trading”.

In 1997 at the Kyoto negotiations, then US Vice-President Al Gore told delegates that in exchange for adopting carbon trading as a central climate strategy, Washington would adopt the treaty — but US support never materialised.

Instead of cutting emissions at the rate we need to avoid climate disaster, large foreign corporations like BHP Billiton are taking advantage of Gore’s gimmick.

Big greenhouse gas polluters have, in effect, been given trillions of dollars in historic property rights to keep polluting, so long as they gain an overall cap in emissions and kickstart the trade in clean air.

Interviewed by Responsible Investor magazine last October, financier George Soros ridiculed this approach: “The cap and trade system of emissions trading is very difficult to control and its effects are diluted. It is pretty much breaking down because there is no penalty for developing countries not to add to their pollution.”

According to Newsweek magazine’s investigation of Third World carbon trading — through the clean development mechanism — last March: “It isn’t working … [and represents] a grossly inefficient way of cutting emissions in the developing world.”

The magazine called the clean development mechanism trade “a shell game” that has transferred “$3 billion to some of the worst carbon polluters in the developing world”.

Lacking an emissions cap at present, South African policymakers like former environmental minister and Eskom chairperson Valli Moosa — who now makes money from the clean-development-mechanism trade (not only through conflict-of-interest-ridden ANC-Eskom deals) — were wooed by big capital and strongly support the mechanism as primarily a “commercial opportunity”, as the 2004 climate policy paper put it.

Encouraged by Moosa, South African cities generated a variety of clean development mechanism projects — some attractive, like energy retrofitting in Khayelitsha township, but some dreadful — like keeping open Durban’s vast Bisasar Road dump so as to extract more methane — whose overall effect will exacerbate, not solve, the climate crisis.

Throughout the electricity crisis, big smelting companies are protected with reliable supply and the world’s cheapest electricity; and throughout the climate crisis, the government is negotiating hard on behalf of big capital so they receive a lucrative property right to pollute, which they can then trade for more profit.

In Durban, Sajida Khan fought carbon trading before her death by cancer last July.


There are similar struggles in many parts of the world, generating a wholly different strategy and demand by civil society activists: leave the oil in the soil and the resources in the ground.

In my own neighbourhood, which includes two of Africa’s largest oil refineries, the South Durban Community and Environmental Alliance mobilises strenuously against corporate and municipal environmental crime, including three explosions and fires since September and a massive fish kill.

Currently the highest-stake cases in South Africa are the vast Limpopo platinum fields and the titanium and other minerals in the Wild Coast dunes.

Communities are resisting multinational corporations, but will need vigorous solidarity, because the extraction of these resources is extremely costly in terms of local land use, peasant displacement, water extraction, energy consumption and political corruption.

The recent Bali conference featured an alternative movement-building component outside the main jamboree, a Climate Justice Now! coalition, which criticised carbon trading and called for genuine solutions.

These solutions included “reduced consumption; huge financial transfers from North to South based on historical responsibility and ecological debt for adaptation and mitigation costs paid for by redirecting military budgets, innovative taxes and debt cancellation; leaving fossil fuels in the ground and investing in appropriate energy-efficiency and safe, clean and community-led renewable energy; rights-based resource conservation that enforces indigenous land rights and promotes peoples’ sovereignty over energy, forests, land and water; and sustainable family farming and peoples’ food sovereignty”.

As our climate consciousness hopefully rises to levels found in politically alive societies, we should take advantage of renewed attention to electricity justice, to ask why the big, well-connected smelting and energy firms get such an insanely good deal from politicians who claim to be building a “developmental state” — not merely crony capitalism.

* From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #741 27 February 2008.

* Patrick Bond is director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society and co-editor of the recent UKZN Press book Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society. He will be a guest speaker at the Climate Change, Social Change Conference in Sydney on April 11-13.