Climate Impacts

February 12, 2007

It’s been sunny here in the Eastern Province of Zambia for a few days which is good news for farmers. The rainy season had been wetter than most years, with no break which meant that fertiliser had washed away and the crops had insufficient sunshine.

Most people here grow their own maize, which they grind to form the national dish, nshima. Changes in the climate such as happened this year are hard to predict. The Met office had predicted a good year for agriculture, so the government was able to sell off food surpluses from last year to other countries. But the predictions proved inaccurate leaving many people vulnerable to a lack of food for the whole year.

I’ve been frustrated with some Western development workers here who suggest that Zambian’s don’t care about their environment, while they jet about the globe for week-long breaks. The emissions from my flight out here meant that I had already exceeded sustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions for the year by several times. I use more electricity than most Zambians, and I will travel considerably more over the course of the year. Much of the food I buy is imported while most of theirs comes from within 100 yards of their house. It is people like me who cause climate change, not the huge majority of Zambians. But for now it’s them who have to deal with the problems.

It’s true that there is rubbish at the side of the road, but in the UK we produce much more, it just gets put out of sight in landfills. People love banging on about uncontrollable population growth in developing countries as the major cause of environmental degradation. But Zambia has 10 million people in an area 4 times the size of the UK. They’re hardly squeezing in.

  Charcoal cyclist

Most people walk, those that don’t use bicycles even to carry roofs, charcoal and goats. In a town of over 300,000 people I haven’t seen a traffic jam. In fact if you removed the vehicles of the development agencies, there would be very few cars here at all. Rurally very few homes have electricity, and health centres are usually powered by solar panels. If you enter Zambia as a tourist by car or air you have to pay a carbon tax. At £12 to travel the length of the country it doesn’t exactly break the bank, but it’s enough to make people think (or at least moan).

Glass bottles are always returned and reused. Everything is fixed and repaired until it can’t possibly be used anymore. The front tyre of my bicycle is now composed of several former inner-tubes cobbled together.

I’m not suggesting Zambians are angelic greenies, and I’m sure if most had the money, they would get a car or fly like we do in the UK. But its important to recognise that there are environmental problems caused here, by the activities of people in the UK and the rest of the West. Most of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, does not come from China and India or other developing countries, it comes from Europe and the USA. We can’t keep shifting the blame.

The average Zambian emits 0.19 tonnes of CO2 per year while the figure for Britain is 9.4 tonnes (US Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, 2003). This is FIFTY times as much.

Present global emissions per annum are estimated at about 8GT Carbon (IPCC) which equates to 30 GT of CO2 which is 30 000 MT. So in other words the USA is responsible for about 20% of all emissions, the UK for about 2% and Zambia for 0.006%! This places it 184th out of 211 countries in the world.

The most credible model of cutting greenhouse gas emissions is that of contraction and convergence. This is where rich countries reduce their emissions to a target, say 1 tonne per person, while poor countries are allowed to increase theirs to this level. If the world decides to tackle climate change in this way, Zambia will be allowed to increase its emissions by 5 times.

Maybe, rather than getting annoyed with my jetsetting colleagues, I should be comforted by the fact that Britain will warmly embrace all the climate refugees who leave Africa when their crops permanently fail…..