Climate change goals trumped in Marrakech

Wednesday November 16 2016



President-elect Donald Trump. PHOTO | FILE

President-elect Donald Trump. PHOTO | FILE 

By GEOFF HILL

If an iceberg had fallen from the sky, it wouldn't have chilled the ongoing climate-change conference in Morocco like news of the US election.
More than 10,000 delegates, activists and science buffs were there for COP22, yet another round of the Paris Accord on climate change that became law on 4 November, signed by 195 heads of state including Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Barrack Obama is on board, but at a rally last month, Donald Trump made clear his position: "We're going to put America first. That includes canceling billions in climate change spending for the United Nations, a number Hillary Clinton wants to increase, and instead we will use that money to provide for American infrastructure including clean water, clean air and safety."
Not all bad. Mr Trump wants clean air and water, but the global NGOs, state agencies, academic think tanks and the multi-billion-dollar industry has become the green lobby need money.
Careers depend on it. So do worthwhile programmes like Africa's biggest wind farm on Lake Turkana or the solar panels going up in Ethiopia.
To protect the climate from rising CO2 emissions, everyone agrees on cleaner energy. But there's dissent on how to get there, with pragmatists saying it will need an evolution to new tech that allows fossil fuels like oil, gas a oil to burn with less smoke. The hardline want to tear down those generators and replace them with wave, solar, wind (some say nuclear, to others it's a swear word).
In Africa, this will be funded by the rich, and the Paris deal came with a kitty of $100bn.
Now, the world's biggest donor who, in the past half century has spent trillions on aid, loans and soft investment among poorer nations, looks set keep its money at home.
And delegates like those in Marrakech may have to do the same if no one pays their hotels and conference fees, fact-finding tours (East Africa is a favourite in the northern winter) and air fares.
The meetings are known as a Conference of Parties (unkind types say "continuous party") and this one is CoP 22.
Yes, planes are among the worst when it comes to carbon and greenhouse gas, but how else do you get to a COP in Durban, Nairobi (2006), Japan, the Cancun resort in Mexico and Paris where the deal was finally signed.
The treaty agrees to limit emissions and keep a rise in temperature below two degrees.

African cities
The wisdom of COP is simple: solar panels and wind farms are good, and we need to stop using coal to make electricity. But while Kenya relies on geothermal power from volcanic heat along the Great Rift Valley, South Africa gets more than 85 per cent from coal, ditto Botswana. Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria talk about using more, not less.
The Obama government has opposed carbon fuel even though the US is the world's second-worst for greenhouse gas after China. The EU is number three.
And as the election looked good for Hillary Clinton, then people left her Victory HQ in New York and the fireworks were cancelled, delegates in Marrakech punched their iPads and followed the news online, forgetting perhaps that data centres for Google and YouTube use more power in a year than Uganda, Rwanda or Morocco.
One reason for this low consumption is that 95 per cent of the world's people living off the grid are in Asia and Africa.
In Europe, with their heating, air conditioners, TV in the lounge and each of the kids' rooms, washers, dryers and hot water on tap, a small town can use more power than a country in the developing world.
Walk through most African cities and you'll hear the chug of small generators. Better than nothing except the cost of that current is 10 times more than from a central source, no matter how its made.
Yes, drive past any town in Britain and you'll see wind turbines. And solar hot water has changed life for millions in Brazil, Australia and Africa.
But the Aussies still get two-thirds of their power from coal. Also the second-biggest export, after iron ore.
Not everyone in Sydney agreed with former prime minister Tony Abbott in 2014 when he said, "Coal is good for humanity." But it was hard to contest his view that it's, "an essential part of our economic future."
German energy minister Sigmar Gabriel has revised previous goals for letting go the black stuff.
Coal generators, he told an energy conference in Berlin, "will on no account be switched off in the next decade, in my opinion not even in the one after that."
Mrs Merkel had promised to cut CO2 by 95 per cent over the next 30 years. Now, even in Europe's biggest economy, this seems unlikely. Too many other commitments, and if Washington pulls away from climate change, it's bound to set a precedent at a time when the EU is facing a financial hole with Britain's withdrawal. And parties currently top of the polls in France and Holland have pledged to give their people a similar vote.
The good news is an Anglo-Indian firm in Madras has pioneered a system where 97 per cent of emissions from a coal-fired generator can be captured, and there's talk of the inventers being but up for a Nobel prize.

Who pays ?
So is this how we stop the melting polar ice caps and make sure Lamu and Mombasa aren't under water in 50 years time?
Solar is part of the future. The sun will burn for at least another five billion years and the Sahara or Kalahari is surely the place to use it.
The question after this week's election is, "Who pays?"
And while Africa may be a low consumer, in some ways we're more dependent. Vaccines, HIV drugs, even snake-bite serum must stay cool. Hospitals can't work without electricity and, where boreholes are deep, it's still the best way to pump water.
Everyone agrees on this, on the need to get more people connected to the grid, even power as a human right. It's not the destination that's in doubt at Marrakesh, but how to get there.
But the past year, for many COP activists, the echo chamber of their cause has boomed a single message: Trump can't win.
Well he has.
Does that matter for millions of students doing homework by a paraffin lamp? Unlikely.
But whether they get power any time soon will be more up to their own governments than anyone else.
What's for sure is the solutions need to be real. Cleaner ways of using what we've got, better distribution, fairer access, less people left out of the light.
On aid, Trump says, "Charity starts at home".
For Africa, policies on power may need to do just that.

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