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Wrecked by climate change, Kenya still blows hot and cold on fossil fuels

By Frankline Sunday | December 8th 2019
Residents of Sintan village in Baringo South wade through floods on December 6,2019 after river Perkerra broke its banks.


Recent floods in parts of the country have cast the spotlight on effects of climate change and its cost to the Kenyan economy.

The spike in seasonal rainfall has already led to deaths of more than 100 people and displaced tens of thousands, according to humanitarian agencies.

“Cumulative rainfall since early October has been above average in many areas, with positive anomalies exceeding 100 millimeters according to satellite-derived data,” says the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net).

“A forecast of above-average rainfall through December is likely to have mixed effects.”

With more than half of Kenya’s economy relying on agriculture for sustenance, the impact of the erratic weather conditions experienced throughout this year will be felt in many households in the coming year.

“Above-normal rangeland conditions and favourable crop production are expected overall, but flood-induced property loss, crop loss, or above-normal livestock disease incidence and mortality is likely in localised areas,” says Fews Net.

At the same time, the flooding has damaged public and private infrastructure and exposed effects of poor planning and congestion in many urban areas.

Speaking at a panel discussion on climate change hosted by the BBC radio, Kenya’s High Commissioner to the UK, Manoah Esipisu noted that there are no “climate change deniers” in Africa.

The continent though, Kenya included, has its eyes on the vast fossil fuel resources. Nothing, it appears, will stand between the countries and their plans to extract such resources as oil, coal and gas and they have put up an emotional case for their plans.

Kenya, while currently having to grapple with the extreme weather patterns, is looking at oil production as key in adding another foreign exchange earner to tea, horticulture, coffee and tourism, the key earners that face unique challenges threatening their lucrativeness.

Some of these challenges have been linked to climate change.

It is also looking at generating cheap power using coal, both imported as well as locally sourced from the Mui Basin in Kitui County.

The exploitation of these resources is against climate change impact that has come at a heavy cost to the economy. The National Treasury recently noted that more than 70 per cent of the natural disasters in Kenya have  resulted from extreme climatic events such as droughts.

“The economic costs of droughts and floods is estimated to create a long term fiscal liability equivalent to about 2.4 per cent of the gross domestic product each year,” said Treasury Principal Secretary Julius Muia recently.

While trying to dissuade Kenya to abandon fossil fuels - at least in power generation - EU Ambassador to Kenya Simon Mordue noted how much the country has suffered from effects of climate change as shown by the floods and landslides.

“We have visited parts of this country, counties like Marsabit, Turkana, West Pokot...and the situation has been escalating,” said Mr Mordue, who also hailed a decision by the European Investment Bank to stop financing coal, oil and gas projects.

Currently, delegates from across the globe are gathered in Madrid, Spain for the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 to track and debate progress on the Paris Agreement on climate change.

According to the UN, many countries are not on track to fulfill their pledges (Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs) and even if they did, the planet would still miss the goal of cutting global warming levels to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The UN and climate change activists now want countries to fast-track their commitments and revise their NDCs to reflect the urgency of the moment.

Kenya’s NDC details an institutional framework led by the president who is supposed to chair a National Climate Change Council that will among other functions, “ensure the mainstreaming of climate change functions by the national and county governments” and approve and oversee the implementation of the National Climate Change Action Plan.

“The national government will fast-track the rollout of this NAP by putting in place the requisite enabling environment, including the institutional structures proposed in the Climate Change Act (2016),” explains the plan.

This involves working with various institutions in the public and private sector to enable the country fulfill its climate change obligations.

For example, under energy efficiency, Kenya has committed to enhance implementation of an energy generation mix plan that increases the resilience of the current and future energy systems to the impacts of future climate variability and change.

“In the past there has been heavy reliance on hydro power plants for energy production, which over recent years have demonstrated vulnerability to extreme events such as droughts and floods, projected to become more frequent with climate change,” says the plan.

“Rigorous incorporation of climate change considerations into current and future sectoral actions is required to build a resilient energy system that reinforces Kenya’s development.”

This is why the proposed Lamu coal power plant continues to face opposition with the African Development Bank (AfDB) last month stating it will not be investing in the plan as earlier thought.

AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina told Reuters that the bank took environmental concerns seriously and was focusing on renewable energy, adding that coal projects risked becoming “stranded assets” on the AfDB’s balance sheet.

In September, Adesina told the UN General Assembly “coal is the past, and renewable energy is the future. For us at the African Development Bank, we’re getting out of coal.”

AfDB will roll out a Sh500 billion investment line that is targeted at helping African countries transition from coal and fossil fuels to renewable energy.

This has left the Kenyan government and private investors Amu Power finding it increasingly difficult to justify building a Sh200 billion coal-fired plant.

The Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority has also raised concerns about the coal plant, albeit from the point of view that it would increase power generation without commensurate demand and result in idle power.

Investment firm Centum, one of the first to put its money in the Amu Power consortium, last week said it had booked a Sh2.1 billion loss provision because of the uncertainty around the coal power plant.

Even as major financing institutions such as AfDB and EIB shun coal and oil, the coal plant still has support from the government. The Energy ministry says the plant will offer cheap power while complementing geothermal as a baseload - power that is almost guaranteed to be available - as opposed to sources such as solar and wind that are intermittent.

The government is also pushing for further exploration, and where resources are discovered, exploitation of fossil fuels. Other than Turkana that is almost ready to start commercial oil production, the Ministry of Petroleum is in plans to intensify exploration of oil and gas in other blocks.

Offshore Lamu holds great promise with previous surveys having shown the areas could possibly have huge reserves.

The ministry recently said it will recruit a firm to undertake the surveys and prepare the ground for the auctioning of new blocks in 2021.

Kenya is also intent on exploiting the coal deposits in Kitui County. The coal was discovered more than 10 years ago but there has been a push and pull on multiple fronts that has prevented it from being mined.

The government has even awarded a contract to a Chinese firm to mine the coal but area residents as well as pro-environment lobbies have pushed back, arguing that the exploitation will do more damage than good for the region.

Use of dirty fuels to generate power has in the past been a source of major difference between the Cabinet secretaries for Energy and Environment, with the latter urging the country to focus on generating energy from renewable sources.

The Energy ministry on the other hand argued that there is a need for a diversified energy mix.

The African Energy Chamber recently put out a statement that, while it did not deny the negative impact of fossil fuels on the environment, strongly argued for continued exploration and production of oil and coal.

It noted that against the background of climate change debates, “Africa finds itself in an unfortunate position where it is required by the global energy industry to slow down its progress and not explore its hydrocarbons potential to its fullest.’’

“This is not right,” said the chamber, which draws membership from companies, local and multinational, operating in Africa.

“We do not deny the impacts and severity of climate change. However, we believe the energy transition should be gradual and considerate of the power gap exists in Africa,” said the statement.

“On the continent, our obligation as industry leaders is to ensure that Africa’s people have access to energy. Energy poverty is Africa’s most critical concern. For us, it is a life and death situation.

“In Africa, over 600 million people still do not have access to power. And, we remain a net importer of energy yet we boast 125 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.”

The organisation argued that the Western countries pushing for the abandonment of fossil fuels developed on the back of the dirty fuels that they are now castigating.

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