Challenges as Kenya heads for climate talks


By Lillian Aluanga

Starting this week, the world’s focus shifts to Copenhagen, Denmark, for a meeting that will determine humanity’s future.

Dubbed COP 15, the UN Climate Change Conference will be the 15th for parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — an international environmental treaty.

The main objective of this treaty, signed by 190 nations, is to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions, which are causing a rise in global temperatures. Greenhouse gases are those that trap heat in the atmosphere. They include carbon dioxide and methane.

Kenya is already feeling the impact of the world’s greatest challenge. And as world leaders, researchers and environmentalists assemble at the Bella Centre — a nation reeling from the effects of environmental degradation will be seeking to add its voice to the clamour for change.

Starving masses

Already, glaciers on Mt Kenya and Kilimanjaro are melting, jeopardising the future of rivers like the Tana. Periodic floods and drought have left a trail of starving masses and depleted herds.

At the Coast, a rise in sea surface temperatures is bleaching coral reefs and threatening marine life and infrastructure. Across the country, irregular rainfall patterns have disrupted planting and harvesting seasons. Areas once considered ‘cooler parts of the country’ are battling highland malaria.

As politicians bicker over the Mau Complex, scientific evidence shows deforestation accounts for about 20 per cent of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. So seriously is deforestation being taken that a Draft plan-Reducing Emissions from Defforestation and Degradation (REDD)- is hoping to get the nod at the conference. The plan aims to end destruction of the world’s forests in 20 years, first by halving deforestation rates by 2020 in poor nations, and eradicating it by 2030.

"Climate change is with us and we can see the signs. What Kenya should be concerned about is adapting to this change," says Science and Technology Innovations Director Shem Wandiga.

The lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Chemistry Department says while the Government’s response to the subject has been encouraging; recognition of climate change must be factored into national planning.

"Climate change cuts across all ministries and is not restricted to the Environment and Agriculture dockets," says Prof Wandiga.

A study conducted by the Stockholm Environment Institute shows existing climate variability has had significant economic costs in Kenya.

The Economics of Climate Change in Kenya, a study funded by the Department For International Development and the Danish International Development Agency, places Kenya’s continued annual loss from periodic floods and droughts at $0.5 billion. For instance, the 1997/98 floods, which affected nearly one million people, cost the economy $1.2 billion in infrastructure damage, public health effects and loss of crops. The 1998/2000 events cost $2.8 billion, including reduced hydropower generation and water supply.

This year drought has been blamed for major economic costs, including restrictions on water and energy supplies.

Wetland loss

The report says coastal flooding from sea level rise is projected to affect up to 86,000 people a year by 2030, besides leading to coastal wetland loss and coastal erosion.

Multilateral Environment Agreements Director Richard Mwendandu says the Government is alive to the challenges posed by climate change and that Kenya will join the rest of Africa in speaking in one voice at the conference.

"We intend to take a firm stand and remind the developed nations they must reduce their carbon emissions," says Mwendandu.

The Ministry of Environment official says although Africa is not responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, it bears the brunt of climate change effects.

"We will take a firm stand on compensation from the developed countries, as well as root for more affordable technological transfer, that would allow countries like Kenya to shift to green energy," he says.

‘Green Energy’ refers to sources of energy that are environmentally friendly such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. In Kenya, low carbon options being implemented include wind energy development, biomass energy projects and geothermal development in the Rift Valley.

"Kenya is nowhere when we talk about greenhouse gas emission and its contribution to climate change. But it is one of the countries greatly affected and is vulnerable to droughts," says former Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change Vice-Chairman Richard Odingo. About 60 per cent of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions are from South Africa.

Green energy

Odingo, who chairs the National Climate Change Activities Co-ordination Committee, says among issues of concern for Kenya is how to invest in green energy and the source of funding for it.

The lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Geography and Environmental Studies Department is optimistic Africa’s stand on issues at the conference will be stronger.

"For the first time since 1992 African countries are united and will speak as one at the conference. But after Copenhagen we must plan as a country on how to extricate ourselves from this crisis," says Odingo.

Both scientists believe adaptation to climate change in the energy, health and agriculture sectors is crucial for Kenya to enable it cope with the emerging challenge.

"We must appreciate that diseases like yellow fever, highland malaria and diarrhoea will be with us and we must find ways of coping," says Wandiga.

About 60 per cent of Kenya’s population is at risk from malaria, with experts warning that the exposure is likely to increase with climate change.

Economists propose accelerating development to cope with existing impacts such as integrated water management and electricity sector diversity as ways of reducing the impacts of climate change. Increasing social protection through cash transfers to vulnerable groups, building adaptive capacity in developing meteorological forecasting capacity and enhancing climate resilience by introducing flood protection measures have also been suggested.

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