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Climate Justice Now!
| CARBON PROJECT Q & A: South Africa -- Saving Carbon or Destroying Health? (eighth in a series) |

South Africa: Saving Carbon or Destroying Health?

Durban Solid Waste (DSW), part of Durban’s city council bureaucracy, manages a landfill site called the Bisasar Road dump. The dump is located in an area that was designated for people of Indian descent under apartheid’s Group Areas Act. It’s also a primary source of livelihood for the mainly African, and poorer, Kennedy Road settlement, many of whose residents recycle materials from the dump while struggling with officials and business to gain more secure rights to the land their houses occupy.

Although the site is licensed only to receive domestic waste, medical waste, sewage sludge, private corporate waste and large shipments of rotten eggs have also wound up there. Cadmium and lead emissions are over legal limits, and limits for suspended particulate matter also often exceeded. Concentrations of methane, hydrogen chloride, and other organic and inorganic compounds including benzene and toluene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde are high.

-- Q. That sounds dangerous.

Local residents report many health problems, with six out of ten of the houses in one downwind block on the nearby Clare Estate reporting cancer cases. The causes of each such individual case of disease are notoriously difficult to pin down. They could include emissions from incineration practices which stopped in 1997, other emissions from the dump either before or after, or other factors.

But with some houses only 20 meters away from the landfill site boundary, it’s hardly surprising that many in the community want the dump shut down. In fact, the city council itself pledged in 1987 to close the site and turn it into sports fields, picnic areas and play areas for children. When, in 1996, the council reneged a second time on the promise, some 6,000 local residents signed a petition of protest, with many blocking the dump site entrance and staging demonstrations and marches.

-- Q. I’m not surprised. But what does all this have to do with mitigating climate change?

In 2002, the World Bank’s Prototype Carbon Fund (PCF) began promoting a prospective CDM project to extract methane from the Bisasar landfill and burn it to generate up to 45 megawatts of electricity for supply to the national grid.

-- Q. I’m not sure I understand. How can a project that emits carbon dioxide using fuel from a smelly landfill site be climate-friendly?

The idea is that the electricity generated by the project would “replace” electricity that otherwise would have been generated by burning coal. It’s claimed that the project would generate enough power to light up 20,000 informal houses or 10,000 formal-sector houses. Because burning methane is less climatically damaging than simply releasing it, and better than burning coal (the dirtier fuel usually used) the project is better than the alternative.

-- Q. The alternative? Do you mean that there’s only one? Surely there must be many alternatives. What about using the money to close the dump down and treat some of the waste? What about just pumping the landfill gas into the nearby Petronet gas pipeline network so that it would not need to be burned on site? Or finding ways of using electricity more efficiently? Or more non-fossil community-level power sources?

No, the carbon credit market demands that there be only one alternative. That’s the only way of doing the carbon accounting for a project like this. If there is more than one alternative, then you will have more than one number corresponding to the carbon “saved”, and you won’t be able to assign a single number to the number of carbon credits your project is producing. So you won’t have anything definite to sell.

-- Q. But that’s just crazy. There are always many alternatives.

Yes, but the accounting system that carbon projects need dictates otherwise. It leaves no space for multiple alternatives or more than one political choice. The market leads, logic follows.

-- Q. But how can such a view be enforced when everybody knows that there are many alternatives to the Bisasar Road carbon project, not just one?

In the early phase of the project, authority for deciding what the local future would be without the Bisasar Road scheme was quietly given to two individuals at the PCF far away in Washington – Sandra Greiner and Robert Chronowski. Griener and Chronowski were the ones who determined what would and would not be possible in South Africa in the absence of the project. Their decision was clothed in many pages of impressive numbers and reinforced through meetings and professional review. If the project goes forward and sells carbon credits to Northern corporations, allowing them to burn fossil fuels in their countries, it will have to be on the basis of numbers like the ones Greiner and Chronowski suggested.

-- Q. But didn’t anybody protest? Didn’t anybody question whether two people in Washington had the right to decide what the alternative energy future of Durban might be? Come on, man, this is crazy!

Welcome to the carbon market. Protest was difficult. Information dissemination and public consultation on the project proposal were carried out over the internet, to which only a small minority of the local community have access. Time allocated for objections in late 2004 was a mere 10 days. And few outside the immediate area were either interested in or aware of what was going on.

Durban officials claim that without the US$15 million provided by the deal, they would not bother trying to recover the methane as fuel, since the electricity generated in the process costs so much more per kilowatt hour than the local power utility charges for its coal-fired power.

-- Q. All right, fair enough. But assuming that’s true, all it proves is that continued raw methane release and coal-fired power is a choice that would have a reasonable economic rationale, not that it is the only choice that could be made.

That’s all that’s required, under the rules, for the project to create carbon credits.

-- Q. All right. But who would buy carbon credits from the dump?

All PCF investors are to get pro rata shares of rights to ignore an increment of their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their own mining and burning of fossil fuels. These investors include British Petroleum, Mitsubishi, Deutsche Bank, Tokyo Electric Power and Gaz de France, as well as the governments of The Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden and Japan.

-- Q. And is this a good thing for local people who live around the dump?

That depends a lot on who you ask.

-- Q. Well, what does the PCF say?

The PCF says that improving the “financial position of DSW” would also benefit local people and send a “clear signal” to them that “the environment is a number-one concern in South Africa and is being dealt with in the best way possible.”

-- Q. And what does the local community say?

Again, that depends on who you ask. But let’s start with members of the Indian community on the border of the dump. One, Sajida Khan, who was diagnosed in 1996 with cancer, and whose nephew died of leukaemia, had this to say in 2002:

“To gain the emissions reductions credits they will keep this site open as long as possible. Which means the abuse will continue as long as possible so they can continue getting those emissions reductions credits. To them how much money they can get out of this is more important than what effect it has on our lives.”

Khan and other community members see PCF support for the methane project as having thrown a lifeline to the dump. They note that the PCF’s crediting period for the project is seven years, twice renewable, making a total of 21 years. According to the PCF, “because of the growing waste generation per capita in the municipality . . . there is no plan to close . . . the Bisasar Road site . . . during the PCF project life.” To Khan and colleagues, this new lease on life for the dump, together with the PCF claim that Bisasar Road is an “environmentally progressive . . . world-class site” leave a very bitter taste in the mouth.

-- Q. Understandably so. But are there other views?

One of the municipality’s top officials responsible for the project, Lindsay Strachan, Project Manager of eThekwini Engineering and Projects, has little patience with opinions like Khan’s. Because protesters “can’t think globally any more,” he complains, “the project is literally slipping through our fingers.”


The Bisasar Road Project: Conflicting Views

“What are we going to do about carbon trading? Our president [Thabo Mbeki] is saying, ‘Where is this project? Where is any project? Where’s anything?’ [There is] a big rush to get South Africa on the map. [Yet now, due to appeals,] the first project in Africa is . . . stopped in its tracks and . . . literally slipping through our fingers. . . . Japan is calling me. But I say we have no project. . . . [The two per cent of people who object] are saying that this is in my backyard, I can't think globally anymore. . . . South Africa probably won’t be able to say that we spearheaded the CDM market or better still we spearheaded the emissions reductions market. . . . There is disappointment, but such projects will go on elsewhere, in Brazil or Chile or India or Iran or Kampala.”

--Lindsay Strachan, Manager of Engineering and Projects, Durban Solid Waste

“The poor countries are so poor they will accept crumbs. The World Bank know this and they are taking advantage of it.”

--Sajida Khan, Bisasar Road community resident


But there are more than just two sides to this story. Most of the African residents of the nearby Kennedy Road settlement also support extending the life of the dump. For one thing, the dump provides most of their current livelihood. For another, the new World Bank carbon project has shrewdly promised to provide jobs and a few local scholarships. The Bank also pushed DSW to conduct “consultative exercises” in Kennedy Road that constituted one of the few occasions that the community had been officially recognized. Kennedy Road residents could not help but contrast that recognition with what they perceive as the Bisasar Road community’s lack of sympathy for their ongoing struggles to secure rights to the land they live on so precariously.

-- Q. But presumably the World Bank and DSW are merely trying to divide the local Indian and African communities from each other?

Kennedy Road activists are under no more illusions about the agendas of outside agencies than they are in the front lines of international debate over climate change. But, as Raj Patel of the local Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal observes, “when communities have been systematically denied dignity,” “consultations” such as those staged by DSW under World Bank pressure may be the only “substitute for marginalization” available.

-- Q. There’s also the argument, isn't there, that by extracting methane, the project not only prevents quantities of a powerful greenhouse gas from being dispersed in the atmosphere, but also benefits local air quality?

It might, to some degree – although a lot of associated pollutants would still be released, including carbon monoxide and various hydrocarbons.

Clean air, however, is a right South Africans are constitutionally guaranteed even in the absence of carbon trading schemes. In a sense, therefore, Kyoto commodity production is being staked here to the non-enforcement of environmental law. DSW, PCF and their consultants are helping to enclose not only local communities’ air, but also their future. In the process the World Bank is also undermining its own stated concern with “good governance” and the rule of law, because it’s providing an incentive not to enforce the constitution.

-- Q. What’s the future of the project?

Uncertain. Project opponents, backed by sympathizers in a range of countries, are definitely having an impact. Sajida Khan and others have filed formal complaints, citing technical environmental, health and social problems. Several newspaper articles were published on Khan and her struggles, and in November 2004, World Bank staff were forced to visit Durban to have a look for themselves. But project proponents, including Bank staff, are unlikely to give up easily.

Some of the research for this posting was done by Trusha Reddy of the New School for Social Research in New York while she was an intern at the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

by: ProfMKD @ 4:46 PM


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