Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Planning to Save Civilisation?

The highly polluted waterway between two oil refineries flows directly into the ocean 10km south of Durban. To the right is the SAPREF refinery. Mondi Paper operates next to the two refineries. Between the three pollution both in the air and water has seriously affected the health of many nearby residents.

Durban, South Africa. I made a television program last year about how high-tech their dump is, you can watch that here. However, their regulatory infrastructure for emissions and industrial waste is poor at best, and maybe criminal at worst. With the capability the city has shown at their landfills, it is surprising that they are unable to enforce laws on pollution. If a city like Durban cannot change it’s dirty habits, what chance do the other developed and developing countries of the world have? The world's politicians and activists are coming here to debate just that.

This story I shot with the LA Times shows how children and babies living near the Sasol, Petro SA and Mondi plants south of the city have debilitating heart and lung problems. The sea is so polluted that hazard levels for industrial and chemical wastes exist for fifty miles south of the city. Perhaps it is fitting that the world will gather through this smokey-stinky veil in five-month’s time to discuss how we are going to save the planet.

So how are we?
I am getting excerpts from World On The Edge on my email. It’s a fascinating read by futurist and thinker Lester Brown. I just ordered the whole book, and look forward to getting in to it. This is a man that has continually mapped a changing plan for the continuation of our species, and the chances we have of making it. Far from being a “chicken little” running around shouting that the sky is falling, Brown is a level-headed realist with some great numbers and ideas about how we can make our lives easier, cleaner, more healthy and save the planet all at the same time.

His Plan B series is worth checking out if you, like me, sometimes wonder how we will fix everything that we need to. It really is a Plan B, and that is very important. My brother made shirts this year from some signs I photographed, and it says There Is No Planet B. Well thankfully there is a Plan B, and Brown’s most pressing arguments and plans really provide a snapshot of where we are in the current climate and pollution crisis and where we need to be going, with tangible things we can do to get us there.

So where are we and how are we getting there?
It is vital that governments work now on the beginnings of an agreement to ratify at the Durban Climate Conference in November to December this year. Right now the framework of a new binding agreement to reduce pollutive greenhouse gases should be taking shape, one that takes the place of the Kyoto Protocol. However, large utility companies in both the US and Europe are helping to stymie progress, hoping to keep a business-as-usual approach to regulation and reduction. Some of them wield great power within the committees and discussions taking place at a mid to high political level and the South African press reports that they are using that power to prevent early drafting of real emissions targets that can be met.

There is also much posturing by China, vilified in Copenhagen for their obstinate stance on emissions reductions, and evidence that they will use their new-found friends in Africa (where they have been investing heavily) to help push for a weak deal, or no deal at all. That this would hurt the countries of southern Africa the most seems irrelevant within the political arena..

This is all to be expected. But true courage and the possibilities of a deal are never to be completely discounted. The talks are happening this year in South Africa, a place where dreams do seem to come true sometimes. Trevor Manuel ran the National Reserve Bank and the Tax system of the country, and helped mediate the end of apartheid for the ANC. He is deemed by many to be the best man for the job of making sure that the Durban Conference is a success. He has his work cut out for him.

South Africa as flag bearer?
South Africa is not leading from the front on climate change. If the west was hoping that South Africa would adopt a hard line in favor of strong action to reduce carbon emissions, they may be in for a surprise. In the last week South Africa ended the green tariff subsidy for power that is generated without emissions, nipping a promising incentive for green energy in the bud.

Thembeka Duba, 20 She lives next to the Sappi Paper mill, about 40 km south of Durban, and blames the mill for her Asthma, where she is standing is just 500 Meters from her front door, with the paper mill in the background.

The country also seems intent on nuclear power, ignoring all the bad news out of Japan and forging ahead with plans for a second nuclear power station in the country. They are also planning on building lots of new coal-fired power stations, one of the main greenhouse gas culprits. These actions are the antithesis of the original draft of the Kyoto Protocol, which sought to provide incentives to developing countries like South Africa to evolve along a lower-carbon path, reliant and successful in implementing the new power technologies of the future.

Tit For Tat
However, there is a game that could be getting played here. If South Africa plans all these coal fired power stations, and then does not build them, they can get emissions credits from not building them. The new systems and more importantly the companies that build the green technology alternatives would be financed by the first world’s carbon markets. South African companies, doubtless some of them owned by government and the people in government, would get free or very cheap alternative energy infrastructure. This could be a sort of blackmail that the South Africans and other countries (most obviously China again) will use to leverage out money from developed nations to pay for new clean electrical infrastructure, and also stop themselves from having to reduce their own carbon emissions.

There is also a large component of any new climate agreement that sees billions of dollars in support for countries like South Africa to "adapt" to climate change. South Africa sits in a group of countries that have the least capital and the most exposure to the catastrophes associated with climate events.

Rennee Smith, 26 stands defiantly in front of the Engen Oil Refinery in South Durban, a few blocks from her apartment where she lives with her mother and her young son Kyrone. She blames the refinery for the failure of Kyrone's lungs when he was just 6 weeks old.

Just Posturing?
It could also not be some sort of posturing or plan. Scarily the country may just be that behind and fail to see how great being a renewable energy leader in the world could be. In World On The Edge and his other books, Lester Brown tracks how investing in clean energy technology can boost a country's GDP and bring long term growth through both intellectual and regular capital inflows.

Drop into this mix my earlier blog post about "Fracking The Karoo", a new plan to extract coal bed methane from the last virgin area of the country and that in two years radioactive mine water polluted with heavy metals may reach ground level in the entire city of Johannesburg, then perhaps this land of promise is not the best place to host a meeting of this kind.

At least the delegates who attend will not be able to avert their gaze from the polluted haze of Durban every day. Maybe that will help focus their intent on the task at hand.

A view from one hotel where delegates to the next UNFCCC Conference (COP17) will stay. Pretty to look at but you would not want to swim here: Chromium, zinc, lithium, lead, arsenic, and e coli levels 1000 times the WHO standard, these are just a some of the stew of pollutants flowing into the Durban seafront.

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