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Climate denialists collusion undermines quest for justice

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Picture: Earthlife Africa – About 1500 climate activists and concerned citizens marched in protest in Johannesburg this week. Activists are dissatisfied that important climate negotiations at COP27, which will affect people from all walks of life around the world, are largely driven by fossil fuel industries and self-serving governments, with little community-based representation.

By Patrick Bond

In Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, where the 27th United Nations annual effort at solving the climate crisis is halfway to failure, negotiators and anyone interested in South Africa’s welfare might get the wrong impression, given hype flowing in speeches by President Cyril Ramaphosa and World Bank President David Malpass.

The highlight of the first week was $8.5 billion in Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) financing that Western powers are directing – 97% as loans, just 3% in grants – towards Eskom’s supposed decarbonisation, as well as electric vehicle export subsidies (benefiting mainly German automakers) and a probably-fictional green hydrogen industry (led by ultra-polluter Sasol).

And at the same time, the World Bank provided another $500 million loan for what it considers to be Eskom’s Komati coal-fired generator’s decarb. Malpass, who was Donald Trump’s rogue appointee in 2019, even personally visited the site last weekend.

As he reported back at the COP27 on Wednesday, “Developing complex projects like this takes a long time as will implementation. That helps explain the key role played by the World Bank Group working with Eskom, the South African federal and local governments, and the JETP partners as part of the country platform.” (Affected workers and communities were not worth mentioning.)

Malpass bragged of Komati, “The World Bank is proud to lead this successful approach to reducing emissions.”

But leaving the leadership of Eskom’s decarbonisation pilot to Malpass is asking for trouble. Last month, an Extinction Rebellion and protest at the Bank’s Johannesburg office drew scores of community and environmental activists insisting not only on existing Eskom debt cancellation, since a 2010 Medupi coal-fired power plant credit of $3.75 billion was the World Bank’s largest-ever project loan, and it occurred when Malpass’ predecessor Robert Zoellick knew full well that Hitachi had bribed the African National Congress with a free 25% local co-investor share.

In 2017, when he was deputy US finance minister testifying to Congress, Malpass (correctly) accused the Bank of malfeasance, remarking of its staff, “They’re often corrupt in their lending practices, and they don’t get the benefit to the actual people in the countries. They get the benefit to the people who fly in on a first-class airplane ticket to give advice to the government officials in the country.”

Asked by congressional finance committee leader Maxine Waters, “Do you have an example of that?,” Malpass didn’t hesitate: “South Africa is heavily indebted and not making progress and is not being well served by its relationships with international financial institutions.”

The revelation was logical, in the wake of Hitachi’s 2015 prosecution under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. But there were plenty of other fingerprints, including on Eskom’s whites-only electricity infrastructure dating to the first World Bank loan to South Africa, in 1951, and several more through 1967. Even eight years after apartheid ended, the Bank made a venture capital investment in a massive white-owned coal mine – Tendele – bordering Hluhluwe-iMfolozi nature reserve (Africa’s oldest), displacing hundreds of residents but without having obtained legally-required environmental permission.

On October 20, 2020, leading anti-coal activist Fikile Ntshangase was assassinated there, at a crucial point in the struggle against Tendele’s expansion, resulting in her lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi demanding reparations: the return of mine profits worth millions of dollars to the victimised community, which includes World Bank pay-offs as an original investor.

The anti-Bank protesters also demanded an end to the $2 million initial financing of a Richards Bay Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal that began in 2019. At both Richards Bay and Komati, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter repeatedly told the Bank and other JETP partners he would ideally find R85 billion for two new methane gas generators with 4000MW capacity.

Tragically, the JETP inflow now frees up De Ruyter’s revenues to pursue those plans, even though methane is 85 times more potent than CO2 over the next 20 years. Moving Eskom from decarbonisation to methanisation will, in turn, make those South African export products reliant upon gas-fired electricity much more prone to international climate sanctions.

In September, former US vice president Al Gore called for the firing of Malpass, due to his “ridiculous” climate denialism, but the problem is evident when other Bank staff push methane gas projects or demand Medupi debt repayment.

In all this, South African officials play a pernicious official role, one that was called out by Basani Baloyi of the Institute for Economic Justice on Thursday in a COP27 briefing: “The World Bank’s Vice President of Integrity, Leonard McCarthy, a former Director of the Directorate of Special Operations (Scorpions) with close relations to the ruling party, refused a request to investigate the corruption associated with the (Medupi) loan.”

The COP27 also gives Baloyi and climate justice activists a chance to demand further-reaching climate reparations, in part to cover loss and damage expenses, which she defined as a “moral obligation.”

Again, former Shanduka Coal tycoon Ramaphosa’s interests are the opposite, to reject any liability for climate damage, even though South Africa’s historic emissions rank 16th highest at 30 billion tonnes, adding 500 million more each year.

But mimicking the dogmatic, unethical US position against acknowledging any liability, one of Ramaphosa’s COP27 delegates claimed on Tuesday, “There are a set of rules vis-à-vis funding arrangements and no attempt must be made to reopen them.”

For the self-interested Pretoria delegation – strongly allied with local corporate fossil-fuel abusers in the National Business Initiative and Business Unity South Africa – this logically refers to the Paris Climate Agreement’s provision that the 2015 deal “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

Breaking free of this insidious influence – combining Western imperial financing sources, supine politicians, high-polluting local corporates promoting a sub-imperial climate policy stance, and the climate-debt-denialist World Bank – has never been more urgent. But with leaders like Ramaphosa and Malpass, it’s never seemed more unlikely.

Patrick Bond is Distinguished Professor at the University of Johannesburg and author of the book “Politics of Climate Justice”.