Fahamu (Oxford)

17 July 2014

Africa, Climate Change and Low-Carbon Economies - Is There Room?

analysis

Thinking about the problem of climate change in Africa from the angle of low-carbon economy can be useful as it addresses environmental, economic and technological matters of development all at the same time

Climate change is a topic that is of major concern to Africa, primarily because climate scientists argue, with evidence, that Africa is the continent most vulnerable to climate change while being the least able to adapt to its impacts [1].

This means that climate change has, and is expected to have, major impacts on the lives of Africans and their environment. From my experience, this topic receives less attention than it should among our otherwise educated and scientifically-inclined African youth.

Climate change is also a social problem, because responding to it requires social changes. The purpose of this article is to steer some attention towards the interface of technology and development in Africa from a climate change perspective.

Climate change has already started to affect the continent. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: 'In the [Sudanic] Sahelian region of Africa, warmer and drier conditions have led to a reduced length of growing season with detrimental effects on crops. In southern Africa, longer dry seasons and more uncertain rainfall are prompting adaptation measures' [2].

For obvious reasons, the economic resources of African countries are directed towards a list of priorities other than climate change. For example, while growing forests mitigate climate change, things are not that simple on the real ground.

Livelihood demands, especially for rural communities, make 70 percent of the African population dependant on forest consumption for fuel-wood. Also, there is an increased demand for energy, from the cheapest and most polluting resources to meet basic needs of economic development that are yet to be fulfilled.

Such conditions indicate why adaptation to climate change in Africa is one of the toughest environmental and developmental challenges to the present and near future generations.

WHAT IS A LOW-CARBON ECONOMY?

A low-carbon economy, or a decarbonised economy, is one where the supply chain of products and services is attentive to its carbon footprint and effectively integrates changes that lower that footprint to significant degrees [3][4].

Carbon dioxide emitted from human consumption of energy, as an unintended consequence, is considered by far to be the single most contributing element to climate change. This consequently calls for the need for strategies to reduce carbon emissions on local and global scales.

Let us briefly address the role of technology and policy in defining low-carbon economies. Then we shall also address some challenges to economic development that are posed by the concept of low-carbon economy in the context of Africa.

TECHNOLOGY AND POLICY - A TEAM WORK

In scenario forecasts and computer models that help foresee the impacts of different approaches of adaptation to climate change, technological means of adaptation are generally not included as a factor [5].

This means that the climate change debate often under-emphasizes possibilities of future technological advances, changes and breakthroughs as solutions for climate change.

While it is understandable, to a degree, that one cannot base scenario forecasts on a big assumption that some technological innovations will appear and become game-changers, this always leaves us with the possibility that technological adaptation to climate change is an area that should continue to be explored.

Everett Rogers, in his book 'Diffusion of Innovations', provides a tidy conceptual definition of technology: 'A technology is a design for instrumental action that reduces the uncertainty in the cause-effect relationships involved in achieving a desired outcome.' [6].

Usually, he continues, a technology has two components: (1) Hardware aspect, represented by the material or physical embodiment of a tool; and (2) Software aspect, represented by the information base for the tool.

Based on this definition, the climate change problem has all the criteria of a technological problem. We need instrumental action to reduce the uncertainty of the global living conditions affected by climate change, and the desired outcome is to abate and mitigate the threats facing humanity due to climate change.

While the hardware aspect, in Rogers' definition, is self-explained, we can also say that the software aspect represents the social structure of understanding the purpose of the technology and the proper way to use it. The building of that social structure is a mission of policy making and implementation.

Johan Galtung, in a study paper sponsored by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and titled 'Development, Environment and Technology: Towards a technology of Self-reliance', suggests that technology implies human modification of natural ecological cycles thereby turning ecological cycles into economic cycles.

Technology, therefore, is modification of ecological cycles into economic cycles - and there are different kinds of technology: of extraction, of transportation/communication, of production, or consumption, and of ecological balance.

Social arrangements are critical in this process: 'Tools do not operate in a vacuum; they are man-made and man-used and require certain social arrangements to be operational.' [7].

While the general purpose of technology could be perceived as the betterment of human conditions, Galtung points out that not all modifications of natural ecological cycles seem to achieve that; indeed some seem to do quite the opposite (such as military technology, for example).

In the policy sector, there needs to be a framework that guides technological endeavors towards goals that are consistent with the good of humanity. Between the two of them, technology and policy provide a strong team to address climate change challenges.

Investing in technological R&D (research and development), promotion, and implementation can prove to be highly critical for shifting climate change mitigation strategies towards more optimistic scenarios.

For example, France is hailed by many is an energy model of the future due to the fact that 75 percent of its electricity is generated from nuclear energy stations, which make France the leading low-carbon economy among the industrialized countries and arguably in the world. Also, the Canadian province of Ontario generates 50 percent of its electricity through nuclear power stations.

The Ontario Power Generation Corporation states that nuclear energy "has two major benefits - low operating costs and virtually none of the emissions that lead to smog, acid rain or global warming.' [8].

Other nations may have to take bolder policy decisions and shift to nuclear energy, especially that the popular perceptions about the dangers of nuclear energy do not match the empirical data and the majority voice of technical experts [9].

And while solar, wind, tide and geothermal energy sources are not yet strong, affordable or efficient enough to replace fossil fuels, there is certainly more room for improving the quality and quantity of these renewable resources.

Germany, for instance, has been able to produce 18 billion kilowatt-hours from solar photovoltaic energy in 2011, and is planning for a target of 35 percent of its power generation from renewable energy sources by 2020.

Some sources are even hopeful that 100 percent of Germany's power - with the right technology and policy combination - can be generated from renewable energy sources by the year 2050 [10]. Other parts of the world which are endowed with more solar and/or wind energy exposure than Germany - such as Africa - can invest more on that track.

The main recipe, that is required for these types of responses to climate change to work, has both technology and policy as critical ingredients. This is why the OECD recommends technology and policy packages to achieve low-carbon economies [11].

CHALLENGES TO ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT ISSUES

Some of the positive aspects of the low-carbon economy concept are that it addresses carbon dioxide directly as a main target, and that the concept seems to support continuous investment in technological R&D for reducing carbon emissions. Some problems exist, however, with the concept and its indicators.

One problem is that it obscures the reality of challenges to sustainable and equitable economic development around the world. The terminology of low-carbon economy, because of over-generalization, does not say anything of value about the reality that within each national or regional economy there are unequal consumers; hence unequal polluters.

In addition to that, indicators such as carbon emission by unit of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) further propagate the process of ignoring the existence of unequal polluters.

While some countries can be considered low-carbon economies due to their conscious investment in energy production without greenhouse gas emissions, other countries are low-carbon economies due to the fact that they are still struggling economically to provide sufficient power to the majority of their citizens.

This means that, from an equitable economic point of view, you would expect the former countries to decrease their carbon emissions even more, while you should expect the opposite from the latter countries.

Even within big-polluter countries that are expected to lower their carbon emissions, that responsibility does not rest evenly upon all the citizens, since they are not equal in their contribution to the level of greenhouse gas emissions. Another problem is accounting for the amount of pollution done by transnational corporations that are based in some rich-industrialized countries but carry their heavy-pollution activities elsewhere around the world. The concept of low-carbon economy can sometimes obscure these complex details.

THE NEED FOR ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVES

Perhaps a number of alternative policy perspectives can help keep the positive aspects and resolve the negative aspects of the concept of low-carbon economy.

Thinking about the problem of climate change in Africa from the angle of low-carbon economy can be useful as it addresses environmental, economic and technological matters of development all at the same time, and in a realistic fashion. I am going to conclude this article by questions that aim to stir thoughts and debates about the topic:

Question one: How can Africa achieve prosperity for the majority of its inhabitants who are currently living in unfavourable conditions, without taking the same path of modernization that was taken by the industrialized regions of the world--i.e. without human exploitation and environmental pollution?

Question two: With all the many pressing problems to worry about, is there room for African countries and communities to prioritize matters of responding and adapting to climate change? How would that rank with respect to "other" pressing priorities of education, health, economic self-reliance, and peace and security? How would/should resources be organized to address these overwhelming matters all at once?

Question three: What changes could be made to the concept and framework of low-carbon economy to suit the African context? And what role would technological solutions play in these changes?

NOTES

[1] Martin Parry, Cynthia Rosenzweig, Matthew Livermor (2005). "Climate change, global food supply and risk of hunger." Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 360(1463): 2125-2138.

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - IPCC ( 2007). Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers. Pg. 3.

[3] Tom Delay (2007). "Low-carbon Economy: What are the opportunities?" The EIC guide to the UK environmental industry. Retrieved October 14, 2013 from: http://tinyurl.com/nmc9tnk

[4] Greenpeace (2010). "Decarbonised Economy: Opportunities and responsibilities of the ICT sector in a changing climate." Retrieved October 14, 2013 from: http://www.greenpeace.org/india/en/news/Decarbonised-Economy1/

[5] Stephen Devereux & Jenny Edwards (2004). "Climate Change and Food Security." Institute of Development Studies (IDS) Bulletin, Vol. 35(3): 22-30.

[6] Everett Rogers (2003). Diffusion of Innovations (5th ed.) Toronto: Free Press. Pg. 13.

[7] Johan Galtung (1979). Development, Environment and Technology: towards a technology for self-reliance. New York: United Nations. Pg. 6.

[8] Ontario Power Generation Inc. - OPG (2000-2013). "Nuclear Power". Retrieved October 15, 2013 from: http://www.opg.com/power/nuclear/

[9] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - OECD (2010). Comparing nuclear accident risks with those from other energy sources. Report No. 6861 by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).

[10] Paul Hockenos (2012). "Germany's Grid and the Market: 100 Percent Renewable by 2050?". Renewable Energy World.com. Retrieved October 15, 2013 from: http://tinyurl.com/b6o3863

[11] OECD (2010b). Transition to a Low-carbon Economy: Public Goals and Corporate Practices.

- Gussai H. Sheikheldin is a Sudanese, post-graduate student at the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, University of Guelph, Canada.

* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM

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