The climate change government White Paper: the right colour for South Africa? | by Jacklyn Cock

by Feb 14, 2012Magazine

The South African government’s climate change policy is rooted in a green neoliberal capitalism: reliance on market mechanisms, technological innovation and expanding markets. Underlying all these strategies is the broad process of commodification: the transformation of nature and all social relations into economic relations, subordinated to the logic of the market and the imperatives of profit. This ‘green’orientation is evident in the October 2011 National Climate Change Response White Paper, but there are shadings of other colours. A ‘green’ paper pointing to a new energy regime?
The strengths of the paper are that, like the earlier Green Paper, it underlines the seriousness of the threat of climate change. For example, the Paper warns that if international action does not limit the average global temperature increases to below at least 2° C above pre-industrial levels, ‘the potential impacts on South Africa in the medium- to long-term are significant and potentially catastrophic’. Also it warns that ‘after 2050 warming is projected to reach around 3–4° C along the coast, and 6–7° C in the interior. With these kinds of temperature increases, life as we know it will change completely’(White Paper p. 9).

The White Paper states a commitment to keep ‘well below a maximum of 2° C above pre-industrial levels’. This together with the exclusion of nuclear power and the adoption of a carbon budget approach are considerable improvements from the earlier Green Paper. Until the introduction of this science-based carbon budget approach there was no clear indication of how carbon emissions were to be reduced. The South African government’s commitments in 2009 at COP 15 in Copenhagen were weak and vague.

There is no recognition in the White Paper that the UNFCCC process has failed and that globally carbon emissions are rising. The Paper reaffirms the government’s commitment at COP 15 in Copenhagen to ‘a binding, multi-lateral international agreement that will effectively limit the average global temperature increase to at least below 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels’. It should be noted that the Copenhagen Accord was non-binding and low target.

However, the 2° C target is, according to climate scientist James Hansen, a recipe for disaster. He claims that present commitments will result in 4° C warming. The head of the Bolivian delegation Pablo Solon protested that the weak pledges of the Copenhagen Accord condemned the Earth to increases of up to 4° C, which was tantamount to ‘ecocide’ and would ‘cost millions of lives’. The emissions targets in the White Paper are not convincing even in terms of reaching this 2° C target.

The White Paper is marked by a reliance on ‘false solutions’ to climate change, described as ‘a mix of economic instruments, including market-based instruments such as carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes and incentives’. It implies the promotion of carbon trading and technological innovation in expensive, high-risk schemes to create ‘climate smart’ resistant crops and Carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS technology is a process for separating carbon dioxide from emissions by industrial and energy sources and storing it in deep ocean and geological structures. The technology has high cost implications. The environmental consequences still have to be fully assessed and it remains an unproven technology. While a carbon tax is to be welcomed, Eskom has already stated that the costs of a carbon tax would be passed on to the consumer.

The government support for clean development mechanism (CDM) projects is especially worrying. This enables a developed country to invest in an emission reduction project in another country. Such ‘flexibility mechanisms’ enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol mean that corporations are able to buy the right to pollute. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, compares these measures to the indulgences that the Catholic Church sold in the Middle Ages: ‘The bishops collected lots of money and the sinners got redemption. Both parties liked that arrangement despite its absurdity.’

A ‘red’ paper rooted in the interests of the working class?

The White Paper fails to engage with the full impact of climate change on the working class – especially in relation to rising food prices, water shortages and crop failures. While there is reference to a ‘long term just transition to a climate-resilient and lower-carbon economy and society’, this notion of ‘justice’ is not developed. A just transition should not only take account of the need to protect vulnerable workers but also promote an alternative vision of a more just and sustainable ways of both producing and consuming.

The White Paper fails to accord any significant role to organised labour. There is a vague reference to the potential of ‘green jobs’ and ‘the new green economy’, but these are not defined. The White Paper simply states that ‘adaptation could create new jobs to which workers can migrate from sectors affected by mitigation strategies. The climate change response will attempt to reduce the impact of job losses and promote job creation during the shift towards the new green economy’.

While the Paper claims to be guided by the principle of ‘uplifting the poor and vulnerable’, there is no attempt to address the present inequalities in access to water, for example. The commodification of water in the form of pre-paid meters, which have devastating impacts on poor households, is not mentioned. The logic of sustainability and cost recovery behind the imposition of these meters is not challenged. Nor is the wastage involved in over 500 golf courses using an average of 1 million litres of water a day addressed. Similarly, as regards present levels of energy poverty, the post-apartheid state’s overall commitment to neoliberal principles mean the prioritising of sustainability and efficiency over justice, and a preoccupation with cost recovery over high levels of cross-subsidisation and equity. The principle of social justice demands that the present ‘life-line’ allocation of electricity be extended. The principle of ecological sustainability demands that this should take the form of clean, renewable energy which could also create thousands of jobs. Now that the White Paper has been adopted by Cabinet, there is a glaring contradiction in the post-apartheid government’s stated policy and actual practice.[END BOX]
A ‘grey’ paper reflecting incoherent policy and contradictory government practices

Official policy documents demonstrate an incoherence. Aspirations towards reducing carbon emissions are contradicted by government practices which involve massively expanded coal-fired and nuclear energy. While the White Paper does not mention nuclear energy, there is no indication that government policy has changed. The parastatal Eskom is committed to building more coal-fired power stations. The World Bank’s $3.75 billion loan to Eskom to enable it to do this will increase the price of electricity for poor people. This will worsen South Africa’s contribution to carbon emissions and climate change. Overall, policy displays the continued power of the corporations at the centre of the minerals-energy complex to shape development to their own profit-driven interests.

The dominance of green neoliberal capitalism is also evident in acceptance of the role of the World Bank. The appointment by the UNFCCC of the World Bank as interim trustee of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) has a special relevance for us in South African, as Minister Trevor Manuel is the co-chair. This fund promises that developed nations will mobilise jointly $100 billion a year in long-term financing by 2020 to help developing countries adapt to climate change. In April this year over 90 NGOs protested that this turned climate change into a new arena of financial speculation. The sources of this finance will include loans for adaptation which could mean further debt and increasing poverty, as well as carbon trading. As a Carbon Trade Watch spokesperson said, ‘while climate finance is intended to transfer funds from the north to the south, the Green Climate Fund essentially creates a new market infrastructure. Having a larger portion of the $100 billion a year by 2020 generated through the revenues of the carbon market changes climate finance from responsibility to profit.’ Instead of paying reparations for the ‘climate debt’ of the North, the GCF reflects existing power relations.

There is policy incoherence if the White Paper is compared with other recent South African policy documents. Climate change is integral to industrial development. However, this is not reflected in the Industrial Strategy developed by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP2 2010) introduced some renewable energy into the supply mix, but beyond Medupi and Kusile the IRP plans on two or three major new coal plants between 2014 and 2030, and a ‘fleet’ of six new nuclear power plants to be built by 2030. IPAP identifies the Green Economy as a ‘major new thrust for the South African economy which presents multiple opportunities to create jobs and value-adding industries. It also acknowledges that ‘increasing energy costs pose a major threat to manufacturing, rendering our historical, resource-intensive, processing-based industrial path unviable in the future’. However, these statements are undermined by the compartmentalisation of the ‘Green Economy’ as an ‘add on’, ‘something separate and therefore different or additional to a mainstream future South African economy’

Green: the new Black?

Perhaps ‘green’ is ‘the new black’ in that green neoliberal capitalism is in many ways  attempting to make the climate crisis the site of accumulation. But whatever the colour of the White Paper, the real commitment of government policy is to economic growth. As David Hallowes comments, ‘changing the system is necessary because capitalism is not compatible with addressing climate change.’ Hence, rooted in green neoliberal capitalism, the White Paper fails to address South Africa’s development needs and lay the basis for an alternative development path. It is clear that the South African government is driven by vested interests and will not solve the problem of climate change which threatens us all. Nor will capitalism. The only rational response to the reality of climate change is total change in our methods of production and consumption in a new kind of ethical, democratic and ecological socialism.

Jacklyn Cock is a professor of sociology at Wits University.

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