Dirty Durban


Durban, South Africa.

Will the host city for the November-December world climate summit, the COP17, clean up its act? Last Tuesday’s launch of a major Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) report, Towards a Low Carbon City: Focus on Durban –   offers an early chance to test whether new municipal leaders are climate greenwashers, attempting to disguise high-carbon economic policies with pleasing rhetoric, as did their predecessors.

Will Durban Mayor James Nxumalo and a new city manager, still to be named, instead get serious about the threat we face – and that major industries pose – 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 our 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 SA’s “mitigation-denialism” remains a notable problem. Not only did Planning Minister Trevor Manuel announce last week that he expects the North to pay SA up to $2 billion/year through the Green Climate Fund he co-chairs – when in reality it is we who owe a vast climate debt to Africa given our world-leading rate of CO2/GDP/person – but Assaf seeks to persuade politicians that Durban can “entrench its reputation as SA’s leading city in terms of climate change actions” (sic).

Missing in analysis: Durban’s worsening carbon habit 

This is pure hot air, because 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 $35 billion that “Back of Port” planners have in mind for South Durban: displacing 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 supertoxic petrochemical facilities (including doubling oil flows through a new pipeline to Joburg via black neighbourhoods), expanding the automotive industry, and digging a huge new harbor on the old airport site. Not a mention.

Assaf says 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 last year’s World Cup, next door to an existing world-class rugby stadium which should have been used. Durban was nearly rewarded with a climate-destabilizing 2020 Olympics Bid before the SA Cabinet had a rare common-sense moment in June and withdrew from the competition.

All these mega-investments certainly make Durban “SA’s leading city in terms of climate change actions” – but opposite the way Assaf claims.

In a failure of analytical nerve, the Assaf 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, given how far Durban is located from the world’s main markets and given adverse implications for tourism.

At one point, buried in a dry 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, completely forgotten in Assaf’s study even though Assore’s most recent annual report concedes, “Electricity consumption is the major contributor to Assmang’s 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 SA 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 in spite of 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 percent price hike Eskom has imposed since 2008 so as to pay for the coal-fired generators.

These gaping holes are too wide for even Durban’s most skilled greenwashers – like municipal climate adaptation manager Debra Roberts – to hide, and to her credit, joking that “You want to get me fired for publicly agreeing with you,” she did just that when at the International Convention Centre launch 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 SA had the USA’s Clean Air Act which considers greenhouse gases to be pollutants – something our SA 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.

And here in SA’s petrochemical armpit, from where I write, we South Durban residents continue to be the main victims, including Settlers Primary School with its 52 percent asthma rate, the world’s highest. I spent an hour last Friday night 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 ten deaths caused by maniac truckers, who can blame this community for rising up.

Durban chases the carbon trade

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 without observing (as do most academic articles) that Africa’s largest “Clean Development Mechanism” is actually one of the world’s primary cases of carbon-trading environmental racism, worthy of a front-page article in the Washington Post in 2005 on the day the Kyoto Protocol took effect.

Placed in a black neighbourhood during apartheid, Bisasar Road – Africa’s largest landfill – should have been closed when Nelson Mandela came to power, as African National Congress pamphlets in the 1994 election promised the community it would be. But thanks in part to World Bank encouragement, Bisasar became the leading pilot for carbon trading and still pollutes the area to this day, with 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 also forgets that the COP17 will witness the demise of Kyoto, the treaty that mandates these kinds of carbon-trade investments in places like Durban. The end of the only binding multilateral climate treaty is mainly due to Washington’s intransigence, and it is heartening to those of us in Durban that hundreds of people have been arrested at the White House over the last two weeks, demanding US rejection of filthy Canadian tarsands oil. In solidarity, Durban climate justice activists will demonstrate at the US Consulate just west of City Hall on Wednesday during afternoon rush hour.

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.” And 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.”

Climate-smart Durban? 

Regrettably, Assaf believes in a few other “False Solutions” to the climate crisis, such as biofuels (Durban is a sugar cane centre) and co-incineration of tyres in cement kilns. Interestingly, the GAO has just released a report confirming analysis by progressive scientists in the ETC Group, that the “climate engineering” technologies of choice – geoengineering, nanotechnology, biofuels and synthetic biology – are “currently immature, many with potentially negative consequences… Climate engineering technologies do not now offer a viable response to global climate change.”

In another disturbing development, Assaf’s emphasis on residents’ behavioural change risks a blame-the-victim mentality: e.g., discouraging flush toilets for poor people so as to avoid increased electricity use at the sewage works. Adds Diab, “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, privatize and wreck our municipal bus system.

Not a total write-off, 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, while endorsing the “polluter pays” principle, which, if ever implemented, would radically improve the city’s environment. All obvious enough, but what hope 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.”

Precisely. 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.

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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