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Climate talks: A dirty deal coming down in Durban

Photo: Orin Langelle/GJEP.

[For more on the COP17 Durban climate talks, click HERE.]

By Patrick Bond

December 6, 2011 -- What, now, are the prospects for a climate deal by December 9?

The biggest problem is obvious: Conference of the Parties 17 (COP17) saboteurs from the US State Department, joined by Canada, Russia and Japan, want to bury the legally binding Kyoto Protocol treaty. Instead of relaxing intellectual property rules on climate technology and providing a fair flow of finance, Washington offers only a non-binding "pledge and review" system.

This is unenforceable and at current pledge rates – with Washington lagging everyone – is certain to raise world temperatures to 4 degrees centigrade, and in Africa much higher. Estimates of the resulting deaths of Africans this century are now in excess of 150 million. As former Bolivian ambassadar to the UN, Pablo Solon said at last week’s Wolpe Memorial Lecture, “The COP17 will be remembered as a place of premeditated genocide and ecocide.”

Within the International Convention Centre, everyone in their right mind should resist this. First, it is patently obvious, after the 1997 Kyoto negotiations where Al Gore promised US support in exchange for carbon trading, and after Hillary Clinton’s 2009 promise of a $100 billion Green Climate Fund – both reneged upon – that Washington cannot be trusted. Lead US negotiators Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing should be isolated, an international climate court should be established, and preparations made for comprehensive sanctions against US goods and services.

Second, it appears that the European Union, South Africa and the Climate Action Network – the latter representing big international NGOs, mostly without any commitment to climate justice – are pushing what is called a "new mandate". And not surprisingly, Pretoria’s team and the biased pro-Northern chair, South Africa's foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, appear ready to sell out the African continent.

Some countries, led by Mali and Egypt, are holding firm on demands by the African Group, the Group of Least Developed Countries and the Latin American ALBA countries for binding global North emissions cuts of 50% by
2020 and 95% by 2050. These are critical targets to get the overall climate change to below 1.5 degrees C. At 2 degrees C, the UN estimates, 90%of current African agricultural output will cease.

If African countries fold in coming hours, even the traditional leaders of science-based demands – Bolivia, Tuvalu and a few others – probably cannot block a sleazy Durban deal.

South Africa's role

Unfortunately, the South Africa and EU delegations are behind-the-scenes managers devoted to bringing emissions trading markets into this new mandate, largely because of the vast investment that Europeans have made in now-failing carbon markets. South Africa's president Jacob Zuma’s endorsement of the World Bank’s "Climate Smart Agriculture" scheme last week is a return to nakedly neoliberal management of society and nature – an approach that over the last decade proved so disastrous in water privatisation and carbon trading.

Anne Maina of the African Biodiversity Network explains, “Climate Smart Agriculture comes packaged with carbon offsets. Soil carbon markets could open the door to offsets for genetically modified crops and large-scale biochar land grabs, which would be a disaster for Africa. Africa is already suffering from a land grab epidemic – the race to control soils for carbon trading could only make this worse.”

Zuma is not well advised by his climate team, for the carbon markets upon which the strategy rests are dying. The Union Bank of Switzerland, Europe’s largest, last month estimated the price per tonne collapsing to just 3 euros in 2013, down from a peak of over 30 euros five years ago and around eight euros at present. If forest credits are also sold into the markets, as proponents hope, it will swamp supply and crash the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme to the level of Chicago's: around zero.

By all accounts we need prices of at least 50 euros per tonne for market incentives to begin substantively switching us out of carbon and into renewable energy and public transport. Can we trust maniac bankers to deliver the planet's salvation?

Face it, the neoliberal strategy is failing on its own terms. As a result, Trevor Manuel’s idea that half the Green Climate Fund should be drawn from carbon markets instead of stingy Northern governments and corporations is fatally flawed.

Seattle Durban

There is a tiny remaining hope for COP17, but only if we soon see a 1999 Seattle-style move by African delegates who know their constituents will be fried if the rich countries and South Africa have their way. Exactly 12 years ago, the African delegates refused to let the World Trade Organization do a deal against Africa’s interests. South Africa's trade minister at the time, Alec Erwin, tried but was unable to prevent this sensible obstructionist approach.

This time it will be harder, not only because South Africa presides over COP17, but also because of Ethiopia’s tyrant ruler Meles Zenawi, a top African Union negotiator who "sold out" the continent in 2009-10 by halving finance demands and endorsing the US-imposed Copenhagen Accord, according to Mthika Mwenda of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance.

Since the African Group represents 53 countries, the Group of Least Developed Countries represents 48, and there are a half-dozen more in the ALBA block, it is not impossible that this shifting alliance can overcome the rich countries' power and the tendency of the four leading middle-income countries – Brazil, China, India and South Africa – to represent their own national interests.

As German NGO activist Rebecca Sommer of Ecoterra sums up, “Developed nations are trying to shift their responsibilities for drastic emissions cuts onto developing countries that have done the least to cause the problem. Rich industrialised countries are busy trying to carve out new business opportunities for multinational corporations and their financial elites. It would be disastrous if the internationally binding emission reduction commitments would lapse or end altogether in Durban.”

Infamy?

Most likely, Durban will go down in infamy as the site that the temperature was dialed up on Africa. Against that, a spirited march on December 3 passed the ICC but its impact was tempered by what climate justice activists called the [African National Congress' hired] "Green Bombers" (named after Robert Mugabe’s paramilitaries).

Complained march organiser Des D'Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, “About 300 protesters, dressed in official COP17 volunteer uniforms, tore up placards, physically threatened and attacked activists participating in the march. In spite of heavy police presence throughout the march, including mounted police, riot police, air-patrol and snipers, and requests to address this disruption, police did not take any action.”

The group had “green eThekwini tracksuits with city branding and emblems, but acknowledged themselves to be ANC Youth League supporters, displaying pro-Zuma and anti-Malema placards”, says D'Sa, with the message “100% COP17”. And that tells you all you need to know about the stakes and dirty politics in play here in central Durban.

[This article first appeared in Patrick Bond's "Eye on society" column in the Durban Mercury. Bond’s new books Politics of Climate Justice and Durban’s Climate Gamble have just been launched.]

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