Tag Archives: Medupi

Rhinos and Resource Extraction

white-rhino_755_600x450Rhinos are one of the oldest species of mammals on the planet.  Brought back in from the brink of extinction in southern Africa, they are once again under grave threat.

As a very strong article in The Guardian details, one of the world’s greatest preserves for rhinos, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, is threatened by plans to permit the opening of an open-cast coal mine near the border of the park. The mines would draw large numbers of people to the area, many of whom would inevitably be enticed by the high prices of rhino horns on the international black market.

The question of what South Africa is doing opening so many coal mines is the gaping question that underlies current developments. The article in The Guardian mentions that the number of operating mines in South Africa has increased from 993 in 2004 to 1,579 in 2012. The government argues, the article suggests, that these mines are necessary to provide power to the country’s majority population, against whom apartheid policies discriminated in many ways, including energy provision.

But why is coal power, the most dirty form of fossil fuel, the dominant mode of energy generation in South Africa? To a certain extent, this seems like a misguided policy on the part of a national government – the ANC – desperate to provide resources to its people under constrained conditions.

But such an analysis ignores the significant boost that coal has gotten from international interests, including the World Bank. As Patrick Bond details in an account of the grievously misguided loan from the World Bank for the building of the coal-powered Medupi power station in northern South Africa, international lenders such as the World Bank have a long record of supporting the most purblind and environmentally destructive development policies in South Africa.

Among the many destructive impacts of such policies, then, we might think about how the support for coal mining contributes not just to climate change on a global plane, but also to the potential extinction of one of South Africa’s greatest natural treasures: the white rhino.

 

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Eco-Imperialism

In an appearance before the U.S. congress today, Obama administration deputy special envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing testified that America intends to hold the South African government to its pledges to cut carbon emissions.  This despite the U.S.’s abstention in the vote on the $3.75 billion World Bank loan to build one of the world’s biggest coal-fired power plants.

This comes on top of the Obama administration’s recent decision to deny mitigation funds to Bolivia and Ecuador in response to their refusal to sign up for the sham Copenhagen accord.

As an article in the Guardian cogently points out, “Pershing’s comments align with the Obama administration’s policy of shifting some of the burden for dealing with climate change from the industrialised countries which have historically caused most emissions to rapidly emerging countries, such as South Africa, India, China and Brazil.”  Shifting the burden are the keywords here.

Speaking of South Africa, I also wanted to note an interesting article on the blikkiesdorps or slums created by government clearance programs in advance of the World Cup.  As the Olympics in Vancouver demonstrated yet again, sporting mega-spectacles almost always lead to increasing homelessness and diminishing civil liberties.  The World Cup in South Africa is unlikely to be any different.  Sad really – I was in South Africa during the unsuccessful bid to win the games back in 2000 and remember how decimated people were when the national bid was rejected.  I’m afraid that people’s expectations are likely to be quickly deflated.

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The Will to Power

The World Bank yesterday approved a $3.75 billion loan for a new coal-fired power plant in Limpopo, South Africa.  Named Medupi, the 4,800 megawatt plant will draw on South Africa’s abundant sources of coal to provide power for an increasingly power-hungry nation.  It will be one of the biggest coal-fired power plants in the world.

But who precisely will control and who will benefit from this power?  What is the World Bank doing funding the fossil fuel industry to the hilt when we clearly have to make an immediate transition to sustainable energy sources?

These questions are particularly germane since the South African national power company, Eskom, took out substantial international loans during the early years of apartheid from 1951-1967 to build power plants that provided some of the world’s cheapest electricity exclusively to large corporations and whites, while saddling the country’s entire population with the significant debts associated with these loans.  South Africa is still grappling with the debt of the apartheid era.

Admittedly, as a recent piece by Andrew Revkin on the “energy gap” and the climate crisis points out, access to energy is an increasingly important issue globally .  As Revkin argues, the world’s growing population is already marked by yawning inequalities of access to energy supplies that might provide reliable sources of light at night and heat for cooking.  Yet little research is being done to develop clean, sustainable sources of power.  In fact, almost precisely the opposite is the case: according to a recent report by the Environmental Law Institute, the U.S. spent approximately $72 billion on subsidies for fossil fuels while supporting renewables with only $29 billion during the period from 2002-2008.

The World Bank decision on the loan to South Africa continues such unsustainable trends.  Medupi will emit 25 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.  Although the South African energy minister Dipho Peters argues that, with 25% of the country still lacking access to power, Medupi will fill a much needed demand.  Yet such populist rhetoric obscures the fact that the majority of the plant’s power will benefit large, transnational corporations, many of whom had secret, apartheid-era agreements with the racist regime that completely shield them from costs associated with construction of the plant and repayment of the World Bank loan.

If local people are unlikely to benefit much from the power generated by Medupi, they will inevitably suffer from its dangerous side-effects.  As with all coal-fired power plants, local air quality will decline, sulphur dioxide levels will skyrocket, and mercury residue in the area’s water, air and land will increase.  According to Earthlife Africa, the plant would also be responsible for diminished access to water and land degradation in what was formerly a predominantly agrarian area.  Anticipating these damaging effects, residents of Limpopo filed a complaint with the World Bank inspection team earlier this week, apparently to no avail.

Another justification for the project was articulated by World Bank vice-president for Africa Obiageli K Ezekwesili, who said recently that the project is vital for providing access to energy and fighting poverty.  But, as Sunita Dubey from the activist group Groundwork argues, South Africa’s energy crisis is a product of sweetheart deals between Eskom and large corporations, which provide these large firms with some of the cheapest electricity in the world.

The approval of the World Bank loan, a vote from which the U.S., Great Britain, and the Netherlands all abstained from, is a huge defeat for South African and international climate justice movements.  It is also a great setback for efforts to promote a shift away from unsustainable energy sources.  Although it’s important to acknowledge that the will to power is likely to figure increasingly prominently in a world in which billions of people lack the most basic amenities of modernity, we cannot simply focus on producing more power.  The Medupi defeat should underline the urgency of building a stronger global movement for climate justice, one that targets the unsustainable energy policies of institutions like the World Bank in the same way that the global justice movement targeted their unjust structural adjustment policies.  Sustained critique of the World Bank’s history of flawed energy sector lending policies – as well as local activism to challenge the adverse impacts of such policies – should be high on the climate justice movement’s list of priorities.

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