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Activism needed as nations cop out

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By Patrick Bond and Desmond D’Sa

Last November, the 26th UN climate summit was held in Glasgow: the annual Conference of the Parties, or COP (Durban had hosted the COP17 in 2011). Among the highest-profile of activists, Swedish youth leader Greta Thunberg was furious, pronouncing: “The COP26 is over. Here’s a brief summary: Blah, Blah, Blah. But the real work continues outside these halls. And we will never give up, ever.”

Now that COP27 is moving to Africa – Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in November – the world again asks whether the multilateral process can be saved, or will negotiations leave the younger generation despairing even more?

Given that the host government attacks its own social movement and democracy activists, and that it’s now playing a dangerous tug-of-war diplomatic game in a context far more destructive than last year, pessimism is growing.

The Cairo regime of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – who in 2013 led a military coup against an Islamic government (after the 2011 Arab Spring mass movement had tossed out the pro-West Mubarak dictatorship during the inspiring Tahrir Square popular uprising) – remains close to neo-colonial European powers, and retains especially tight military relationships with Washington.

The US supplies $3 billion (R51bn) in annual “aid” and weaponry, and its main objectives in the Middle East remain the protection of Israeli apartheid and control of Middle Eastern oil and gas flows.

In January, Cairo gave Italian multinational Eni five new exploration licences covering 8 400km² of potential oil blocks. But to make matters more confusing, Egypt’s rulers are also applying for membership in the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa BRICS bloc, while remaining “neutral” on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

With no civil society counter-event possible in Sharm El-Sheikh due to political repression, the only ways to apply pressure on COP27 delegates may be protests at Western and BRICS super-polluter embassies elsewhere in the world.

Internally, it appears unlikely the UN can self-correct the trajectory we are now on, witnessed in the extreme weather misery Pakistan is now suffering, and that in KwaZulu-Natal took the form of two rain bombs in April/May, killing more than 400 poor and working-class black residents, mostly women and children.

Thousands more remain homeless in Durban, due to municipal corruption and adaptation-incompetence, and to Treasury’s austerity regime. There were more optimistic days, for example in 2010 at the COP16 in Mexico, when one of the greatest efforts at inside-UN reform was made by then Bolivian ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solon.

But the system was obviously broken then, as his efforts to inject “Climate Justice” criteria failed. Since then, in spite of how quickly the terminology has gone from “climate change” to “crisis” to “catastrophe”, grassroots climate activists’ demands are not taken seriously by the network of major polluters who control the UN processes, or by most national government delegates – including South Africa’s Presidential Climate Commission, whose leaders promote South Africa’s coming methane-gas addiction as a “transition” fuel.

As Solon reminds us, “Egyptian trade unions are denouncing the event as ‘green-washing’.” Moreover, he continues, “What happens at COP27 will be repeated at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates” – which is also one of the world’s most reactionary petro-oligarchies.

Solon observes: “The situation has been made even worse by the war in Ukraine. The return to fossil fuels and the treatment of gas and nuclear as green energy are a setback,” and the EU is particularly to blame for the latter. In June, the German meeting to prepare for COP27 witnessed rich country delegations simply dismissing African calls for ‘Loss & Damage’ recognition and financing support.

Yet Europe’s two main leaders – French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz – have compelled African elites to commit to massive oil, gas and even coal infrastructure. That includes South Africa, thanks to the unholy Scholz-Ramaphosa alliance for increased coal exports, and Macron’s request to Ramaphosa that 1000+ SA soldiers defend a $20bn Total “Blood Methane” gas plant in northern Mozambique.

Solon concludes, “We must build an alternative process to the COPs in coming years and not limit ourselves to actions during the COPs. In the same way the UN replaced the League of Nations because of its failure in World War II, the worsening climate crisis and other issues like the war can lead to the discussion of a radical reform of the UN and its climate negotiation process.” Solon helped Bolivia host the April 2010 climate justice alternative summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

With more progressive governments now in power at the tip and bottom of the Andes Mountains, in Colombia and Chile, perhaps there will be a new pole of opposition to work with.

In contrast, in Glasgow, the main textual sabotage came from the three largest emitters, all of which stubbornly held onto their coal-fired power: China, the US and India.

They teamed up, no matter various ideological and geopolitical differences, to retain coal as long as possible, rejecting “phase out” language. This year, the “African COP” will be a site where governments go to the mat to defend more fossil fuel extraction. Ramaphosa makes no bones about that, promoting more oil and gas extraction across the continent instead of using a different model: rich countries paying poorer ones to decarbonise, as Ramaphosa himself has rhetorically encouraged, what with the ‘Just Energy Transition Partnership’ and its promised $8.5bn in Western concessional finance.

South Africa’s largest emitters also owe a massive climate debt, so should be part of paying Africans not to extract, especially in sites like Mozambique where nearly one million people have been displaced in the process.

And as activists have been arguing since last November, on the beaches and in courtrooms, ending our own gas exploration on the Indian and Atlantic coastlines is a vital first step. Indeed, with no prospects for success in Egypt, an alternative, activist-centric process looks ever more urgent.

Bond teaches at the University of Johannesburg and D’Sa is co-ordinator of the South Durban Climate Justice Alliance.