UN in hot water over African lake

On 3 December, Zimbabwe will join almost 200 countries at “COP 24”, a global warming summit in Poland. But already there are signs the meeting won’t be easy.

The UN photo of Lake Chad and its shrinking shoreline.

Last week, the official UN website for COP 24 posted a photograph of Lake Chad in West Africa that used to cover an area five times larger than the world’s biggest dam at Kariba, but now covering just five per cent of its original size.

The loss of water was put down to global warming, even though the UN’s own report blames rising population and poor farming methods.

Levels have been falling since 1960 when it covered 26,000 square kilometres, spilling over the border from Chad into Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon.

Felix Nduka, a retired biologist who spent years studying the region, said it was “nonsense” to blame the lake’s demise on climate.

“Since 1980, the population of Chad has trebled,” he said. “It used to be just local communities living off the lake, but water is now pumped for irrigation and to supply towns and cities. And rivers feeding it have been dammed or silted.”

For decades, he said, trees had been cut down and not replanted.

“Desert has taken over where once we had jungle, and wind from the Sahara that used to be stopped by the forest blows sand into the waterways.”

He said there was a danger that climate change could be used by African governments “to explain disasters that are really about to their own incompetence”.

More than 20 million people rely on Lake Chad, up from just one million at independence from France in 1960.

But there is good news. Satellite photographs show that since the four countries bordering the lake set up a commission to manage the crisis, the waters have been rising.

“Climate change is real,” Dr Nduka said, “but combating it will be difficult if we keep blaming every man-made disaster on the weather.”

This 24thConference of Parties to the Paris Accord on climate change (dubbed COP 24) was never going to be easy.

The Accord calls for an end to fossil fuel, but host-country Poland gets 90 per cent of its energy from coal and is building more generators to wean itself off Russian gas. And African countries, including Zimbabwe, are using more oil, coal and gas than at any time in history.

Last week, as temperatures in the eastern United States plunged to -17°C for the Thanksgiving holiday, Donald Trump tweeted, “Brutal and extended cold blast could shatter all records. Whatever happened to global warming?”

A barrage on Twitter condemned the president’s message as irresponsible. And at Katowice that view will be chanted by thousands of protestors who say climate change is about to destroy the world as we know it.

Mr Trump has begun to withdraw his country from the Accord, but is sending a delegation to Katowice where they plan a side-event on fossil fuel.

Last month, US energy secretary Rick Perry was in Warsaw and signed a cooperation deal on “clean coal”, something many of the NGOs and activists claim doesn’t exist. But Poland Bangladesh, South Africa, Kenya and Japan all have clean-coal programs.

India, Poland, Australia and the United States have touted an alliance of countries that will continue to use coal while working together on a cleaner burn and the capture of waste and smoke, extracting elements for sale as a byproduct. Egypt recently announced it will use this method on a new plant that dwarfs existing generators in China and the US.

The World Bank and IMF refuse to fund such projects and the official line from many groups at COP24 will be that oil, coal and gas should be phased out. Academics will spar, diplomats will defend their governments’ position and activists will clash.  Each side will be armed with graphs and tables, and photographs like the one of Lake Chad.

But a lot has changed since Cop 23 in Bonn, Germany, in December 2016.

Six weeks ago, ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations or ASEAN issued a statement backing fossil fuel for the region and endorsing the use of clean coal.

At the same time, Indian minister Piyush Goyal defended the “harsh reality,” that his country would continue with coal for at least the next 30 years, dismissing the idea of converting to solar. “We need power 24 hours a day,” he said, “and my people are not destined to live without power in the non-sunlight hours.”

A raft of countries including Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana, Colombia, the Philippines and Indonesia have made clear they are keeping coal way into the future, expanding its use and researching cleaner ways to burn it.

Australian resources minister Matt Canavan said he would not be attending, but has voiced support for a clean-coal alliance.

The world’s best-known biologist, Sir David Attenborough, has invited his TV audience to email him on what they’d like included in his speech to the conference. He has promised to “send a message our world leaders can’t ignore,” and a plea for steps to cool the planet.

This will be the public face of Katowice: a feel-good forum of green ideas.

Beyond the official program, there will be side events where governments, NGOs and corporations throw ever-more sumptuous banquets for politicians, diplomats and a select group of journalists in hope of getting lines in the press or a soundbite on one of the networks.

The agenda and even location of these meetings are usually secret until the last moment, sometimes to dodge protestors but also to limit the guest list. And it’s where the real action takes place at a UN summit.

Most will not be directly about climate or the environment, but energy in all its forms, from cars to electricity, air travel to heating, and how to reduce the emissions that lead to global warming.

The world arms trade is valued at $100bn per year, but oil alone is worth nearly 20 times that. Add gas, coal and renewables, and it’s not hard to see where the money lies.

These socials and side-events are rarely quoted in communiques, but if deals or treaties emerge from COP 24, this is where they are likely to happen.

And it’s where the US, Poland and others may hope to build their clean-coal alliance.

At the same time, the 30,000 delegates will expect the lights to stay on. And the buildings, marquis, thousands of hotel rooms and the trains and buses running back and forth will be all be heated, using more energy in two weeks than Chad consumes in a year.

“Less than 10 per cent of Chadians are linked to the national grid,” says Felix Nduka. “That’s why they cut down trees for cooking, even to light their shacks.

“It lies at the heart of environmental problems across the region, and especially for Lake Chad.”

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