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  • Climate change: Bring Africa in from the cold


For Africa to effectively adapt to climate change, the rules of the game must change in Copenhagen, says Araya Asfaw.

Africa is the continent most affected by climate change, yet it has gained the least from past climate change negotiations. 

In theory, the Kyoto Protocol should offer Sub-Saharan Africa a way out of the poverty trap by promoting clean development with minimum environmental impact. But its financial incentives for doing so, especially the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), do not favour African contexts. Only a handful of projects on the continent get funding from the CDM and almost all of these are in South Africa.

The CDM allows countries signed up to lowering their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol to invest in emission-reduction projects in developing countries instead of more expensive alternatives at home. Such projects can also earn saleable emission-reduction credits that can be used to meet Kyoto targets.

It is meant to stimulate sustainable development, while allowing industrialised countries to be flexible in meeting their emission targets. But it does not encourage good behaviour. For example, it does not support primary forest protection, only reforestation and afforestation. You have to clear the forests and replant them to benefit from the CDM.

Expanding the grid

More importantly, the CDM does not support projects to expand electricity grids with clean energy sources such as wind, hydropower, solar power or geothermal power — claiming that expansion does not replace dirty fuel. But in Africa, over 90 per cent of energy supplies come from unsustainable biomass burning. Though small, Africa's grid-connected electricity is clean. Electrification here actually displaces traditional fuel that is dirty.

Africa holds great potential for clean energy — it is blessed with plenty of sunshine and there are many untapped sources of hydropower. For example, the Co Co ngo River, which accounts for nearly 30 per cent of Africa's surface water reserves, could potentially generate 400,000 megawatts of power. The right combination of solar and hydropower could meet 80 per cent of the continent's electricity demands. But harnessing it means investing in the right technology and infrastructure.

Europeans are considering generating electricity with solarthermal technology in North Africa, importing it and connecting it to the grid. But because the CDM does not support solarthermal technology Africa itself cannot follow suit.

As many studies have shown, wind and hydropower are also complementary — when water levels are low, wind speeds are high. Technologies that combine the two would be effective if connected to the grid but, again, the CDM will not support investments in these.

Neither will it support cogeneration electricity plants that use biomass feeds, if they are connected to the grid. In Africa, most of these plants are found far away from demand centres and are only useful if connected to the grid. Similarly, capturing methane from municipality solid or liquid waste qualifies for the CDM, but electricity generated using the methane does not qualify if it is connected to the grid.

Non-edible oils such as castor, rapeseed, jatropha or moringa could be used in rural areas instead of traditional fuels to meet household energy demands for cooking, lighting or even running water pumps. But the cost of existing technologies and appliances puts them beyond the reach of the poor who earn under a dollar a day. Plant oil only qualifies for CDM funding if it is used for transportation unprocessed. But unprocessed plant oil does not meet US or European biodiesel standards so no one will buy it. Plant oils could also help displace fossil fuels in the cement industry but, again, there is no mechanism for funding this through the CDM. 

Sustainable technologies

Africa's energy requirements for meeting basic human needs are just one tenth of the per capita requirements in the developed world. What Africa needs to meet these are sustainable technologies such as advanced renewable energy carriers and efficient stoves.

Scientists are defining the planetary limits to save humanity from extinction. The upcoming international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in December will probably set global targets of 20 per cent emission reductions.

And the funding available for mitigation and adaptation projects is likely to be four times higher than that set out in Kyoto. If properly invested, it could help Africa develop rapidly with minimum human impact on the environment. This is what climate change negotiations should be all about. But unless the rules change, Africa will be once more left out in the cold.

Araya Asfaw is director of the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Centre at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.

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