Africa Prepares for Impact of Climate Change
There is wide recognition that Africa, the region least responsible for generating the polluting “greenhouse gases” that cause global warming, will need significant financial aid to cope with its effects. Whether this money will be available is an open question.
Africa is already struggling to find funds to lift its people out of poverty, and it has failed to attract investment in projects that will protect the African environment. Despite world leaders’ promises to increase assistance to developing countries, aid actually dropped last year by more than 5%.
In fact, poverty and environmental protection are closely linked, as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), Africa’s development blueprint, makes clear.
Nepad’s environmental action plan states: “Africa is characterised by two interrelated features: rising poverty levels and deepening environmental degradation … poverty remains the main cause and consequence of environmental degradation and resource depletion in Africa. Without significant improvement in the living conditions and livelihoods of the poor, environmental policies and programmes will achieve little success.”
African scientists argue that the continent is already making important contributions to the fight against global warming, primarily through its forests, which absorb and trap carbon dioxide — a principal cause of global warming. Africa is home to 17% of the Earth’s remaining forestland and fully a quarter of its dense rainforests, which clean the atmosphere of emissions caused by industrial polluters thousands of kilometres away.
However, forests in Africa are vanishing at a rate of more than five million hectares per year. They are cut down in wasteful and unsustainable commercial logging and “slash and burn” clearing for agriculture. Experts note that between 1980 and 1995, about 66-million hectares of forests were destroyed.
Despite initiatives like Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, a grassroots women’s campaign that has planted 10-million trees since 1977, the rate of deforestation is increasing. Green Belt Movement founder Professor Wangari Maathai is a Nobel Peace Price Laureate and the brainchild behind UNEP’s Billion Tree Campaign.
Nepad urges enforcement of sustainable logging laws and reducing agricultural demand for forest land by improving harvests on existing farms. But logs are an important export commodity for some countries, and reducing exports could cost jobs and create budget shortfalls that may be difficult or impossible to fill.
African and other countries have called on industrial countries to recognise the environmental value of forests and to pay developing countries to preserve them. To date, there are only a few small pilot programmes, and Africa’s efforts to combat climate change remain severely hampered by a lack of money.
Greening the market
The challenge of meshing urgent environmental needs with stubborn economic realities is not unique to Africa. The cost of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions has been a major obstacle to action against climate change, even for rich countries. Scientists argue that it is cheaper to cut emissions now and prevent the worst effects of climate change, but some governments push for slower and smaller reductions, pointing to the cost to industry and consumers and the risk of damaging the global economy.
In a major study for the British government in 2006, Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist for the World Bank, said that the nature of free markets prevent them from being greener.
It works like this: the financial benefit of manufacturing a tonne of steel, for example, is enjoyed by a small number of people — the mill owners, workers and shareholders. The cost, when measured in greenhouse-gas emissions and environmental damage, is borne by billions of people around the world over many generations. They pay through ill-health, polluted air and tumultuous changes in the climate.
There is little reason for mill owners to raise their own costs in order to reduce pollution. “Climate change,” noted Stern, “is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.”
Changing the economics by raising the producers’ costs of polluting is therefore an important part of halting global warming. One proposal is to tax greenhouse-gas emissions, but “carbon taxes” have encountered strong opposition and have been adopted by only a handful of governments.
A different way to put a price on pollution is the “cap and trade” schemes that have proven more popular since 1997 when the Kyoto pact limiting pollution emissions was adopted. Kyoto requires industrial countries that sign on (only the United States and Australia have not) to reduce greenhouse gases by about 5% from 1990 levels.
The agreement also established the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows heavily polluting industries to, in effect, buy pollution rights from countries with low emissions by investing in green projects there — thus keeping down overall emissions worldwide.
Carbon trading is now a $22-billion industry and Africa hopes to benefit from its low emissions by attracting CDM investments. It still can, but by mid-2007, it had received less than 2% of CDM projects worldwide. Experts say this is because of the generally weak investment climate in Africa. They point to a lack of sophisticated financial and marketing institutions, and limited administrative and management capacity.
But with the Kyoto agreement set to expire in 2012 and evidence mounting that the Earth is heating faster than expected, Africa’s green development agenda may yet benefit from efforts to change the economics of global warming.
“We have a very short window for stopping the rise in greenhouse-gas emissions,” Rajendra Pachauri, head of the influential United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told reporters in Bangkok in May. “We don’t have the luxury of time.”
Adapted from UN Africa Renewal
Additional reporting and Image by KEPN
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