Copenhagen and the South African Experience: Allegorical Parallels on the Global Stage

By Glenn Ashton · 17 Dec 2009

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Picture: WWF France
Picture: WWF France

The more people in a meeting, the more difficult it is to achieve consensus. Accordingly the UN negotiating system, built on consensus processes and inordinately influenced by the wealthy G8 nations, makes agreement difficult. 

Big talk shops have poor records of delivery even after fragile consensus has been reached. Agreements made during The World Summit on Sustainable Development have largely fallen by the wayside. The Millennium Development Goals and associated promises from the G8 remain behind target.

The latest talk shop in Copenhagen, COP 15 - or the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – aims to hammer out a deal to reduce emissions of climate changing gases. Seldom has a conference attracted this degree of attention, for both the right and the wrong reasons. Achieving consensus between the 192 attending nations will be as difficult as it is important.

While there is solid scientific consensus that human induced (anthropogenic) climate change is a real threat, there remains an inordinately influential and powerful lobby group that has thrown massive resources in undermining this consensus.

The 'Climategate' nonsense is nothing more than a sideshow, which has used out of context and selective quotes from stolen, hacked emails to create the illusion of a conspiracy. Climategate only proves one thing; that those opposed to a deal are both well-funded and dogmatically unscientific. 

More importantly, Climategate clearly highlights what author and analyst Naomi Klein has called a class war. In an interview during the summit she said “This conversation that has started here (is) about the real face of environmentalism, as a class war that is being waged by the rich against the poor.”  

Yet Klein fails to give a more complete historical context. Friedrich Engels, he of Communist Manifesto fame, noted this reality more than a century and a half ago when he wrote not only about the exploitation of workers but also of the environment by the forces of capitalism. The standoff is not a new one yet placing it in context does reveal some reasons for the continued polarisation in the positions taken and held in Copenhagen.

The Copenhagen conference got off to a poor start with the leaking of the so called “Danish text”, a secretly drafted, non-consultative document that would not only have sidelined the UN as the implementing agency but would have put neo-liberal institutions like the World Bank, together with wealthy nations, in charge of dealing with the challenges. 

The Danish text highlighted the perfidy of the corporate-political nexus. The ensuing outcry saw it relegated to the dustbin of history. But that is not to say that the outlook in Copenhagen is good.

It is in fact as dismal as the Danish winter weather. South Africa played a highly controversial role by allegedly undermining G77 unity, eroding our potentially cohesive role. By siding with industrial interests and undermining the most threatened Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) our negotiating team's credibility was naively shattered as an honest broker. Our empty offers to reduce emissions are effectively a smokescreen for business as usual over the next two decades. That they are supported by Greenpeace is equally telling of that organisations increasingly compromised position. 

Yet none of this should be a surprise. While we have some excellent and canny negotiators our reliance on dirty coal remains central to our archaic energy policies. The neo-liberal, centrist stance of the ANC government, viewed against our staggering GINI co-efficient is an allegorical reflection of the positions of the wealthy North as juxtaposed to the position taken by the developing South in Copenhagen.

Our negotiating position in Copenhagen simply reflects our duplicitous projection of ourselves as a progressive, developmental pro-poor state while we continue to woo free market players to our shores by pursuing neo-liberal policies. 

The cosy relationship between the state and Eskom, the world’s fifth biggest power utility, further continues to prevent sustainable or renewable power projects from entering the market, further highlighting our unfocussed energy policies.

Eskom remains fundamentally responsible for the failure to roll out solar water heating in South Africa. Their unworkable, centralised system of control and red tape has done more to impede the installation of solar powered water heating than to encourage it. This project is an object lesson in how to set up a project for failure. Let's not even start to examine how Eskom has thwarted endless private and renewable energy start-ups that threaten its monopoly.

Our government is clearly complicit in Klein's class war over energy. Just as our government and Eskom do not wish to see change, so too the developed nations of the world continue to throw crumbs at the poor by way of recompense. The real costs of climate change to the developed world are estimated at anything between US$100 billion to one trillion dollars per annum depending on whose figures you believe. One report puts the costs to the world’s ports alone at over US$28 trillion by 2050.

During the first week of the conference US$10 billion per annum, most of which was already pledged, was offered by way of climate offsets to the global south. Having bailed out failed banks and economic systems with trillions of dollars and having waged war on Iraq for yet more trillions, this offer is an insulting pittance.

This global stand-off between rich and poor is analogous to South Africa's internal stand-off between innovative, progressive energy policy and the unholy marriage between a dysfunctional Eskom and a political establishment more interested in sharing BEE coal mine benefits across Mpumalanga and keeping cronies running Eskom than in real development and progressive policies. 

Our energy policies are so dysfunctional that our new coal power stations have insufficient water supply and are consequently being subsidised by massive water supply projects painted as pro-poor and development, while being exactly the opposite. These are hidden subsidies to the mining and aluminium industry that will be paid from public coffers and the inflated prices that consumers pay for power.

If Copenhagen is going to deliver, the wealthy world must seriously offer compensation to the global South for decades of exploitation. China has had years of positive balances of payment and can no longer be tight-fisted. Neither can the OECD, G8 and global North. AoSIS nations stand to be annihilated in what amounts to environmental genocide, making this a criminal matter. 

We can no longer countenance the contrived polemic such as 'Climategate' spouted by the neo-liberal denialist corporate political nexus as promoting anything approximating an objective debate. Their lies must be dismissed with the contempt they deserve or ignored. 

The North has reached its advanced stage of development through exploiting cheap, dirty energy and resources at the cost of the poor. The continued externalisation of the impacts of burning fossil fuels can no longer be borne by the South. 

Rising sea levels, melting glaciers, reduced water supplies from disrupted weather patterns already threaten developing nations. Africa, already poor, stands to be seriously affected. While rich corporations and nations plunder the oil and fossil fuels of Angola, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa, Chad and Nigeria, their people remain oppressed by interests intrinsically tied to those holding the global reins of power.

If South Africa is to play any meaningful role in Copenhagen, or for that matter in any future discussions on development and global equality, we need to develop a far more mature and nuanced perspective to guide our policies. We will lose any opportunities that exist in Copenhagen if we continue to bend to the whims of the global marketplace and the dominant, but faltering, global economic model. 

One wonders whether the Zuma led Government can deliver what was promised in its electoral mandate. The vision of the Medium Term Strategic Framework outlines a more mature, progressive vision but can it be implemented? South Africa cannot continue to say one thing and do another, both locally and on the international stage. Our allegorical positioning as mirror for the world to see itself grants us an advantage that we should not squander for short-term political or financial gain.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Sebe Kgati
19 Jan

Let Africa Write Its Own Book

The writer continues to call Africa a developing and poor continent and yet countries that have vast machinery to cause harm to the world are refered to rich nations. But, in honest fact who is rich? The only thing that would free Africa from the rest is our leaders becoming more conscience about their people and the people of Africa to more conscience about themselves and their role in the universe. It is not about climate change but who it will affect it most. One does not need money to survive, but the ability to make his/her land productive. No one really focuses on how Africa can sustain itself and I mean taking out the reliance of any other continent. Because if we could we will do our own studies of environment and there will be no poverty in Africa. So called rich nations are not rich after all and to all those that think have the greatest of ideas and all those before are not as intellegent as they or we suppose are - we will not have had people in poverty, we will not have had what is happening in "middle east". To solve the problem in Africa and of the world, Africa must be left alone to write its own books as it was in the begining - the beginning that all Africans do not know about today, but in our instincts and genes. So, to the writer carbon dioxide is not the problem as it is useful to our own survival. The problem is when those opened by cutting trees for industrialization (farming to feed the whole world from Africa, Mining to enrich Europe and fund them for their wars), they did not replace the trees to balance it out. Next you speak of CO2, speak of planting trees - it make logcal sense and it is as simple as I have put it.

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