Environment: Ways to save a continent

Posted on Monday, 27 July 2009 10:42

A timely response is needed to the environmental crisis that

threatens Africa.The best opportunity for concerted action is in the

global deal being negotiated ahead of a major meeting in Copenhagen in


Africa’s future rests on a knife edge. Our planet’s climate is changing in ways that could spell disaster for millions of people across the continent. And yet there is a glimmer of hope that the global response can bring benefits for Africa.

African leaders must rise to the challenge to adapt their populations to the changing climate, and Africans and others worldwide must unite to call for a global deal that is fair to Africa when UN climate- change negotiations culminate in December in Copenhagen.

The global average temperature has risen by 0.6 degrees centigrade since pre-industrial times, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says human activities are 90% likely to be behind this increase. The fuel we burn, the forests we fell and the food we farm release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases are trapping heat and wreaking havoc with our planet’s sensitive climate systems. The IPCC says that impacts are already being felt and that future effects could be “abrupt and irreversible”.

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A problem that has been created elsewhere must be dealt with at home. Climate change will affect farmers in the highlands of Lesotho and pastoralists in Ethiopia. It will impact fishing communities in the Niger Delta and entrepreneurs in downtown Nairobi.

Africans everywhere need to understand this threat and work together to face it. More extreme climatic conditions will hurt the development prospects of every African nation. Africa’s vulnerability is shaped by its economic, political and institutional capabilities. Plans and strategies are being built, but Africa’s ability to adapt to change is hampered by a lack of infrastructure, health care, access to markets, finances and information.
As many as 70% of Africans live in rural areas and depend on agriculture and other climate-sensitive sectors. About 95% of African agriculture is rain-fed, and three-quarters of African countries are in areas where just a small decline in rainfall can lead to significant declines in water availability. By 2020, between 75m and 250m Africans could face water stress.

Already, millions of farmers are no longer sure when the rain will fall and in what quantities, making growing seasons unpredictable. In extreme cases, we can expect more droughts and floods like those hitting parts of Uganda in recent months. When such changes strike, they not only wipe out crops and leave a trail of hunger but also help spread diseases.

Research in Zambia has shown that floods and droughts can increase disease levels in some areas by up to 400%. Dysentery appears to increase with drought conditions, while pneumonia and malaria increase with rainfall. Like most African nations, Zambia has not yet developed any climate-related policies for its health sector.

Floods and droughts are clear dangers, but there is another creeping threat that is much less obvious. Few scientists believe it possible to prevent a two-degree rise in temperature given the current slow pace of international action. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, has warned that this means a sea-level rise of 0.4-1.4 metres due to the thermal expansion of water alone. Add to this the extra water that flows into the sea as glaciers and icecaps melt, and we have a threat that will redraw the map of Africa as the sea bites into coastal areas.

The IPCC concluded that if urgent steps are taken, climate change could be addressed at a reasonable cost. Economists agree that the costs of tackling climate change now are small compared to the costs of dealing with its consequences later. The world needs to respond to the climate-change threat urgently by drastically reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The sooner emissions are reduced, the smaller the need to adapt will be. The responsibility for reducing these emissions lies squarely with the world’s richest nations.

Clean development ?

In Africa, most greenhouse- gas emissions arise from people meeting basic needs, such as food and energy, mostly based on simple technologies, such as wood or charcoal stoves. Despite Africa’s low emissions, the continent has great potential to both limit climate change and develop sustainably through private investment and by gaining carbon credits in return for producing renewable energies such as hydropower, small-scale biomass, wind power, solar thermal power and geothermal power.

Kenya is Africa’s leading source of geothermal power. Nigeria has signed an agreement with the EU to explore non-oil-based development. German companies plan to invest $555bn in solar power plants in North Africa and sell the energy to Europe. Such investments in Africa have so far been small compared to other regions.

One reason for this is that Africa has not benefited from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM allows countries to meet their emissions-reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol with ‘clean development’ projects abroad that are cheaper than reducing emissions at home. But African countries have received only 3% of all CDM projects. While it makes environmental sense for African nations to adopt low-carbon development plans, what is more urgent is for them to adapt to the changes already happening that are bound to get worse.

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Adaptation can mean changes in technologies or behaviour. Work is under way across the continent, with a growing realisation that urban centres need adaptation strategies as much as rural areas. In Durban, the municipality now takes sea-level rise into account in town planning and infrastructure projects, while UN Habitat is working in Maputo and Kampala to redesign infrastructure to cope with a variety of climate-related threats found in the region.

In Dire Dawa, eastern Ethiopia, where flash flooding killed nearly 250 people in 2006, small dams are being built that will both hold back the floods and store rainwater for agriculture during droughts. Drought-tolerant maize varieties are also being developed by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation for farmers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa.

Whether it is offering farmers information on weather patterns and ways to diversify away from unstable crops, or telling residents in urban coastal areas under threat from flooding where and with what materials to build their houses, information programmes should form a central part of any adaptation strategy.

The funding required to support adaptation in Africa has been estimated at up to $50bn per year, while the globally available resources are only about $3bn in total (not per year).

Targets for mitigation

In December, governments will meet in Copenhagen to agree a new global deal for tackling climate change. A failure to address the needs of Africa would be a disaster. The science is clear about the scale of the threat and what must be done to face it. What is missing is political will from the richest nations.

For African nations, the time has come to stand firm and fight for a fair deal with specific targets for both mitigation and adaptation. This May, climate change was the focus of major meetings of African finance ministers (in Kigali) and environment ministers (in Nairobi). The AU summit in July adopted a common African position for the next round of climate negotiations. The momentum needs to be maintained and resourced.

A new climate-change deal that makes sense for Africa, considering its vulnerability and tiny contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions, needs to include the following:?

• Financial resources for adaptation: The need to adapt is fundamental for Africa. Effective adaptation is underpinned by the availability of sufficient, secure and predictable financial resources that enable the people of Africa to adapt to climate change. Africa needs a global deal that ensures that adaptation moves forward and that specific targets and milestones are set.

• Mitigation: The ultimate solution to climate change is in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, a responsibility that lies mostly with developed countries. Responsible countries must take on binding emissions targets.

• A focus on development opportunities in Africa: Africa’s emissions are tiny on a global scale, but all emissions add to the burden of climate change, so a fair deal should promote Africa-specific investments that help Africa to reach a higher development level without increasing emissions. This requires technology transfer, research and development, capacity building and specific targets.

• Carbon markets: Africa needs to participate and benefit from the carbon market. Africa must demonstrate its unique selling points and opportunities that exist for investors as well as guaranteeing a supportive policy environment. The range of projects eligible under the CDM should be expanded, with the rules simplified.

Climate change threatens to exacerbate poverty in Africa in a catastrophic cycle that requires urgent attention. Any climate-related problems will be a challenge, but combined they threaten to derail entire economies and cripple the ecosystems upon which the majority of Africans depend for their livelihoods.

It is very hard to put a price tag on climate change, as most economic analyses do not capture the value of the majority of livelihood activities, especially those in informal sectors. Current climate variability and major climatic events are already costing countries a lot of money. For example, on average, Kenya experiences a flood that costs about 5.5% of its GDP every seven years, and each drought costs the country 8% of its GDP.

The loss of even a few lives to an avoidable human-induced problem should not be acceptable. Sadly, mostly the poor, who have nothing to do with climate change, are affected by climate change, and their voices rarely get heard in debates about how to tackle the problem.

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