New Internationalist

Green house, back door

Issue 385

Pros and cons of carbon trading exposed in South Africa

Plunked in the middle of an Indian suburb, the Bisasar Road Landfill in Durban, South Africa, spreads the odour of rotting garbage over its surrounding community. It’s done so for the past 20 years – each year emitting thousands of tonnes of harmful methane gas. But the stench may turn out to be the smell of money if a controversial carbon financing deal signed last year between the city and the World Bank gets off the ground.

When the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change entered into force on 16 February this year, it gave rise to a new market for trading the kind of ‘hot air’ spewing from the Bisasar landfill – specifically greenhouse gases such as carbon and methane that trap solar heat in the atmosphere and slowly raise the earth’s temperature.

In its earliest phases, the Kyoto Protocol commits industrialized signatory countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 to an average of 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels. It allows the rich world to meet part of its obligations by financing projects in developing countries that achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and then claiming the certified emissions reduction credits (CERs) generated by these projects as their own.

While China, India and Brazil – all abundant potential sources of cheap carbon credits – have aggressively pursued such investment (collectively accounting for 58 per cent of all global transactions so far) Durban’s Landfill Gas to Energy project is the first in Africa to be financed. Under the Durban project agreement, 3.8 million tonnes’ worth of CERs will be sold for $15 million.

Its supporters say that the agreement will lead to emission reductions in two ways. First, it will capture the methane gas that is produced by rotting garbage in three city landfills, including the Bisasar Road facility. Second, it will feed the gas into a generator to produce electricity, which will reduce demand on the city’s dirty coal-generated power.

But its critics point to the wider debate over whether carbon trading serves the needs of the global poor, or forces them to bear the brunt of reducing greenhouse emissions while the West carries on with business as usual. They argue that such projects undermine the integrity of the Protocol by creating perverse incentives for countries and companies to keep polluting in order to attract investment.

To Sajida Khan, who lives across the street from the Bisasar Road Landfill, the dump once symbolized apartheid-era discrimination that lumped non-white communities with all the landfills and heavy industries that whites wouldn’t have in their own backyards. The community has fought for years to have the dump closed, saying that they have been exposed to toxic chemicals that have caused cancer clusters in the neighbourhood.

Khan has appealed against the project, arguing that it will prolong the life of the dump. ‘It will cause harm to people at an international level too,’ she adds. ‘Selling these credits to Northern industries is going to give them licence to increase their emissions there, and so people in the North who live around these industries will suffer too.’

Megan Lindow A longer version of this article appeared in the September 2005 edition of eAfrica, published by the South African Institute of International Affairs.

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