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Climate Change and COP21


So, what was COP21 and why does it matter? Conference of the Parties (COP), also known as the Climate Conference, is a gathering of the countries that signed up to an international treaty, called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or “UNF-triple C”) in 1992. Last year’s COP in Paris was the 21st conference –COP21, and in 2016, Marrakech will host the 22nd conference –COP22.

At COP21, a legally binding commitment called the Paris Agreement was adopted by up to 196 countries that are parties to the UNFCCC. They agreed to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, in order to keep the rise in global temperatures to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with a target of 1.5°C as the aspiration. The French President Hollande, referred to the Paris Agreement as “a revolution for climate change”. While the US President Obama, said it demonstrated “that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge”. However the jubilant sentiment was not shared by all, Craig Bennett, the Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth, and Kumi Naidoo, the Executive Director of Greenpeace, among others, argued that the Paris Agreement was neither a sufficient nor strong enough commitment to cut emissions, let alone protect communities that are already being affected by the rise in incidences of floods, droughts and super-storms caused by climate change.

Tragically, studies show that global temperatures have already risen by up to 1°C above pre-industrial times, as a result of emissions –primarily of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and deforestation. The time to act is already running out, and the challenge is significant and rising, and experts say emissions must meet the COP21 targets by 2030 and reach a net of zero by 2050. But there is a lot more to do, as ultimately the Paris Agreement is not yet legally in effect. As a next step:

i. at least 55 of the parties to UNFCCC, that present 55% or more of global emissions, must consent to be bound by the Paris Agreement; and

ii. produce their final plans “Nationally determined Contributions” to meet the COP21 targets

China, US, EU, Brazil, Russia, India and Japan, play the lead role in the propagation of global warming which disproportionately affects developing countries. That said, all global business and political leaders must each accept the responsibility to step up and take the swift and strong action critically needed to save the planet. Individuals globally, must also exercise their responsibility to catalyze the speed of action by global leaders, by using wallets and votes wisely. It is no secret that consumer demand is a powerful force for change in business practices and public policy. A classical illustration of this is perhaps the Dolphin-Safe Tuna Labeling Act in the US, a bill that came into effect as a result of consumers wanting to know that their tuna was sourced in a sustainable manner –without a negative impact on dolphins.

At the London 2012 Olympics Uganda exuberantly celebrated the gold medal won by Kiprotich in the marathon, and following the success of Brazil in hosting Rio 2016, hopes have continued to rise for Olympic games held in Africa. However, a recent study published by Lancet suggests that by 2085, most cities outside Western Europe may be too hot to host the Olympics, and according to NASA 2016 may already be the warmest year on record.

Less than 4% of the world’s CO2 emissions is produced by countries in Africa, however the continent faces costs of USD7bn-15bn by 2020 and USD50bn by 2050, to adapt to the effects of climate change. This situation is most aptly summarized by the East African proverb “when elephants fight, the grass suffers”. Currently, 80% of Uganda’s electricity derives from hydropower, but as Lake Victoria continues dry up due to prolonged droughts precipitated by the global climatic situation, UETCL (Uganda Electricity Transmissions Company Limited) reports that only 470MW of the current 696MW of Uganda’s total installed hydropower capacity is actually available.

UETCL also reports that the demand for electricity on the grid has risen by 10% a year since 2005, partly due to the rise in urbanization, which is driven by the effects of changing rain patterns on rural livelihoods that are typically sustained by agricultural production. Consequently, the country was forced to incur financial and environmental losses by investing in 140MW using fossil fuel for power generation. A number of large hydro power projects are also under construction, but with the continued deterioration of hydrological conditions caused by climate change, it is highly unlikely that these new hydropower plants will ever operate at capacity.

Lake Victoria is most pertinently vital to food security, and the sustenance of human livelihoods and biodiversity along the entire river Nile, from Uganda to South Sudan, Sudan, all the way up to Egypt. In two districts of North Eastern Uganda– Moroto and Kaabong, USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network reported earlier this year that one fifth of people are in “crisis” and heavily dependent on assistance from World Food Program, due to the of dwindling harvests caused by the droughts exacerbated by El Nino. Farmers in North Western Uganda increasingly complain of the unpredictability of rainfall affecting their yields at harvests, while in the southern parts of the country, from Kasese to Kampala, a rise in torrential rains has increased the incidence of flash floods that destroy homes, businesses and crops, as well as displace thousands of people.

In sum, the new target of 1.5°C from COP21 is largely welcome as a significant move in the fight against climate change, especially because recent studies by the European Geosciences Union have confirmed that the extra 0.5°C difference in the global temperature rise, up to 2°C, could spell disaster! A lot more needs to be done and action needs to be immediate. Every country, business and indeed individual has a responsibility to act. Uganda, like other developing countries, and indeed the entire planet, remains highly vulnerable to the effects of global warming that are already too evident globally, as people continue to lose their livelihoods or lives pursuant to the rise in incidences of uncharacteristically prolonged heat waves, rising sea levels, dying coral reefs, changing rain patterns, floods and drought.