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African Activists: The Earth Is in Peril If Wealthy Nations Don’t Slash Emissions & Pay Climate Debt

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As President Biden convenes a major climate summit, we speak with two leading climate activists from Africa about the “climate debt” rich countries owe the Global South and the major emissions cuts still needed in order to avert the worst effects of the planetary emergency. “Given the scale of the crisis right now, the only thing that is going to get us out of it is not going to be baby steps in the right direction,” says Kumi Naidoo, special adviser for the Green Economy Coalition’s Social Contract Initiative, as well as the former head of Greenpeace International. “It’s going to be big, bold, courageous, structural and systemic change to every aspect of society.” We also speak with Dipti Bhatnagar, international program coordinator for Climate Justice and Energy at Friends of the Earth International, who says that while new pledges by the U.S. to cut emissions are “going in the right direction,” it’s still not enough. “We’re calling on the U.S. to do its fair share of emissions reductions, and what that means is four times of what the U.S. has put on the table.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. By the way, you can watch, listen and read transcripts using our iOS and Android apps. Download them for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store today.

As we continue to look at President Biden’s climate summit and the state of the climate emergency, we end today’s show with two leading activists from Africa. Joining us from Mozambique, Dipti Bhatnagar. She’s international program coordinator for climate justice and energy at Friends of the Earth International. She also works on climate justice with Friends of the Earth Mozambique. And Kumi Naidoo is with us, joining us from Johannesburg, South Africa, special adviser for the Green Economy Coalition’s Social Contract Initiative, also a global ambassador for Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity and the former secretary general of Amnesty International, also former head of Greenpeace International.

So, Kumi, here in Washington, D.C., President Biden just is holding this two-day global climate summit. What do you think has to happen now? Your assessment of what’s happening there? And what do you see happening on the continent?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, firstly, I think we have to recognize that we are playing catch-up, that in fact because of foot dragging, particularly on the part of the United States, not only with Trump, but even with previous administrations, we have ended up with the situation that we are basically sort of one minute to midnight in terms of the climate crisis. So we have to be very clear that when we judge the summit, this summit must meet this criteria: Does what comes out of the summit reflect this reality, that the decade that we are in is the most urgent and most consequential decade in humanity’s history, and the changes that we make in this decade will determine what future we have or whether we have a future at all?

So, what we need to be looking at from this summit to judge whether it has understood the urgency sufficiently is whether in fact we get baby steps in the right direction or rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or whether we get a real commitment of understanding that we need structural and systemic change with regard to our economic system, our energy system, our food system, our transport system and so on. Bottom line is, given the scale of the crisis right now, the only thing that is going to get us out of it is not baby steps in the right direction; it’s going to be big, bold, courageous, structural and systemic change to every aspect of society. And right now, while the summit is moving in the right direction from where Trump was, I think it still needs to go a long way before, for example, it links the question of climate change and the question of inequality, which more and more people are recognizing is fundamentally linked.

AMY GOODMAN: During President Biden’s climate summit, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called on wealthy nations to provide more aid to developing nations to address climate change. This is what he said.

PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: It is important that aid on climate change should be provided separately and should not be a part of conventional development assistance. When it is given in the form of loan financing, the debt burden of developing countries is worsened. We call on developed economies, which historically bear the greatest responsibility for emissions, to meet their responsibilities to developing economies.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you comment on your president’s proposal, Kumi?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, just to be very clear, when developing countries, or countries in the Global South, as we prefer to say, when we are asking for support, whether it’s Asia, Africa, Latin America, Middle East, Caribbean, we’re not asking for charity. We’re simply saying, “Let’s recognize the history of this problem, that Europe, North America and other developed countries built their economy on dirty energy.” Now we are saying to poor countries, “No, you can’t do the same,” right? We’re saying to them, “You cannot make the same mistake that the rich countries have made.” And therefore, we’re not asking for charity here. What we’re asking is for redress. We’re asking for recompense. And we’re asking, basically, for rich countries to pay their climate debt, right? It’s clear. The statistics are clear in terms of the volume of the historical emissions and so on.

But the bottom line is this is not an act of charity, in two ways. One, it’s doing the right thing. But also, it’s in the self-interest of rich countries. Unless rich countries and poor countries get it in their heads now that we get it right as rich and poor countries acting together, and which might secure — and I say “might.” Let’s be very clear. We have left things so late that it is a question about whether in fact we can avert the worst of catastrophic climate change. So, that’s the spirit in which I think we need to be having the conversations right now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Dipti Bhatnagar into the conversation. Kumi Naidoo is in Johannesburg. Dipti is in Maputo, Mozambique. As you watch the global summit in Washington, your thoughts on what’s being proposed? A lot is being made of President Biden saying he’d cut carbon emissions of the United States, one of the biggest and historically biggest polluter in the world, by 50, 52% by 2030. What are your thoughts?

DIPTI BHATNAGAR: Thanks, Amy. Thanks for having me. Hi, Kumi.

As Kumi said, it’s really interesting that this summit is definitely going in the right direction and sending a signal that the U.S. is willing to work on the catastrophe of climate change, but the pledges that have come out of the U.S. until now are just woefully insufficient, Amy. So, the number you quoted just now, what the U.S. pledged on the table on Earth Day, is about 50 to 52% reductions, based on 2005 levels, by 2030. Friends of the Earth U.S., ActionAid US and many other groups put together what should be the U.S.'s actual fair share. So, when we talk about fair share, we're talking about the historical responsibility. And the U.S. is the biggest historical emitter, Amy, of greenhouse gases. So we’re calling on the U.S. to do its fair share of emissions reductions. And what that means is four times of what the U.S. has put on the table on Earth Day.

So, the U.S. actually needs to be committing to about 195% reduction in emissions based on 2005 levels. Now, obviously, that is not really physically possible within a single country. So what that translates to is about 70% emissions reductions in the U.S. itself, the domestic effort, and, at the same time, this has to come with a sense of solidarity, Amy. The only way that the U.S. can actually meet its fair share is to support our countries in the Global South, as Kumi was saying, to undertake this very, very essential energy transformation that we need, the system change that we’re going to need. So we’re calling on the U.S., along with U.S. organizations, for the U.S. to meet its fair share of emissions reductions. That’s just one part of what the U.S. has put on the table yesterday.

There’s also an element of climate finance that they’ve put forward, which is woefully low. And at the same time, Amy, there’s another element to this, which is fossil fuel financing, ending fossil fuel financing. So, what the U.S. has said is that the Development Finance Corporation is going to go net zero by 2040. And if you don’t mind, I wanted to spend a few minutes talking about this concept of net zero and just how dangerous and damaging it is.

So, net zero, basically, is a corporate strategy. It’s a smokescreen, Amy. It is put forward by the most polluting corporations in the world. And all these corporations suddenly have stepped up with these net zero targets. “We’ll do net zero by so-and-so year.” And you wonder: Why are they suddenly so eager to come with a target, where they’ve actually squashed climate science for decades? And it’s because net zero actually allows them to get away with continuing to pollute, continuing business as usual, because what net zero says is that we can suck the carbon back out of the atmosphere. So this is about offsets, and this is about so-called sequestering carbon. And whose land, whose forests are they going to so-called use for the offsets? Whose rivers and lakes are they actually going to use to sequester this carbon? It’s coming to our countries in the Global South, Amy. It’s coming to communities who are using their lands, their forests, their rivers to stay alive. And what net zero is going to do is trigger a huge land grab, more than that is happening already, in our countries of the Global South.

So, when the Development Finance Corporation of the U.S. says, “We’ll go net zero by 2040,” that means that the signal that they’re sending is that they want to continue polluting and that they’re going to go after other people’s lands and forests to be able to offset their emissions. So this is just extremely damaging. And that is something that we need to see really change, coming out of the U.S. and our own countries. I mean, I will stand up to our governments in the Global South to say, “Don’t accept this, because your people’s lands, your people’s forests are going to be really grabbed for capitalist expansion.” They just want to continue expanding markets. So, commodifying nature is the next market. And that’s something we are really, really fighting against.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get both of your comments on China’s role. The Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the climate summit Thursday, repeating his pledge for China to cap emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060. He also vowed to reduce China’s dependence on coal.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: [translated] We need to give full recognition to developing countries’ contribution to climate action and accommodate their particular difficulties and concerns. Developed countries need to increase climate ambition and action and make concrete efforts to help developing countries accelerate the transition to green and low-carbon development.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dipti and then Kumi, talk about China’s role, both in Africa and its effect on the planet — the U.S. and China, of course, the largest carbon emitters.

DIPTI BHATNAGAR: I thought that the Chinese sort of signal on coal was very, very interesting, because this opens up space for Chinese campaigners and for all of us to really push back against the coal that China is pushing, also in terms of financing in Africa.

Now, I want to be really, really clear that China is not a historical emitter. They do not bear historical responsibility for the climate crisis. And that is something we really do need to remember, that the countries that bear historical responsibility and have been the largest emitters need to do more and need to do it first. But at the same time, China is being a sub-imperial force in many parts of Africa, including Mozambique, where I am right now. The type of dirty energy projects that they’re pushing, the type of land grabbing and monoculture plantations projects that they’re pushing, is extremely damaging, and it is also grabbing community lands and destroying forests. So, we really need to be able to hold China accountable for its actions, while at the same time understanding that it’s not a historical polluter.

So, it’s really about that system change that we need to bring about, Amy, which is to hold everybody responsible that’s contributing to these oppressions that are deepening. And that also means challenging China as a new sort of colonizer in the continent and also continuing to challenge — and India, as well — and also continuing to challenge the Northern countries, the Global North, who have, of course, historical colonial extractive relationships with Africa. So we really need to be challenging all of that and calling for system change in order to be able to stop the climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Kumi Naidoo, the difference between the approaches of China and the United States, why it matters for Africa? And describe the effects of climate change in your country, in South Africa.

KUMI NAIDOO: Let me first endorse fully what Dipti said. And I think that the differences that we see right now between U.S. and China, in the end result, I wonder whether it’s going to be substantially different for us. Both actually are driven by a language of aid and generosity and so on. But, as Dipti says, we’re going to have to be extremely vigilant to ensure that whatever investments are coming, we can manage it the best we can and limit the damage, because, let’s be clear, things that are coming in right now, as Dipti said, some of the examples she gave from China, are actually causing a negative effect, as historically we have been having from the Western world.

But I think, for China, beyond what Dipti had said, which I fully endorse, I think — let’s be very clear — a 2060 target — the 2030 target is good. The 2060 one needs to be brought back, in terms of going completely carbon neutral. The reality is, whether we like it or not, when China decides to do something at the top, they can deliver and make it happen because of a different political reality. I think that it’s time that China does recognize, as the United States needs to, that it is in their self-interest to make these changes as fast as possible. And let me just say, in fairness to China, that historically, they have —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds to end.

KUMI NAIDOO: Oh, OK. So, I think now is the time for action. We must evaluate the summit not in terms of vague promises. We need to see what the implementation plan, and they need to be checked in Glasgow to make sure that this was just not another talk shop. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Kumi Naidoo, I want to thank you for being with us, special adviser for the Green Economy Coalition’s Social Contract Initiative, former head of Amnesty International and Greenpeace, and Dipti Bhatnagar of Friends of the Earth International.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe. Wear a mask.

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