Kampala — African countries must meet urgently to establish a continental protocol similar to the Kyoto Protocol that will allow the continent to get into the lucrative business of selling clean air to rich nations that continue to pollute the atmosphere.
The urgency for such an agreement was driven home on Monday by the World Bank's former chief economist Sir Nicholas Stern who warned in a 700-page report that global warming will cost the world economy $7trillion in lost productivity. Okay, in very simple words, why should this concern Africa?
The problem simply is that industrialised nations in Europe, North America and the Far East have got rich at the expense of the global environment.
Toxic fumes from automobiles and factories in these countries have created an accumulation of greenhouse gases such as water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexaflouride, HFCs and PFCs that pollute the air we breathe.
More important, scientists now believe that these gases are responsible for the rapid warming of the earth which in turn has brought about rising sea levels, altered patterns of agriculture, extreme weather events, and the ever expanding range of tropical diseases.
Nine years ago, in Kyoto, Japan, upon realising that their industries were contributing to serious pollution of the atmosphere, rich countries came together to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol.
The protocol is an agreement under which industrialised countries will reduce their collective emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2% compared to the year 1990.
Each country is responsible for setting national targets which range from 8% reductions for the European Union, 7% for the US, 6% for Japan, 0% for Russia. Now, here is why continental Africa must join forces to come up with a single continental protocol on the environment.
Foremost, with large areas still covered in natural green forests which are crucial to getting rid of carbon dioxide, and contributing to clean air, African nations have a vested interest in ensuring the preservation of forest resources.
A continental protocol would spell out how nations must protect existing forests, and plant new ones. Under the protocol a country with natural growth forests must submit for independent continental review any plan to harvest the trees or to clear the forest for industrial use.
For example, the Uganda government's plan to turn part of Mabira Forest Reserve into sugarcane plantation would fall under such a protocol. The basic principle being that what is yours is really ours - clean air generated in Uganda or Congo or Cameroon or Angola is good for the whole world.
Secondly, to keep the continental environment clean, the protocol would spell out anti-dumping laws that would protect Africa from industrialised countries keen to dump waste products on the continent.
The spectre of just such an event was realised in Cote D'Ivoire in West Africa last month. In fact, had there been a continental protocol, the fear of a very hefty penalty for allowing its territory to be used for the disposal of industrial waste from rich nations, would have deterred Cote D'Ivoire from accepting the toxic waste.
After all, the tragedy that unfolded in late August began a month earlier when a Greek-managed tanker (flying a Panama flag) called the Probo Koala docked in Amsterdam.
The ship was filled with unrefined gasoline and other unnamed chemicals belonging to the multi-billion dollar Dutch company Trafigura Beheer BV.
The original plan was for the ship to offload its deadly cocktail in Amsterdam to be disposed for a meagre $15,000. However, when the disposal company called Amsterdam Port Services realised there was a lot more inside the cargo ship, it demanded that Trafigura shell out $300,000 for the clean-up.
Trafigura refused to pay the amount, and the Probo Koala set sail first to Paldiski in Estonia, on to Lagos, Nigeria (where attempts to dump the cargo was thwarted), and finally to Abidjan, in Cote D'Ivoire where a local company called Tommy was contracted to dispose the sludge for roughly the original price.
The problem was that Tommy had only been set up for a couple of weeks earlier as a disposal company, and grossly lacked the very basic expertise for disposing such deadly cargo.
Chartered tanker trucks took the sludge from the ship and dumped the entire lot in open spaces and sewers around Abidjan, resulting in the release of toxic fumes that killed 10 people and made hundred of thousands of people very sick.
A French company is now wrapping up a very expensive environmental clean-up of the area around the city.
In a nose-thumping press release, the unapologetic company wrote, "Trafigura cannot be accused of taking an illegal cargo of 'toxic waste' to the Ivory Coast with the intention of 'dumping' it without regard for the consequences."
The point here is that an environmental protocol agreed for the entire continent would have made it very difficult for Trafigura to dump its waste in west Africa. not only would such a protocol forbid the actual movement of such dangerous goods near Africa's coastal waters, it would have the muscle to stop the ship and turn it around.
Finally, the world needs clean air, and Africa is in a relatively excellent position to sell clean air to the world.
A continental protocol would create a single powerful mechanism and formula for negotiating with rich nations the terms of financial payout for each African country for contributing its share of clean air - it surely would bring new meaning to the phrase "trading air".