Big polluters told: change or pay up

A member of the SAPS K9 search and rescue unit searches for a missing 23-year-old man in KwaNdengezi, west of Durban, on April 20, 2022. Picture: GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP

A member of the SAPS K9 search and rescue unit searches for a missing 23-year-old man in KwaNdengezi, west of Durban, on April 20, 2022. Picture: GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP

Published Apr 1, 2024


Durban — Experts believe a new approach could push “big polluters” towards understanding how greenhouse gases emitted from their operations contribute to climate change and the devastation that often hurts the poor the most.

To crystallise the cause and effects of climate change on weather events, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) used the impact of the 2022 floods on Durban to drive home this message, which is contained in a report they launched last week.

The report, titled Polluters Pay, also delivered a warning that the law could be used to claim for losses and damages, even from the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.

It was compiled by Brandon Abdinor and Michelle Sithole supported by a team of researchers and experts.

In explaining the climate change phenomenon, the report stated that excessive greenhouse gasses – mainly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – were emitted through the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas).

The emissions cause the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to increase above the norm, and when the Earth receives heat from the sun’s radiation, it is then re-radiated outwards.

The result is additional heat being trapped, causing an increase in the global average temperature known as global warming, which can disrupt the planet’s climatic systems and cause extreme weather events.

The more than 300mm of rain that fell in a period of 24 hours in April 2022, which roughly represented a third of the mean annual rainfall for Durban, brought serious consequences for the people and the city.

Lives lost amounted to 443, and 48 people were reported missing. The deluge damaged more than 26000 dwellings. Some 600 schools sustained storm damage, which affected learning. Damage was reported at 84 healthcare facilities.

The KZN government estimated the total economic loss to be R17 billion.

Some of the infrastructure damage brought on by floods of April 2022. Picture: Supplied

Professor Catherine Sutherland of the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a report contributor, said the floods affected all Durbanites in some way or the other.

Sutherland contributed by telling stories of the impact on poor communities.

“Big polluters get to see the actual effects on ordinary people and how they pushed back development and people’s ability to deal with poverty.”

Sutherland said it was groundbreaking to use localised stories to show the impact of climate change, with the hope of getting big polluters to take responsibility for their actions. Failing which the next step was the legal route.

“We do understand that such court matters will take years, but it’s going to happen more often in the future.

“What we want to do is to put out the first line of the argument, it’s almost like an advocacy attempt. We are trying to appeal and negotiate with them and say look at what this report is saying.”

Sutherland said they hoped companies to relook at how they do things.

“I have hope there is a moral compass inside everyone and they would respond to the real stories of ordinary people and it won’t be a case of business as usual. If not, they must be prepared for communities making legal challenges.”

Sutherland said communities taking on major corporations was a massive challenge that would also require lots of expert knowledge and evidence to strengthen arguments.

“The companies too have top scientists who can present massive rebuttal arguments,” she said.

Sithole, an attorney with CER, said taking on the big polluters was “a fairly new area of the law”.

“So this is likely to be a challenge. A lot of people are trying to explore how they can hold big polluters accountable, but it is not insurmountable.”

“The idea for the report was essentially to see if the carbon emitters could be held liable for the damages and pay compensation to the city, which would make sure they were more resilient to climate change impacts.”

She said it was also important to send a strong message to polluters by indicating to them that they were being watched.

“You need to stop emitting greenhouse gases. It’s likely communities and organisations will bring claims against you.” Sithole said.

Sunday Tribune