Richard Odingo: We can't solve poverty until we stop climate change

There is no point in giving sacks of food every time drought wipes out crops - that's just not sustainable
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The Independent Online

In Kenya, the recent devastating drought is a stark warning of what to expect as climate change inexorably tightens its grip on the world. There is now a clear realisation - writ large in the new Christian Aid report - that the human suffering linked to climate change will make it impossible to tackle world poverty.

In autumn 2000, world leaders signed up to achieve eight millennium development goals (MDGs) - including eradication of extreme hunger and reduction of child mortality by 2015. As things stand, these are just pipe dreams. World leaders and development charities urgently need to realise that talk of poverty eradication in Africa is now meaningless without addressing climate change.

Indeed, despite all the good intentions, poor communities are likely to become poorer, as incidents of drought and flooding hit harder and more often across the developing world. This is why we need a ninth Millennium Development Goal, specifically addressing climate change, as a matter of extreme urgency.

The G8 Gleneagles Communiqué of 2005 prescribed how to improve access to energy for the more than two billion people in the world who are not hooked up to any power grid. Unfortunately, its recommendations merely echo seemingly vacuous promises made at a World Energy Summit held in Kenya in 1981.

A look at the deliberations in the climate mitigation forum at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is even more distressing. Whereas the world scientific community, under the able hands of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has shown the way, the world's developed nations have failed to agree on how best to tackle the issues raised by global warming and the severe impacts likely to be associated with it.

In Kyoto, they only agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by five per cent between 2008 and 2012. Even now they are still haggling over how to do this. Even if Kyoto were to be replaced by a new protocol, many developed nations will be unwilling to make cuts that, in their estimation, will "hurt" their economies.

Reducing poverty globally means facing the climate challenge. It will not be solved by debt relief or token financial transfers. It will require a true shift in policy. It requires a determined effort to empower rural communities. Put at its most simple, there is no point in giving a family a sack of food every time a drought wipes out its crops - that's just not sustainable. The only way to make sure they can feed themselves, without continual charity hand-outs, is to reverse the climate change that is turning their land into desert.

This goes for all the MGDs. For example, one goal is to ensure that all children get a primary school education. But if you have no crops to sell, because of drought, you can't afford to send your kids to school. And if you want to stop HIV and Aids you need to ensure that women and children are not forced to abandon their drought-desiccated land and make their living - often as sex workers - in cities.

In countries such as Kenya it will mean more funding for research on food crops, rather than export crops such as tea, coffee or cut flowers. Poor people in the rural areas are getting poorer by the day, and climatic change is only helping them to sink deeper into the vulnerability trap. Food-crop agriculture has been neglected in preference for research on coffee and tea.

Kenya has many friends, such as Christian Aid, that provide a lifeline in the dire times of drought and other food emergencies. But Kenyans are also asking themselves what the root causes of these emergencies really are.

This is where the scientists come in. Evidence from the UN's Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows it highly likely that extreme events, such as droughts and floods, will be more frequent under global warming. It is these extreme events that trigger off conflict in the arid and semi-arid lands of north-eastern Kenya.

At the international level, the picture is far from rosy. Despite the Gleneagles pronouncements, there is little agreement on the specifics of how rich countries will reduce their emissions and assist poor countries on a low-carbon path to development.

For example, the Kyoto protocol has a provision for a clean development mechanism (CDM) to assist developing countries through investments in sustainable development projects, in return for shared emission reduction credits. The truth of the matter is that developed countries are reluctant to invest in Africa south of the Sahara, and have shown preference for investing in eastern Europe. Meanwhile, African problems remain unattended. During the waiting period before the Kyoto protocol came into effect there were only two CDM projects in Africa.

Continued economic development in Africa is under threat from climate change. Yet the problem also offers Africa a huge opportunity. Funding renewable technologies, such as solar and wind, will help tackle climate change. But at the same time it could energise and empower the economic development of the continent. It could perhaps even lead the way in renewable energy development and become a net exporter of clean power.

This is the message of hope in Christian Aid's otherwise alarming report.

The writer is vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and works at the University of Nairobi, Kenya