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Last Updated: Monday, 3 July 2006, 22:59 GMT 23:59 UK
Slow burn for Africa's climate
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Sudanese people collecting water (AFP/Getty)
Climate change is a serious and long-term challenge that has the potential to affect every part of the globe
Gleneagles communique
With oft-repeated fanfare, Tony Blair and other British ministers declared Africa and climate change their priorities for the British G8 presidency in 2005.

So you might think that the communique and action plans from last July's Gleneagles summit would be full of promises to help the world's poorest continent deal with the planet's most serious long-term environmental issue.

And you would be right.

Between them, the Gleneagles documents pledge to:

  • Help Africa "improve resilience and integrate adaptation goals into sustainable development strategies"
  • Work to increase the use of renewable energy within the continent
  • Strengthen the Clean Development Mechanism, a Kyoto Protocol process with the potential to help poor countries set up renewable energy facilities
  • Work to tackle illegal logging
  • Improve Africa's capacity for environmental and climatic research

These are clearly issues for the long term; the best will and the best resources in the world cannot suddenly protect a continent against climate change, or swap its fossil fuel plants for solar panels overnight.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking what has happened in that single year? What have the G8 countries done to follow through on their pledges?

If this year is too early for change to arrive, do we at least have firm indications that it is on the way?

Urgent issues

At the end of June, the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) released its second Environment Outlook for Africa.

Hydro-electric dam.  Image: Eyewire
Only a fraction of Africa's hydro-electric potential is exploited
It too speaks of the key role of carbon-free energy in economic development and environmental protection.

"I think in the last year what has happened is increasing awareness about the need to research about renewable energy and the primary energy supply," says Njeri Wamukonya, an energy programme officer with Unep and one of the report's authors.

"The area that has been advancing is hydropower. There's been increasing investment in various countries including Rwanda; and Ethiopia has a major programme to increase its hydro capacity and export it to Kenya."

But only about 5% of Africa's hydropower potential is exploited, Unep contends, with Western agencies reluctant to invest.

In East Africa, there is growing interest in geothermal energy, with the Kenyan government setting in train projects to explore the potential of the hot rocks lying below the floor of the Rift Valley.

Uptake of other technologies remains marginal, with the relatively low availability of wind and the high cost of solar panels making them unattractive.

Kyoto calling

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is designed to ease such technologies into the world's poorer regions.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, richer nations with emissions targets to meet can choose instead to invest in clean energy systems in developing countries, receiving carbon credits for so doing. It is a win-win concept.

In terms of Africa there is a need to create a more equitable distribution of CDM projects
Joanna Lewis, Pew Center

There was some discussion of the CDM at the Gleneagles meeting a year ago, and substantially more at the UN Climate Change Convention summit at the end of the year.

Since the Montreal summit, things have changed, with extra resources given to the CDM centrally.

At the beginning of June, indeed, the UN announced that it had registered CDM projects equivalent to the annual emissions of Britain and Spain combined.

But where are these projects?

"The leading countries are India, China and Brazil," says Joanna Lewis, a senior international fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Washington DC.

"In terms of Africa there is a need to create a more equitable distribution of CDM projects."

Of 210 projects registered at the beginning of June, only five were in Africa.

As yet, then, the CDM is not bringing Africa the renewable energy revolution promised at Gleneagles.

Trading timber

Reducing illegal logging, another of the Gleneagles pledges, would bring a number of benefits to Africa, including some amelioration of human-induced climate change.

Here the European Union has been taking a lead through the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (Flegt) programme, a series of bilateral initiatives between timber producing and timber consuming countries.

Flegt was discussed in G8 circles in the run-up to Gleneagles, and G8 ministers did commit to help developing nations combat illegal logging and to introduce or modify import policies, albeit in such general terms that a firm promise is hard to find.

But while the removal of wood from forests in Asia is decreasing, in Africa it is increasing, according to the UN.

Adapt and survive

Sand dunes.  Image: SPL

Unep believes firmly that environmental protection is not just about some abstract good; it is about people, economies, and sustainable livelihoods.

Climate change, it says, threatens all of these; and Africa should be helped to adapt, as the G8 pledged.

The clear subtext of the G8 premise was that Africa could be helped in isolation; that specific programmes aimed at poverty alleviation and environmental protection could safeguard the future of a continent buffeted by global trends.

But climate change, of all environmental issues, is global in nature. Emissions reductions, wherever they are made, will reduce the climatic alterations which promise much of the continent a warmer, dryer future.

Has the G8 made much difference to greenhouse gas emissions globally? Not really; and it never could, given that the richest and most powerful of its members, the US, makes no pledges on the issue, and that many of its other members may fail to meet their Kyoto Protocol commitments.

And with the future of the protocol in doubt beyond 2012, the current rush to develop CDM projects may, says Joanna Lewis, ease off soon.

Statist solutions

George W Bush and Tony Blair.  Image: AP
The G8 summit failed to make firm pledges on reducing emissions
But perhaps the worst accusation against the G8 club of rich nations is that they are themselves buffeting Africa with stronger winds than it can stand, even as they proffer a helping hand.

The role of the World Trade Organization, the theologies of the IMF and World Bank, and the impacts of market liberalisation all attract the ire of some expert observers.

Njeri Wamukonya sees privatisation of the energy supply as a particular problem for Africa.

"That has been a major factor in delaying investment," she says.

With the best will in the world, G8 governments are not going to reverse the trend of 20 years and urge African governments towards state-directed solutions for their energy supplies.

They can admit no alternative to the view that markets, admixed with a little aid and legislation, can solve the continent's environmental problems as well as its economic ones.

That is a thesis which remains to be examined in the climatically stressed years ahead.


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