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Africa leads global move to green energy as droughts, other climate challenges force new thinking

posted 22 Nov 2011, 02:43 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 22 Nov 2011, 02:44 ]

The head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner, says Africa is leading the push for clean energy policy-making as climate change turns millions of its people into "food refugees".

NAIROBI, KENYA ( RECENT) (REUTERS) - Africa is leading the push for clean energy policy-making as climate change turns millions of its people into "food refugees", the head of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) Achim Steiner said.

"I think we see across the continent both a realization of how threatening climate change really is and also the inevitable necessity the governments have an interest in beginning to put their own development priorities on a different trajectory and I take great comfort from that leadership cause I think it will be an example for others to follow," Steiner said.

Kenya generates most of its energy from hydroelectric dams but water levels have fallen due to recurring drought. It is now investing heavily in geothermal and wind power.

The African Development Bank is financing Africa's biggest wind farm on the shores of Lake Turkana, one of the windiest places on earth. The 819 million US dollar project aims to produce 300 megawatts (MW) of electricity per year, boosting Kenya's energy supply by 30 percent.

The country recently also announced support for 1.3 billion US dollar geothermal power station to be built by Toyota and Hyundai, which will increase geothermal capacity from 115 MW to 395 MW by 2014.

"On the African continent, there is sometimes more leadership being shown by countries, by governments, than we see in some of the industrialised nations. You have here in Kenya a green energy policy, Kenya is currently doubling its energy and its electricity generating infrastructure largely using renewables that means it will not contribute an additional CO2 emission, contribution to the global accumulated CO2 emissions and these are policies that are pioneering and that are very innovative," Steiner said.

According to Steiner, global investments in renewable energy are hitting record levels. In 2010, 211 billion US dollars was invested in renewable energy, the majority of it in the developing world.

As the world's poorest continent, Africa is also the most vulnerable to the extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels brought by climate change

"The consequence of global warming for Africa is one of disruption, of greater vulnerability, higher risks and enormous expenditures to cope with these changes," said Steiner.

In the Horn of Africa, some 13 million people are going hungry due to prolonged drought. In Somalia, the crisis is compounded by conflict.

"I think what climate signs is telling us is that the climate is warming that we will have more extreme weather phenomena and that a continent like Africa where literally people in their millions depend upon food that they have grown that season and then put in an unattainable situation the spectre of having millions of people being food refugees at the moment is one that simply should not happen but will certainly happen more in the future and unless we can take actions," said Steiner.

Time has run out to get a new binding deal on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in place before the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012.

Expectations are low that U.N. climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, from Nov. 28, will achieve anything more than modest steps towards a broader deal.

The Kyoto Protocol obliges developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent of 1990 levels by the end of 2012.

Scientists say pledges so far to curb emissions will not prevent the planet heating up beyond the two degrees Celsius threshold they say risks more extreme weather, crop failure and major floods. Global average temperatures rose by 0.7C over pre-industrial times during the 20th century.

"I think we are all hoping that the principles of Kyoto will not be lost but the fact of the matter is that right now the world is facing a situation where the only protocol that it has been able to put in place is to address climate change is on the verge of actually being abandoned in Durban and that is a very serious situation," said Steiner.

He estimated that it could take two to five years to reach another global agreement.

"What will be the implications for future infrastructure, ports that are being built, dams that are being constructed, roads that are being built that is part of what we call the adaptation agenda also, we need to adopt to a future that is going to be different from the present in many fundamental ways," Steiner said.

The European Union, Russia, Japan and Canada have said they will not sign a second commitment period unless bigger emitters, notably China and the United States, provide firm evidence that they would join too.

African leaders have demanded the rich world compensate Africa for the impact of global warming, and say the funding would help develop the continent's agro-industries.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has become Africa's most outspoken leader on climate change, calling for an "Africa Fund" to help mitigate the affects.