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GoetheInstitute

23/07/2007

Fools' gold and carbon credits

The trade in carbon credits is a cynical deal, says South African writer Zakes Mda

Climate change is altering the face of the planet. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung asked writers from zones far and wide for first-hand accounts of how it is affecting them. Read also Leo Tuor on thawing snow in Surselva, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on a stifling Christmas in Nigeria, Romesh Gunesekera on how the rain foiled the plans of the perfect farmer, and Kiran Nagarkar on the smogs of Bombay, and much much more... All the stories here.

Senator James Inhofe, a leading light of the American right (pardon the oxymoron) has declared that global warming is "the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on Americans." This is a troubling statement from a lawmaker. But for me what is more disturbing is the cynical attitude of those global warming activists who salve their consciences by purchasing carbon credits while they continue destroying the earth with their lavish lifestyles. Flat-earthers have been with humanity since the beginning of time, and each age will have its own Inhofes or George W. Bushes. But the progressive people who are aware that the world has a fever – to borrow Al Gore’s favourite phrase – yet engage in unbridled consumption habits that contribute to excessive carbon dioxide and methane emissions are more dangerous. The danger lies in the fact that in all their good intentions they are not alleviating global warming. Instead they are causing more problems for the peoples of the developing countries whose political and business leaders see carbon credits as the new gold.

I see carbon credits as fools' gold or pyrite. For one thing they perpetuate the dependency mentality that has to-date destroyed Africa. Once more the industrialized West is seen as the saviour. Development projects that should have been undertaken in any case can now be accomplished in exchange of carbon credits. Theoretically everyone wins: Africa can milk this new source of financing development and the West can continue polluting the world with clear consciences.

My country, South Africa, also hopes to enjoy the short-term benefits of global warming. Already carbon credits trading consultants are descending like vultures, angling for environmental friendliness in existing projects in order to create carbon credits to sell to the Europeans. In the meantime, communities in the marginalized urban slums and rural areas have to bear the brunt. In Durban a community has to contend with a landfill of toxic waste coming from the wealthy areas. This dump has made residents sick for years, but now it must be kept open to produce methane that will be turned into "clean" electricity, thus qualifying for carbon credits. Elsewhere in Africa afforestation and reforestation using fast-growing alien trees encroaches on agricultural lands and threatens to impact seriously on food security.

Southern Africa is the most vulnerable region for global warming, and already we see prolonged droughts that affect food production. South Africa ranks among the top 15 world biggest polluters due to the heavy dependence on coal and the fact that mining is energy intensive. The country therefore has the potential of being the largest producer of carbon credits by finding ways to reduce emissions. But when carbon credits are used for poverty alleviation it leaves room for corrupt leaders to shirk their responsibility of developing their countries and instead indulge in grandiose schemes aimed solely at the carbon credit dollars and euros.

Introducing incentives of the free market into pollution control is not a bad idea for the wealthy classes of both the West and the developing world. But very few of the benefits trickle down to the poor. Instead it gives the wealthy classes carte blanche to waste as much energy and their plants to spew as much poison into the atmosphere as they like. It is for this reason that I see the wonderful trade in carbon credits as another way of accelerating the killing of the world.

*

The article, written in English, originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on May 24, 2007.

Zakes Mda (website) is South African writer of novels, plays and poetry. He has won numerous awards including the 2005 Notable Books Award of the American Library Association.

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