Hysteria must not get the better of us

On a recent visit to Gokwe, I met a very hardworking woman farmer Mbuya, Chingarande. She explained that the rainy seasons had become substantially shorter over recent decades. As a result, she had quickly adapted her farming practices to survive.

Climate change is happening now and famers across Africa are using their deep local knowledge to adapt quickly and work with their challenging environments.

Traditional crops are no longer maturing quickly enough and as a result, farmers need to shift towards expensive fast maturing varieties. Many communities cannot meet this additional expense without outside help.

Furthermore, when the rains do come, they tend to be increasingly violent and often destroy young crops. Similar experience is recurring across much of Africa.

Relatively minor changes in the climate are having a devastating impact on a continent where hundreds of millions depend on rain-fed farming for their daily livelihoods. In the tropical zones of Eastern Africa, farmers traditionally obtain two harvests every year.

Nowadays, the short rainy season tends to be too short and too fickle to generate a second harvest. Climate change is no longer an abstraction. It is imperilling livelihoods and threatens to undo hard won development progress made in recent decades.

It is therefore of great concern that expectations have once again been lowered ahead at the UN climate talks in Durban. The unfortunate lack of political leadership, particularly among rich countries, has meant that operational solutions at an international level have yet to be found.

Although climate change affects everyone, Africa stands to lose the most from further delays in tackling the impacts of climate change. Durban must therefore not be another tiny step in a complex ritual of international climate change negotiations.

Yet, climate change also presents a unique opportunity to transform Africa’s development path.

To ensure that Africa moves along this transformed development path, Durban must deliver on three critical areas —mitigation, adaptation and minimise negative impact and maximise benefits from changing climatic conditions.

For the uninitiated, climate mitigation is any action taken to permanently eliminate or reduce the long-term risk and hazards of climate change to human life, property. While mitigation tackles the causes of climate change, adaptation tackles the effects of the phenomenon.

The frustration with the cumbersome process for getting 194 countries to agree to an internationally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is palpable and understandable.

Yet, there is simply no way to reduce average global greenhouse gas emissions in line with the 2°C target to some 2 tonnes CO2-equivalent (2tCO2e) per capita by 2050.

High historic emissions by rich countries enable higher living standards there, but threaten the livelihood of Mbuya Chingarande in Zimbabwe and poor people elsewhere.

It is a question of justice that requires developed countries to take the lead in curbing emissions and in providing climate finance to those hardest hit and unable to cope by themselves.

Notably, some of emerging markets that are much poorer in per capita terms are taking more aggressive actions compared to projected levels to curb future greenhouse gas emissions than rich countries like Australia, Canada and the US, that have some of the highest per capita emissions in the world.

Hence, the reluctance of the US and other high-income countries to enact binding and ambitious emission-reduction targets is of great concern in light of the historic distribution of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that drive the changes to the climate in Africa and elsewhere.

Even if one includes emissions from so-called land-use change (e.g. deforestation, agriculture) that have mainly occurred in tropical developing countries, the cumulative per capita emissions in a typical high-income country are 38 times higher than those in a low-income country like Zimbabwe.

Climate change is an all-encompassing threat — to all who share our planet and to future generations. It is a threat, too, which scientist warns will be particularly devastating for Africa and millions of the already most disadvantaged people on our planet.

Climate resilient agriculture, innovative forms of energy, green growth opportunities and low carbon cities are all examples of what this positive future could hold. Whether we seize these opportunities depends on real progress at the Durban conference.

This won’t be easy. There is no doubt that the climate talks are taking place against a difficult backdrop. Continuing financial insecurity, increasing social tension, a growing jobs crisis, and the risk of renewed recession are all distracting the attention of political leaders away from the threats that climate change pose. We are seeing, too, a deliberate effort by short-term and vested interests to drown out those arguing for urgent action and a focus on green economies.

But the lack of long-term collective vision and leadership we have seen over the changing climate is inexcusable. One cannot afford to continue dragging feet.

Dilly-dallying by the supposed major culprits — US and China, their counterparts Russia, Canada and the European Union — is making the search for a middle ground at the troubled climate talks even more elusive than ever before.

On a continent where four out of five people depend on agriculture for their survival, climate change poses a major threat to the livelihoods of the poor and, more broadly, to Africa’s long-term development and growth.

The Durban conference becomes a crucial test of the ability of African politicians to look beyond narrow national and short-term interests.

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