All wrong at another UN Climate Negotiation

By David Hallowes

Chile is hosting the annual climate negotiations and everyone was headed for Santiago.

Unfortunately, those unpredictable bodies known as people were on the streets. Banging pots. Demanding that President Pińera and his entire crew vacate office. The crew includes several ministers with a strong sense of nostalgia for the Pinochet dictatorship. And Pińera himself learnt a thing or two at that time about the economic virtues of taking from the poor to give to the rich. He himself is jolly rich. And he won’t be letting anything like environmental catastrophe stand in the way of any of his mates. So he’s buried a proposed law to ban mining near Chile’s melting glaciers.

Meanwhile, the sound of pots banging has become something of a headache. Particularly since a massive majority of Chilean people now want him gone. So he recalled another of Pinochet’s virtues, declared an emergency and sent in the troops and riot police to silence them. They too were feeling a little nostalgic and promptly shot tear gas bombs and rubber bullets at people. So far, they’ve killed 26 and blinded many more.

Chile’s glaciers are melting because the climate is heating. And despoiling the local environment doesn’t help which is why the ban on mining was proposed. But if you are screwing the environment on the one hand, it’s good to pretend to environmental virtue on the other. And there’s nothing like hosting a climate CoP to promote those happy feelings. But since the proper happy feelings were not there to be promoted on the streets of Santiago, Pińera looked for another country. Chile therefore hosted the climate negotiations in Madrid. The old imperial mother city. Half a world away from the pots.

So then, everyone headed for Madrid. Of course, there was a proudly South African team there. And they were proudly supported by Exxaro and Sasol. Exxaro digs coal, and lots of it, for Eskom to burn – whenever Eskom has a power station that works. Sasol’s Secunda plant – also known as the inner circle of hell – is proudly the world leader in carbon emissions. Just days before setting up the South African pavilion in Madrid, Sasol had its AGM in Jo’burg. There it refused to table a resolution that it should do anything much about reducing emissions. So there they all were together at the CoP, proudly pretending to climate virtue.

There definitely is, as Trump might say, a quid pro quo for Sasol. There’s a proudly false solution to halve its carbon problem. It’s called carbon capture and storage. Which means diverting carbon dioxide down a long pipe and pumping it beneath the ocean bed off KwaZulu-Natal. Which is all very good. Except that it won’t work as advertised. And it does nothing for the other half of Sasol’s carbon problem. And it will cost a lot. So the South African government has put in a bid, on Sasol’s behalf, for international climate funding to pay for it. Team work!

And they might just get it since there’s great good will in the international community for anything that pretends to action – and particularly for anything a bit technical with bright shiny pipes and things and power point charts with bullet points and numbers enough to numb the mind. Meanwhile, Sasol is drilling for oil beneath the same ocean bed off KZN. Proudly supported of course by the minister for mining coal, who wants to be the minister for pumping oil too. This is now known as the blue economy. Sell off the fish in the deep blue sea. And get the black stuff below.

However that goes, they’ll be popping the champagne corks at the pavilion in Madrid. South Africa has just edged out Brazil to take the proudly 13th spot, up from 14th, in the global rankings of top carbon emitters.

David Hallowes is a researcher at groundWork, Friends of the Earth, South Africa