/ 6 June 2017

Where to begin: Trump, the Paris Agreement and Africa’s poverty

Grade six leaner Zandile Lebethe does her homework by candlelight in Johannesburg in September 2013. Like many
Grade six leaner Zandile Lebethe does her homework by candlelight in Johannesburg in September 2013. Like many

Where do you start in understanding both the poverty of Africa, and Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris accord on climate change.

I’d begin at Soroti, 233 kilometres by road from Kampala, where the largest solar plant in East Africa has more than 32 000 panels and cost $19, some of it from British and German aid money.

This is a blueprint for the Green Climate Fund condemned by Mr Trump in his speech last week. Under that plan, $100-billion will be pooled by wealthy nations to help poor countries cut their emissions.

“I hope Soroti is only just the beginning for many more to come,” EU delegation chief Kristian Schmidt told reporters as he launched the solar farm in December. “The European Union is proud that our grant contribution.”

What he didn’t say — in a country where 80% of people live without electricity — is that Uganda sells much of its power to neighbouring Kenya for cash, while locals use firewood to cook and warm their homes.

And kilowatts from Soroti, rather than going to the community, will simply flow into the national grid for export.

It’s a pattern repeated across Africa and the developing world.

In Kinshasa the government already receives $300-million in USA aid per year, some of it spent on worthwhile projects including a sanctuary for rare forest elephant. Billions more come from Britain, the EU and World Bank.

And the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the kind of dirt-poor country that will be front-of-queue for the Green fund. The Congolese rain-forest, second only in size to the Amazon, is being felled at a rate of close on 200 000 hectares a year and the charcoal trade is a major cause. Hardly surprising given just 15% of people have access to the grid.

Yet the DRC sells electricity to Zambia and South Africa.

Mozambique is in the same boat and ranks among the world’s 20 biggest power exports, with giant pylons linking South Africa to turbines at Cabora Basa dam on the Zambezi.

Yet almost 80% of Mozambicans live off the grid. Even in the capital, Maputo, supply is erratic and hotels, factories and shopping centres have their own generators as back up.

Now a solar project, part-funded by the government of Norway, has been approved east of Cabora Basa, but output will simply join central network, instead of serving the poverty stricken Zambezia Province where the panels are located.

India only signed the Paris Accord, “contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid”. This was Donald Trump last week in full throttle.

Harsh, and unfair on India. With elections less than two years away, prime minister Narendra Modi is racing to fulfil his pledge at the last poll in 2014 to wire up a nation where nearly 300-million have never had the lights on.

In Delhi, the minister for power, Piyush Goyal says it’s “a matter of shame”, that after nearly seven decades of independence from Britain, “we have not been able to provide a basic amenity like electricity.”

The government has also rolled out a record number of solar plants with a promise that, by 2022, three per cent of power will come from renewables. Last year the World Bank assigned more than $600-million to the plan.

But there’s another problem in the world’s second most populous country. Connecting just a million homes — a fraction of India’s 1.2-billion people — would need an estimated 10 000 acres of solar panels. In a country where land is scarce, this has become an issue.

Former Irish president Mary Robinson who served as UN high commissioner for human rights and now heads a foundation on climate issues, sounded a caution after a rise in complaints by indigenous groups.

“Recent experience shows that renewal and energy installations can result in human rights being undermined if local communities are not consulted,” she said.

With so much still to do at home, India sells power to its neighbours, including Bangladesh. And for all the aid money pumped into wind and solar, most of the kilowatts come from coal. Delhi is on track to double coal output in the next five years.

In Massachusetts, Professor Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, hailed by Time Magazine and The Economist as one of the world’s top think tanks.

“Right now, India gets 0.4% of its energy from wind and just 0.03% from solar,” he says. “Even in 2040, in an extremely optimistic scenario, India will get just 3% of its energy from wind and solar.

“This emphasizes that for coming decades, India’s growth and development will be focused on cheap, reliable power, often from coal.”

But Professor Lomborg believes this is logical.

“Since we know that power is one of the most crucial inputs to get out of poverty, it is vital for India to focus on getting more power at low cost.”

As forests across Africa and Asia fall to charcoal and firewood, and governments export electricity while their own people go without, President Trump has not written off the Paris deal.

“We will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair,” he said.

Hard to fault given that countries like the USA are expected to cut emissions now, while China can go on polluting until 2030, then trim its footprint.

Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana are building new coal-fired power stations, Nigeria, Ghana and India are upping their use, South Africa relies on it for 93% of Eskom’s output, but if a single mine is reopened in Wyoming the green lobby treats it like an act of war.

And for billions in aid spent on turbines and solar panels, 600-million Africans still live off the grid, with little sign of change.

Britain’s planned withdrawal from the European Union has shaken up the bureaucracy in Brussels and there is hope the shock will make the EU leaner and better as a group.

America’s withdrawal from the Paris deal has the same potential. We don’t need solar panels if they’re going to be stolen (a problem in India and parts of Africa) or if the output doesn’t go to local communities. And for powering factories to curb the unemployment that leaves so many in poverty.

A new accord, with real targets for development and penalties for states that don’t serve their own people, would be so much better.

Geoff Hill is a Zimbabwean author and journalist who has written extensively on environmental issues.