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More of the same as Green Capitalism’s Contradictions deepen

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Picture: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP / Taken on November 28, 2023 – People wait outside a building adorned with a COP28 logo ahead of the United Nations climate summit in Dubai on November 28. The UN chief urged world leaders to take decisive action to tackle ever-worsening climate change when they gather at the COP28 summit in Dubai starting this week.

By Ashraf Patel

The UN Climate Change COP 28 jamboree is taking place in the UAE. Over the decades, the UN environment forums and summits – meant to be the ‘voice of humanity’ – have been mainly determined by large corporations and powerful governments.

Instead of protecting and enhancing Earth as the source of well-being, the dominant forms of civilisation today are pursuing ‘economic development’ instead of ‘human development’ at the expense of the Earth. This means that our civilisation and our techno economic model are not ecologically sustainable and hence not viable in the longer term.

Historic Perspective

Sustainable Development and Climate Change

The UN has been discussing the environment as a global concern for more than 50 years, with the first UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Stockholm in 1972 followed by the Rio Summit in 1992, and the Johannesburg Summit in 2002. Several international treaties over that time have addressed specific environmental concerns, including binding agreements on protecting biodiversity and closing the ozone hole, and the current global plastics treaty being negotiated in 2023.

The UN Conference of Parties (COP) 2015 Paris climate agreement to limit global warming is a direct and legally binding outcome of the long struggles that follow initial declarations. Subsequent COP conferences have since been focussing on the formal mechanisms of implementing these at local level in the form of nationally determined contributions (NDRs), and a range of programmes and mechanisms, especially Green finance.

Deep-seated contestation of narratives and reality diverge as the Global South and Africa in particular again face major obstacles in attaining both development and climate change risk reductions, and crucially the resources to support them.

The Big Issues and contradictions at UN COP 28

UN COP’s Loss and Damage funds – Promises and lies

Although sub-Saharan Africa is responsible for less than 4 percent of global emissions, it is disproportionately affected by negative climate change impacts. Even worse, the nature of the NDRs is reducing the notion of common and differentiated responsibility. The lack of any concrete commitments towards the Loss and Damage Fund, which was the discussion at COP 27, is glaring and like a mirage on an F1 racetrack, fast disappearing.

So, for African countries, fighting climate effects is urgent – for climate risk, and for development. Mainstream reporting on climate change also ignores the UN Right to Development 1986 agreement – where Article 1 and 2 explicitly reaffirms:

  • “The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realised.
  • The human right to development also implies the full realisation of the right of peoples to self-determination, which includes, subject to the relevant provisions of both International Covenants on Human Rights, the exercise of their inalienable right to full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources.

Sadly, without any commitment, the famed Loss and Damage fund is the scar of the UN COP 28. Instead, the narrative is now replaced by ‘Green finance and stocktaking’, led by large banks and financial corporations. This financial sector profit-driven discourse has rapidly penetrated the past two COP summits. South Africa is a good example of a ‘guinea pig’ nation that is being experimented upon with this new green financing. Incubated at the G7, South Africa’s $ 8.5 billion Green Just Transition Investment Partner JET IP is essential world bank style loans – payable with interest. This model denies South Africa its common and differentiated responsibility CDRs.

With South Africa’s national debt and interest payments at 28 percent of our national budget, the Just Energy Transition JET IP programme is fast becoming an UNjust transition programme, and if implemented, will further sink our nation into an intergenerational debt trap. Other African nations face the same dreadful ‘green debt trap’.

The recent UN Plastics Treaty is also stalled even though the bulk of Plastics (Coca Cola bottles etc.) and electronics consumed by the North – and in the South – mainly end up in landfill dumps in the Global South, often employing child labour in the most unhealthy, exploitative zones on the planet.

Double speak of G7 and EU

In the UK for instance, the Conservative Party has turned its back on Green policy made popular when the UK hosted COP 26 in Glasgow. Its independent Climate Change Committee warned this could damage the UK’s ability to meet its legally binding target to reach net zero by 2050, will overshadow the PM’s presence at COP 28.

Vowing to “max out” the North Sea, after the International Energy Agency warned that no new oil and gas exploration should take place if the world is to stay within the 1.5°C limit, was a provocation to the UK’s former allies in the climate fight. The US’s green Inflation Reduction Act, which is essentially a nationwide Industrial policy, is also rapidly expanding its production, energy and electricity. The world’s leading energy corporations, Exxon etc., are located there.

Germany, the home of Green politics, reactivated some coal-fired power plants last year. The country’s economic ministry said several coal-fired units operated by energy companies RWE and LEAG at their Niederaußem, Neurath, and Jaenschwalde power plants will be temporarily reactivated until March of next year. Government data showed about 1.9 GWh of electricity was generated from coal last winter and set to expand in 2023/24.

So a case of ‘Do as I Say – not as I Do” is the dominant energy narrative and realpolitik of the North.

So, what is to be Done?

Most countries by now agree that a pivot or transition away from fossil fuel production or consumption to renewables is inevitable, but a key issue African leaders are pushing is the Continent’s right to a just transition. At the moment, more than 600 million Africans do not have electricity. Africa is an energy rich Continent amidst energy poverty. While there is a ‘broad consensus’ on the need for a Green transition, key developmental dilemmas remain to ensure that it is also a just energy transition.

The EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which will see importers of goods taxed based on the amount of CO₂ emitted during their production. On the other hand, “we are between a rock and a hard place”, The Africa Group lead negotiator AGN Aggad said. “We are being sold this dream of renewables but we barely have any investments in it. Gas is the only option available to Africa.”

  1. Need for a clear Loss and Damage fund in the form of Development grants and climate change finance, including funding for adaptation and technical transfer; these need to be non-profit model
  2. the Right to Industrial Development as surefire way out of poverty, given that Africa is endowed with major minerals, metals and energy resources crucial for both the global green transition and a resource base to get Africa out of energy poverty

Food systems and agroecology

A new and welcoming agenda at COP 28 is the Food systems and sustainability but could replicate Big Agri model of the WTO. South Africa agriculture system is an example big agriculture capital rooted in large scale monocropping, fertiliser and chemical usage, and concentrated supply chains with mega retailers. Ironically these are not translated into affordable food, with 20 percent South African facing food insecurity. black farmers continue to be on the margins of the food system, A huge push for agroecology and local food systems is needed to stave off industrial agriculture.

Carbon Capture Technology

Most of Sub-Saharan Africa needs to embark on the path towards Industrialisation in line with the Africa Union’s 2063 strategy and numerous detailed reports by the UN Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA). Hence mining and energy resources for national development will continue, and the application of new Green technologies, as well as Carbon Capture and Storage technologies CCTs is the big game changer at COP 28.

By utilising its natural endowments (minerals and energy), it can invest and utilise core Carbon Storage technologies CCTs, such as Clean Coal Tech for instance. This will have the double positive pathways of utilising its own energy resources for national development, and investing in new generation green technologies that will mitigate pollution. Adaptation funding can come from Multilateral Development Banks MDBs.

A clear win win as nations such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia have coal reserves for the next over 100 years, and that cannot be ditched overnight. Currently, the North and especially Europe are importing coal for its winters, thus undermine the very COP 28 push for ‘ending fossil fuel investments’.

Sadly the UN COP 28 is currently trapped in a deepening contradictory -hypocritical complex; and the consumer-capitalist hyper-fuel hub of Dubai UAE is a fitting host for such crass contradictions and gerrymandering, as the bottom billions in the Global South live a pitiful existence and languish in energy poverty.

Ashraf Patel is senior research associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD)