With its proposed Medupi power station, South Africa is an industrialised global climate player and major polluterJohn Vidal on Britain's key vote for the Medupi World Bank loan
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 1 April 2010 16.29 BST
With its sky-high poverty levels and average life expectancy of just 51 years, South Africa is not a country we generally associate with extravagant binge-flying lifestyles, turbo-consumerism, and shopping trips to New York. How bizarre then that per capita carbon emissions in South Africa are now higher than in many European countries. While most South Africans are unlikely to ever own a plasma screen TV or Hummer, their carbon footprints still appear to be only slightly less than your average Japanese, and their national carbon emissions are now greater than those of France.
The situation becomes more comprehensible when you look at South Africa's industrial base, with 60% of South Africa's electricity being guzzled by heavy industry, and most of that comes from dirty coal. Now this key global climate player wants another coal station that would pollute as much as the two dirtiest plants in Britain put together, and cause a further surge in its national emissions – and they want you to pay for it. Far from benefiting ordinary South Africans, they will also be forced into subsidising this artificially low-cost electricity, for the benefit of multinational mining companies. It's no wonder that African civil society movements are leading the opposition to this development.
South Africa's situation is a case study in one of the major political currents that poisoned last year's UN climate talks. At Copenhagen, major emerging economies hid behind their poor to justify why they shouldn't need to take on legally-binding climate targets. Infuriating western governments, they used a rigid interpretation of the wonky principle known in UN-speak as "common but differentiated responsibility" (CBDR) to argue for more "pollution rights", since they have less historical responsibility for causing the carbon problem and less ability to pay to solve it. Never mind the new carbon-constrained realities on the whole world, these powerful developing countries claimed the right to pollute indefinitely, because (just like their industrialised counterparts), they saw short-term strategic interest in securing the largest possible area of global atmospheric territory. In short, a concept developed to promote equity has turned into an excuse to allow ever increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.
Just as Switzerland offers the super-rich the ability to avoid high taxes, and Uzbekistan-presented high-street clothes chains in Europe with cheap child labour in their cotton fields, South Africa and other major emerging economies like China are beginning to exploit the CBDR principle to establish themselves as global havens for the most environmentally destructive industries on Earth. South Africa is effectively setting up shop as a high-carbon economic zone to encourage in foreign companies by freeing them of carbon regulation.
After Copenhagen, the attitude of the most powerful industrialising countries caused much spluttering on the part of western ministers. Ed Miliband was enraged at what he saw as an unfair apportioning of the blame to the industrialised world after the managed collapse of the negotiations, and wrote: "The vast majority of countries, developed and developing, believe that we will only construct a lasting accord that protects the planet if all countries' commitments or actions are legally binding. But some leading developing countries currently refuse to countenance this."
That's why it's so odd that western governments, including our own, now seem determined to egg them on by making a $3.7bn (£2.4bn) World Bank loan to the South African state-owned power company Eskom to help build one of the most polluting power stations in the world. With one hand the government complains about major emerging economies not doing enough to embrace low-carbon development, while at the same time, it directs money that's meant for aid, into dirty coal developments that power the international mining industry.
In fairness, Miliband's comments were clearly directed at China. There was a time last year when climate progressives in the South African government seemed to be his most effective allies in the south. By establishing a reasonable 2020 climate target the South African government positioned themselves in Copenhagen as a bridge between the developed and developing worlds. But in retrospect, with an aspiration to get up to 95% of their electricity from coal by 2025, despite vast untapped clean energy potential, last year's rhetoric looks like a very thin green veneer. Well, either that or the South African government's principled stand has since been quashed by Big Carbon lobbying.
Recognising that a tonne of CO2 from a South African coal plant is just as damaging as a tonne from anywhere else, the White House has signalled they won't offer their support to subsidise the Eksom mega-coal plant in South Africa when it comes up for a vote at the World Bank next week. Yet as the single biggest donor to the Bank, it will be the UK which is likely to get the final say. This offers a key test of whether the climate progressives in our own government can win out.