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Chasing Carbon Unicorns: The deception of carbon markets and "net zero"

22 February 2021 - Powerful actors are using “net zero” pledges to hide their climate inaction. Stopping the climate crisis requires us to stop burning fossil fuels – no magical thinking will solve this problem, just immediate action and system change. But transnational corporations and governments are hiding behind the “net” in “net zero” – claiming that they just need to pay someone else to remove carbon, through carbon offsetting, rather than taking action on their own.

This report unpacks the science behind “net zero” claims and how they are used to obscure climate inaction. It explores the new strategies to expand carbon offset markets, linked with new “net zero” demand for offsets. It also explains the roles played by various actors involved in the effort to “make offsetting great again”. These include less obvious players such as a few large mainstream conservation organisations, as well as the more obvious ones: the banks, the finance industry, and corporate interests behind maintaining the status quo of fossil fuel production and consumption.

 “Net zero” means that fossil fuel companies can continue to explore, drill, extract, and burn fossil fuels, while someone somewhere else sucks carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, magically balancing out emissions. But whose land, whose forests will be used to suck that carbon out? Fossil futures require carbon unicorns. 

The area of land required to sequester just 2 Gt CO2 through ecosystem restoration is estimated at 678 million hectares – about twice the land area of the country of India. Communities in the global south are already facing huge land and resource grabs, loss of livelihoods, and violations of their territorial rights. 

“Net zero” targets need to be transformed into Real Zero targets, including a complete phase-out of fossil fuels and industrial agriculture, keeping equity in mind, and support for rights for communities whose livelihoods are dependent on those ecosystems.

Download the full report here.

Gauteng residents given a whiff of Mpumalanga Highveld pollution

Image by: Daylin Paul

18 February 2021 - Over the past few days, unusual and persistent levels of sulphurous smells in the air have given residents of Gauteng a glimpse of what life is like for people who live in some of our country’s most polluted places on the Mpumalanga Highveld – one of the South Africa’s worst air pollution hotspots.

On Saturday, 13 February 2021, Gauteng Weather started reporting on the strong sulphur smell in Gauteng, and noted that southeasterly winds pointed in the direction of Mpumalanga as the source. Many residents of Gauteng noted complaints of breathing problems, burning eyes, blocked noses and bad chests on social media.

By Wednesday, the South African Weather Service issued an alert advising that air quality was “unhealthy” for sensitive groups, including children, the elderly, asthmatics, people with lung and heart disease.

According to air quality expert Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, the rotten egg smell is a strong indicator that the pollutant in question is hydrogen sulphide, or H2S.

Sasol’s Synfuels facility in Secunda, Mpumalanga, is the main source of H2S in Mpumalanga.

Read the full media release here.

SAHRC Releases Final Report of the Gauteng Provincial Inquiry into the Sewage Problem of the Vaal River

17 February 2021 - The South African Human Rights Commission has today released its investigative report on the contamination of the Vaal River.

Samson Mokoena, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) Coordinator, commented on the report as follow:

As VEJA we welcome the report, it confirms the issues we have been raising especially relating to section 24 of the constitution. The report  confirms that the South African government has violated our rights. The state has not taken any action to solve this issue, and the report has confirmed today that law and regulation enforcement mechanisms are failing. By allowing sewage to flow in the Vaal River the government is also going against its international obligations as per UN assembly resolution of 2010, that water is a human right, the report was able to highlight that. The contamination of the Vaal River negatively impacts the environment, the well-being and also dignity of our people.

You can read the full report here.

New Study: Zero Waste Systems Could Create Thousands of Jobs for Durban Residents

Zero Waste Found to Be a Key Strategy to Build Strong, Sustainable Economies Post-COVID-19

16 February 2021 - A new study from GAIA finds that cities that invest in zero waste programs and policies create good green jobs, in addition to known benefits of reducing pollution and improving community health. This report comes as municipal governments worldwide are making critical decisions about which programs to invest in to increase climate resilience and rebuild local economies that have been damaged by the COVID-19 crisis. The study projects that if Durban were to recover 80% of recyclable and organic material in its waste stream, the city could create over 4,000 new jobs.

Read the full media release and get the report here.

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Statement on environmental MEC’s decision to exclude properties from the Mabola Protected Environment to enable a new coal mine

15 February 2021 - We, a coalition of eight non-profit public interest organisations, have been challenging the authorisation of a large new coal mine inside a declared Protected Area and Strategic Water Source Area in Mpumalanga since 2015.

We condemn the recent decision by MEC VR Shongwe, the Mpumalanga MEC for Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs, to revoke the protected area status for a large part of the Mabola Protected Environment in order to enable that new coal mine to proceed.

Read the full statement here.

Supreme Court of Appeal Ruling on Tendele to be Appealed in Constitutional Court

15 February 2021 - On Tuesday, 9 February 2021, the Supreme Court of Appeal, in a majority decision, dismissed an appeal calling for Tendele coal mine to comply with environmental legislation. The case raises an important point of law where there is currently uncertainty leaving loopholes that require a legal precedent to bring clarity.

Kirsten Youens, the Attorney for the Global Environmental Trust (GET) and Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), described the majority judgement as “focussed on procedure over justice that does not deal with the issues, whereas the dissenting judgement by Shippers JA is excellent and exactly what we need to take the matter on appeal to the Constitutional Court.”

Advocates Thembeka Ngcukaitobi and Mawande Mazibuko acted for the appellants in the SCA case. They consider the matter too important to environmental law jurisprudence for it to be decided purely on procedural law. They are already preparing to take the case to the Constitutional Court. This course of action appears to have the support of Judge Shippers whose judgement emphasizes protection of the natural environment, as in this reference to the Fuel Retailers case, where the Constitutional Court states:

"The role of the courts is especially important in the context of the protection of the environment and giving effect to the principle of sustainable development. The importance of the protection of the environment cannot be gainsaid. Its protection is vital to the enjoyment of the other rights contained in the Bill of Rights; indeed, it is vital to life itself."

The Tendele open cast coal mine is situated on the border of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park, Africa’s oldest proclaimed nature reserve with the highest density of white rhino in the world. The appeal was brought by GET, a not-for-profit organisation established to preserve biodiversity and protect natural resources, and by MCEJO, a community-based organisation that supports the implementation of environmentally sustainable projects for communities living along the Mfolozi river in northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). The application was supported by thousands of MCEJO members from neighbouring local communities.

SAHRC vs uMsunduzi: Municipality in High Court for failing to clean up

Pietermaritzburg dumpsite ablaze

15 February 2021  - The case filed by the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) against the uMsunduzi municipality over its management of the New England Road Landfill site in Pietermaritzburg is being heard in the high court today.

The case was filed in the high court by the SAHRC after its investigation on the matter, and consultations with different stakeholders including, groundWork, Ratepayers Association, Save PMB, affected communities and residents. Post its investigations the SAHRC red-flagged the state of the site and its impact on the environment and on public health. 

The landfill is known for its fires that flame for days, and engulf the city with smoke, forcing schools to shut down and some residents to evacuate their homes due to the toxic smoke. In April last year the fires went on for more than three days. The SAHRC subsequently received a number of complaints from Pietermaritzburg residents, and a protest was held near the site with a petition against the dump which was also handed over to the commission.

Read the full media release here.

Coalition condemns MEC’s decision to revoke protected area to allow new coal mine

Water heritage under threat Mabola Protected Environment, Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga, faces potentially catastrophic threats from a new coal mine. One of only 22 Strategic Water Source Areas in the country, it is composed mostly of wetlands, pans and endangered grassland ecosystems that support endangered species and the provision of clean water. The mine is set to cause irreversible damage to the sensitive and critically important aquatic environment. Picture: JAMES OATWAY for CER.

Water heritage under threat Mabola Protected Environment, Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga, faces potentially catastrophic threats from a new coal mine. One of only 22 Strategic Water Source Areas in the country, it is composed mostly of wetlands, pans and endangered grassland ecosystems that support endangered species and the provision of clean water. The mine is set to cause irreversible damage to the sensitive and critically important aquatic environment. Picture: JAMES OATWAY for CER.

11 February 2021 - Last month, the Mpumalanga Provincial MEC for Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs, MEC VR Shongwe, published his decision to revoke the protected area status for a large part of the Mabola Protected Environment in Mpumalanga in order to enable a controversial new coal mine to proceed.

The Coalition of eight public interest organisations who have, since 2015, been challenging the development of that proposed new coal mine, have condemned the MEC’s decision. The proposed mine would also fall inside a Strategic Water Source Area.

The MEC’s decision comes after the Coalition successfully challenged in court the permission previously given for the mine by the former Ministers of Environmental Affairs and Minerals, the late Edna Molewa and Mosebenzi Zwane.

The Coalition’s court challenge resulted in the High Court setting aside those permissions as unlawful and awarding punitive costs against the MEC and the Ministers. The court found that there was no justification for their lack of transparency, and departure from procedures required by law. Four attempts by the mining company to challenge the High Court decision failed, with a full bench of the High Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), the President of the SCA, and ultimately the Constitutional Court, leaving the Coalition’s judgment intact.

Now, in an apparent attempt to circumvent those judgments and the Protected Areas Act itself, the MEC has revoked protection for a large portion of the protected environment to push through a new coal mine inside Mabola.

Read the full media release here.

141 NGOs Call for a Moratorium on Large-Scale Mining and Oil and Gas Extraction in Greenland

10 February 2021 - In an appeal published today, 141 NGOs from all over the world call on the Greenlandic and Danish governments and the European Union to help protect the Greenlandic and Arctic environment. Greenland possesses some of the world’s largest oil and gas and mineral reserves. Thus far, there are about 70 active large-scale exploration and exploitation licenses in Greenland, covering thousands of square kilometres. Almost all are surface mining projects, often at high altitude.

The 141 NGOs call on the Greenlandic and Danish governments, the European Union, and everybody else who take an interest, to help establish an Arctic sanctuary. The inspiration could be the Antarctic Treaty, as supplemented by the Madrid Protocol signed in 1991, but respecting the fundamental difference represented by the populated nature of Greenland and the Arctic and the rights and needs of the peoples and nations of the Arctic region.

You can read the full media release and annexures here.

Fossil fuel air pollution responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide – major study

Deaths from fossil fuel emissions higher than previously thought

09 February 2021 - More than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, significantly higher than previous research suggested, meaning that air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide, according to new research from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London.

Regions with the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution — including Eastern North America, Europe, and South-East Asia — have the highest rates of mortality, according to the study published in the journal Environmental Research.

The study greatly increases estimates of the numbers killed by air pollution. The most recent Global Burden of Disease Study, the largest and most comprehensive study on the causes of global mortality, put the total number of global deaths from all outdoor airborne particulate matter — including dust and smoke from wildfires and agricultural burns — at 4.2 million. 

Read the full media release and find links to the report here.

Resist Nuclear Procurement!

05 February 2021 - In December 2020, energy Minister Gwede Mantashe issued a determination to commence the process to procure the new nuclear energy generation capacity of 2 500 MW as per decision 8 of the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2019.

This is a folly in groundWork's view, not only a piece of foolishness, but an extravagance built for appearance or status. groundWork has today submitted comment to the National Energy Regulator (Nersa) setting out our reasons for opposing any new nuclear construction. They include: the environmental destruction done in the mining and processing of uranium and in the energy intensive fuel fabrication process; the lack of any feasible plan to deal with high level nuclear waste; the exorbitant cost of the nuclear build and again of decommissioning at the end of the plant's life; the high likelihood of cost and time overruns; the scope for corruption and/or geo-political leverage by national peddlers of nuclear power; the anti-democratic requirements for secrecy and high level security.

Read the groundWork submission to NERSA here.

The activists who are greening Wesselton

26 November 2020: From left, Linda Magagula and Simon Nkosi tend to a crop of spinach on Magagula's plot in the Nomzamo agricultural village in Wesselton. Nomzamo was established on a portion of the unrehabilitated Imbabala coal mine. Photo: James Puttick.

01 February 2021 - Residents of this township in one of Mpumalanga's coal-mining districts have been benefitting from grassroots initiatives to turn ugly dumping sites into precious green spaces.

For 20 years now, the members of the Khuthala Environmental Care Group in Wesselton, Ermelo, have tried to address the persistent environmental damage left by the coal mines as well as residents who dump their garbage irresponsibly. In doing so, they have transformed what would have been toxic spaces into sites of pride and beauty.

The group's passion for a greener future has led to giant gains for Wesselton township, which is hemmed in by abandoned and unrehabilitated coal mines.

Read the full story on New Frame (online) here.

New Year Message from groundWork Director, Bobby Peek.

How does one approach 2021?  Writing about our fears or predictions? Or seeking hope?  I finally settled on the latter.  I am not qualified to make predictions; there are many out there who are more informed.  But like millions of others who want a more sustainable existence with the earth, I am hopeful that ongoing activism worldwide can slowly chip away at the chains of power and greed.

As Pablo Solón, Bolivian activist and ex-diplomat, put it, “2020 wasn’t the worst year, it was just one of the beginnings of the systemic crisis.  Hope is not in the year that begins but, in our ability, to change and subvert the ‘normality’ that brought us here. The year 2020 brought to the fore with clarity the reality that system change is needed".  Like Solón, my hope lies in our ability to change and subvert the old normal, and start creating a new normal, and we do this first by stopping the foolishness of the past, and through this, create the justice for the future.

Read the full text of the message here.

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