The potential new leader of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the world body’s Nobel Prize-winning scientific network – could well be a long-serving Durban municipal official, Debra Roberts, assuming she wins an election to be held in Nairobi in late July. Yet Durban’s climate-resilience failure features greenwashing so far-reaching that it was even reproduced in a 2018 IPCC report: “Individual political leadership in municipal government, for example, has been cited as a factor driving the adaptation policies of early adapters in Quito, Ecuador, and Durban, South Africa.”
In reality, not only political leadership in Durban, but the city’s mitigation and adaptation policies, have been characterized by climate injustice (and the same is true for Quito municipality) and incompetence. The world began to realize this in April-May 2022 when 500 people died due to the utter lack of municipal climate-proofing during two bursts of flooding whose impact was twice as severe thanks to greenhouse gas emissions.
A central concern about this candidacy is that over the last three decades, well-paid white municipal bureaucrats with environmental, public health and climate responsibilities (not just Roberts) have mainly ignored Durban’s prolific community struggles to end lethal toxic pollution and greenhouse gases emitted by local petrochemical firms and refineries. This has been especially blatant in South Durban where environmental-justice activists receive international recognition for fighting corporate and municipal sloth, but where inevitably, politicians and city officials are letting them down, notwithstanding post-flood rebuilding rhetoric to the contrary.
Durban’s Climate Action Plan greenhouse-gas mitigation has not only been inadequate. In addition, climate-resilience programming has placed inordinate emphasis upon maintenance of the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D’MOSS), a vast (95 000-hectare) set of protected areas whose 1982 apartheid-era roots reflected historic racial buffer-zoning between white and black residential areas. This is an inconvenient truth, rarely mentioned, but three exceptions are the buffers separating (black African) Cato Manor township from the (white-dominated) neighborhood area adjoining the University of KwaZulu-Natal; the (traditionally-Indian) area of Kenville in Durban North; and the wealthy (white) Upper Highway suburbs.
In such sites, wealthier residents appreciate D’MOSS not only for conservation purposes, but – when it keeps low-income blacks at bay – for its race/class separation function. One result, even Durban’s own municipal planning documents concede, is “a high degree of segregation of places of work and home due to past planning practices that promoted land use and racial zoning… [that] has largely precluded the development of mixed use environments.”
Under Roberts’ climate leadership, the municipality has also embarked upon “Working on Rivers” small-scale pilot projects for keeping streams free of debris. But as shown by extreme pollution reaching the beaches after every major storm, these were trivial efforts in relation to the scale of watercourse degeneration and blockages in a context of severe stormwater drainage incapacity.
Debris flows to the ocean in part because of the municipality’s notorious waste-collection failure. The collapse of the Durban Solid Waste department’s integrity was so obvious that it led to former (2016-19) Mayor Zandile Gumede’s prosecution on more than 2000 counts of fraud, corruption and contravention of the Organised Crime Act and Municipal Systems Act.
But there were also widespread sewage breakdowns, in part due to neoliberal sanitation policies which generated extremely high E.coli concentrations in streams and rivers well before the April 2022 Rain Bomb destroyed pipelines and pumping stations across the city. Durban water manager Neil Macleod (also a white bureaucrat celebrated across the world) had in 2014 received the Stockholm Water Industry Award but to his credit admitted that class ‘differentation‘ was official urban policy, wherein “the flushing toilet is seen to be for rich people and dry sanitation is seen to be a solution for poor people.”
Since then, worsening decay has disabled much of Durban’s most vital infrastructure, for as one journalist reported, “the third-largest treatment works in the city has been largely dysfunctional since before the April floods and is currently the main source of sewage flowing into the Umgeni River” and from there, onward into the ocean, despoiling the city’s beloved beaches.
Climate-proofing Durban should have entailed much greater attention to these sources of ecological degradation, often a function of inadequate municipal budgeting which, while not the blame of climate officials, would logically lead to far greater humility within the global environmental-management circuits where Roberts has built up a powerful reputation.
As another example, a 500-page 2016 World Bank report praised not only Roberts’ “conservation planning” leadership and “resiliency planning for climate change adaptation.” In spite of recording serious shortcomings in handling a rapid urbanization process, the Bank report cited the “leading role that eThekwini plays in the field of city environmental management in Africa and the World” – in the words of another (white) South African, Roland White, the bank’s Global Lead for City Management, Governance and Financing.
Other municipal climate pilots include mitigating several landfills‘ methane emissions, but in a manner that entailed close collaboration with the World Bank. The ‘privatization of the air’ strategy Roberts promoted – i.e., reliance upon international carbon markets to fund (relatively tiny but expensive) methane-to-energy piping and generators – created a major source of friction and then community opposition next to Africa’s largest dump, Durban’s Bisasar Road landfill (located in a black neighborhood as was apartheid’s logic).
A campaign to close Bisasar was led from the early 1990s by Sajida Khan, who in 2007 died of cancer caused by landfill pollutants across the road from her house. Her thousands-strong movement was defeated by municipal officials – especially two white men, city manager Mike Sutcliffe and project leader Lindsay Strachan – who were hungry for carbon credits. The municipality’s continuation of Bisasar Road entailed filling it to maximum levels in order to sell more credits, but revenues were fatally undermined by crashing emissions-trading prices in the immediate wake of the 2008 world economic meltdown, revealing Durban’s dependency on global financial capitalism at this critical pilot site.
Yet in spite of that failure, not only was there aggressive municipal greenwashing in advance of Durban’s 2011 hosting of the United Nations COP17 summit. A few years later, in order to win a WWF “I Love Cities” popularity award for greenhouse gas mitigation in 2014, a municipal public-relations consultancy – Carver Media – hijacked international Twitter accounts in order to cheat the vote, again featuring the methane mitigation pilot project.
The 2014 WWF award application by the municipality was centrally based upon the carbon-market strategy: because of (a meagre) “7.5MWh of electricity produced from landfill waste, Durban is right to be proud of its renewable energy achievements.”
Then, reinforcing climate hype over substance, Gumede – who had just been nicknamed the “Mayor of Graft“ by CityPress newspaper – was in 2018 awarded a global WWF “One Planet City Challenge” climate prize at that year’s global summit in San Francisco hosted by California governor Jerry Brown. At the time, she was still enjoying the status of Vice-Chair of the C40 network supported by Michael Bloomberg, again revealing how Durban’s dangerous, gimmicky policies fool global elites.
Consistent dishonesty of this sort reflects the city’s (and elite allies’) desperation to have Durban appear to be a national and global climate leader at any cost. And revealingly, the host of the December 2023 United Nations climate summit in Dubai, Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, just tried the same trick as did Durban, with bogus Twitter accounts, but likewise was exposed earlier this month by Guardian journalists.
Meanwhile, most importantly, the inadequate climate-proofing of low-income areas of Durban was largely ignored. This was revealed in the increasing intensity of Rain Bombs that hit the city in October 2017, April 2019 and twice in 2022, resulting in rising human casualties and major infrastructure damage each time. The municipal officials’ lack of attention to vital stormwater drainage, to ensuring that decent housing construction occurs in safe areas (not shacks on steep hills or in flood-water zones), to building more durable roads and bridges, and to providing emergency relief services, all proved fatal.
Meanwhile, when it comes to global climate politics, the credibility of global elite managers is plummeting. The 2023 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) president, Al-Jaber, is also Abu Dhabi’s lead oil company boss. All indications are that he has every intention of keeping the fossil fuel era going as long as possible. His staff have been busy trying to detox his Wikipedia page, and Al-Jaber’s oil company took control of UNFCCC correspondence.
The most debilitating force within the UNFCCC continues to be the coalition of two dozen traditional Western polluters with the now super-polluting Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa BRICS economies – and soon, the so-called “BRICS+” carbon-addicted tyrannies. Their leaders’ common interests are in both not cutting emissions sufficiently, and in refusing to acknowledge their climate debt to victims of extreme-weather “loss & damage” and of the expensive new adaptation-infrastructure required (as well as the compensation poor countries deserve for not emitting in future, given the West+BRICS’ abuse of the atmospheric space).
The core of this force is to be found in the alliance initiated in December 2009 in Copenhagen, in the crucial U.S.-China-India-Brazil-SA side meeting. But the new BRICS+ members are likely to include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria and Nigeria where there is little prospect for accountability and where advocates of environmental and social justice often risk prison terms, or worse.
Al-Jaber should be promoting rudimentary mitigation, such as halting Abu Dhabi’s planned fossil-fuel expansion, but the UNFCCC’s imperial and subimperial climate powers aren’t prepared to force him to do so, instead allowing “false solutions” – such as Carbon Capture and Storage and carbon offsets – to be spread from his presidency to such an extent that a former UNFCCC secretary recently spoke out against him.
Likewise, if Durban is given further bogus IPCC recognition through the appointment of a leading official to run the body at a time of both widespread climate-system and local-municipal collapses, it will reveal how out-of-touch international environmental managerialism is with reality – just as the IPCC is regularly criticized for its intrinsic conservativism when periodically offering climate-damage projections that are far too optimistic.
The climate activists of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa and the world deserve more respect, just as planetary survival requires an entirely new approach, consistent with the politics of climate justice, not Durban-type deceit.
(Patrick Bond is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg; this is part of the opening keynote panel presentation to the Political Ecology Network conference in Durban, 27 June 2023.)
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