by Patrick Bond

To explain environmental policy paralysis over the past quarter century, the hubris of Western governments’ delegations always looms large on my radar screen. U.S. climate czar John Kerry, for example, confirmed to Congress in July that the Biden Administration is unwilling to accept even rudimentary “polluter pays” logic. Asked by a Republican conservative, “Are you planning to commit America to climate reparations?”, Kerry answered, “No. Under no circumstances.” As for a new fund to pay compensation for what is termed “loss & damage,” Kerry emphasized, “We specifically put phrases in that negate any possibility of liability.”

He won’t be alone. South Africa, the continent’s leading greenhouse gas emissions source economy, also sends self-interested delegates to annual United Nations climate summits. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, the 15th Conference of Parties (COP), South African President Jacob Zuma joined leaders from four of the world’s top seven historic emitters: the United States, China, Brazil and India. After a side deal, they imposed a Copenhagen Accord with inadequate emissions cuts and no scope for climate reparations.

G77+China lead negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping warned a civil society meeting how some Africans in Copenhagen were “either lazy or had been ‘bought off’ by the industrialized nations.” He specifically observed how the Pretoria delegation “actively sought to disrupt the unity of the bloc.”

Two years later, Zuma hosted the 2011 COP17 in Durban, chosen by the UN in spite of awareness of 783 bribery charges against him stemming from a 1999 arms deal with French military firm Thales. In an email to Hillary Clinton, lead Washington negotiator Todd Stern celebrated the “significant success for the United States” in weakening what is termed “Combined But Differentiated Responsibility.” It was a classical case of climate policy imperialism.

Today, South Africa’s eloquent Environment Minister Barbara Creecy – the only white politician in the African National Congress (ANC) leadership – plays a powerful UN role. Context is vital since, as Presidential Climate Commission director Crispian Olver explained recently, her government is “dishing out mineral rights and coal rights to a whole range of, basically, a new elite emerging and – I don’t want to be too derogatory – it interfaces with the criminal economy.”

To illustrate, President Cyril Ramaphosa was an environmentally-insensitive mining tycoon who from 2005-14 sold coal in league with the endemically-corrupt commodity trader Glencore. Ramaphosa is now reversing a pledge to close South Africa’s coal-fired power plants early, made at the 2022 COP27 in exchange for a (dubious) $8.5 billion Western loan package.

Energy Minister (and ANC party chairperson) Gwede Mantashe recently accused climate activists of receiving Central Intelligence Agency funding for “a deliberate program to block development in a poor country like South Africa.” With his support, energy parastatal Eskom aims to build 4000 MW worth of methane gas-fired power plants, financed by 44 percent of the Just Energy Transition Partnership billions supposedly meant for decarbonization.

Yet methane leaks are a far more potent contributor to climate change than CO2 emissions (85 times worse over a twenty-year period). Ignoring this fact, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research proposed a national gas network, presumably after a desperate hiring search for the world’s few remaining climate-denialist ‘scientists.’

The sources of the methane gas are also diabolical. Creecy enraged environmentalists by recently approving TotalEnergies’ plan to drill for fossil fuels offshore Cape Town. She rejected last year’s court judgement against a similar proposal by Shell Oil and local gas-drilling ally Johnny Copelyn, partly won by community activists on climate grounds, but which is under appeal. Both Shell and Copelyn have been generous donors to the ANC.

At the same time, Creecy approved a pollution waiver for the continent’s largest coal-fired power station (Kusile), allowing the Eskom plant to emit lethal sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. Scientists predict this will kill several hundred nearby residents annually. She was also recently sued by the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance for allowing the Indian steel giant ArcelorMittal’s foundries to emit toxic hydrogen sulfide gases above legal limits.

In recent days, Creecy’s approval of a controversial biodiversity offset assisted a notorious Turkish floating fossil-fuel energy generator, Karpowership. Against intense opposition, she gave permission for three Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)-powered ships to operate from sensitive harbors. Threats to local air quality, marine life and the national greenhouse gas emissions budget, as well as the firm’s extremely controversial history, were all ignored.

In search of more immediate inputs for the new fossil-gas power plants, South Africa is moving up the Indian Ocean coastline to a war zone in northern Mozambique. Since mid-2021, more than 1200 SA National Defense Force (SANDF) troops plus Rwandan and other regional armies have taken over from the Wagner Group after the Russians were defeated by Islamic rebels in 2019.

Cabo Delgado is the site of one of the world’s largest gas fields. SANDF and regional soldiers’ defense of ‘blood methane’ extraction comes at the direct behest of French President Emmanuel Macron. In May 2021, he visited Ramaphosa (and Paul Kagame) a few weeks after guerrilla attacks forced Paris-based TotalEnergies to close its $20 billion LNG facility and declare ‘force majeure’ on what is the largest single foreign direct investment in Africa.

With ExxonMobil also benefiting from a refinery restart, naturally the U.S. Pentagon’s African Command is backing the war with optimism. So is the scandal-riddled Johannesburg private military contractor Paramount Group and a subsidiary it partially bought in 2021, the British-military team Burnham Global. They offer what conflict specialist Robert Young Pelton terms a “large support and training program with the Mozambique military, new gear, training and ‘mentors’ along with ‘contract pilots’ and support technicians aka mercenaries.”

Similar fossil-fueled military missions by SANDF troops occurred, catastrophically, in 2013 in the Central African Republic, and since then in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some troops there were fired last month for operating brothels, not far from where in 2010 a $10 billion oil concession was once awarded to Khulubuse Zuma, nephew of the then South African president Jacob.

As Africa’s leading political economist, Samir Amin, complained in his autobiography, “South Africa’s sub-imperialist role has been reinforced,” since the country’s liberation from apartheid in 1994.

In this context, Creecy was chosen to manage crucial UN functions by Sultan Al Jaber, the presiding officer from the COP28 host United Arab Emirates (UAE). In a blatant conflict of interest which he attempted to Wikipedia-greenwash, Al Jaber also serves as chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc). The Abu Dhabi firm intervened in conference management and was recently exposed for cheating on gas flaring.

And because of Al Jaber’s commitment to unworkable “carbon capture and storage,” former leading UN climate official Christiana Figueres called his approach “dangerous.” Adnoc’s extraordinary selfishness became clear when this week, BBC revealed documents “prepared for the UAE’s COP28 team for meetings with at least 27 foreign governments… They included proposed ‘talking points,’ such as one for China which says Adnoc is ‘willing to jointly evaluate international LNG opportunities’ in Mozambique, Canada and Australia.”

In the same spirit, Creecy will serve as COP28 co-leader of the Global Stock Take, measuring how seriously national states have cut their economy’s emissions. The exercise is anticipated to not only replace “phase out fossil fuels” language with ineffectual voluntaristic measures, but also disguise the world’s rising combustion and leakage of methane.

In Dubai Creecy also will oppose Europe’s “unilateral taxes in the name of climate action” known as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, as it is expected to mainly hurt high-carbon multinational corporations in countries like South Africa. Instead she will continue to support carbon markets, long considered to represent the privatization of the air. Over the last two decades, that strategy has failed in the world, in Europe – what with the market price for emitting a tonne of carbon falling 27% since March amidst revelations of 30 firms gaming the system – and in South Africa, especially the vulnerable coastal city of Durban. There, one result of government’s non-adaptation to climate dangers was a series of fatal Rain Bombs from 2017-22.

Creecy’s aide Richard Sherman co-manages COP28 Loss & Damage Fund planning, which in October nearly broke down. As he confessed: “It’s late, we’re tired, we’re frustrated. We have, to a large extent, failed you.”

Will COP28 contribute to worsening the climate catastrophe? With climate imperialists and sub-imperialists like Kerry, Al Jaber and Creecy in the lead, how could it not. On the other team, though, December 9 will be a global day of protest, against what will surely be remembered as the 28th Conference of Polluters.

Climate activist Patrick Bond is Distinguished Professor at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology, where he directs the Centre for Social Change.