At least the venue was pretty. Among lush green and purple
monkey-filled trees on comfortably breezy 80-degree days, nearly
from around the world gathered at the United Nations Environment
Program’s campus outside of Nairobi, Kenya, for two weeks
in November to try to conjure positive ways forward in the effort
to slow global warming.
It would be nice to think that it was only these languid, soothing
surroundings that accounted for the lack of a sense of urgency. True,
the wet season was hitting unusually hard and early, but the air
was warm, soft and heavy with the scent of plants. Whatever the reason,
our governments seem curiously unhurried in their efforts to agree
to emission cuts.
How different things are in the real world. Just weeks beforehand,
a former chief economist of the World Bank issued a report estimating
that global warming this century could cost as much as 5 to 20 percent
of global gross domestic product, as well as untold human suffering.
Within a few hundred miles of the conference, the signs of climate
change were everywhere.
Meanwhile, the world’s climate pact, the Kyoto Protocol, is
barreling toward 2012, after which time no targets have been set—with
no sign that governments are yet ready to negotiate the sequel.
Out of Africa
Ironically, holding the meeting in Kenya was supposed to put Africa’s
problems into the spotlight. The international meetings rotate each
year among the major regions of the world, and this was Africa’s
turn; in fact, the first time ever for sub-Saharan Africa.
Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 4 percent of global emissions
of greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide, so it contributes
little to climate change. That, however, does not protect it from
the consequences. Its people are heavily dependent on agriculture.
As the center of the continent becomes more arid and weather patterns
shift, it is their lives—not their lifestyles—that are
threatened. Rising sea levels threaten vulnerable coastal populations;
warmer temperatures mean that malaria-carrying mosquitoes can venture
to higher-altitude towns that were previously free of the disease;
and communities dependent on glacier melt for their water supplies
are seeing those glaciers disappear.
These disappearing glaciers threaten the natural world, too. One
of the most commonly used images to illustrate how Africa is warming
is the famous snows of Kilimanjaro. Once a glistening white mane
on the mountain, the last remnants of the snow now cling desperately.
Soon, they will be no more, and that may spell death for one of Africa’s
best-known natural parks. For ages, Amboseli has been home to vast
herds of zebra, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions and countless
other creatures, on a savannah watered by the regular flow of water
from Kilimanjaro’s snows. Now, most of its rivers run only
during the rainy season, and the swamps in which elephants, hippos
and buffalo wallow and feed are shrinking and drying up. Guides point
to the remains of trees on what 25 years ago was a semi-forested
savannah and is now a blasted near-desert. Other examples abound
within a day’s travel from the Nairobi conference. For one,
Lake Nakuru, a few hours north of Nairobi, is drying up, and the
millions of flamingos that visit the lake to eat its algae will have
to soon go elsewhere. Similarly, Lake Chad has receded by 20 percent
in the last three decades.
At the same time, if ways can be found to help Africa develop more
cleanly, the benefits could be enormous. Even today, Nairobi is a
solid traffic jam, its air thick with pollution. Cleaner transport
systems would save lives today as well as protect the climate tomorrow.
More than 85 percent of Kenyans lack access to electricity, but many
of those who do enjoy it have one of the estimated 200,000 solar
systems in the country to thank. Helping grow this market will bring
the countless benefits of electricity to more people, while keeping
Helping the Poorest People
Traditionally, the host country of the annual climate conference
can’t force other countries into action, but it can help set
the meeting’s agenda and cajole other countries toward an agreement.
Unfortunately, the Kenyan government was not able to make much headway.
There are three major priorities for most African countries in these
First, and most importantly, they have an overriding interest in
seeing a strong, effective climate regime that will actually reduce
global warming. As countries facing the impacts of climate change
with little control over its causes, they depend on international
action to save them from more severe damage in coming decades.
Second, as the examples above illustrate, Africa is already feeling
the effects of the changing climate. Help is needed for the most
vulnerable populations to adapt to the worst of the impacts. This
might include anything from providing crops better suited to arid
conditions, to resettling whole communities from areas that are threatened
by sea-level rise. The Kyoto Protocol includes some funds for this
kind of help, but they have not yet been delivered.
Finally, Kyoto does provide for rich countries to support clean-energy
projects in developing countries, through what is known as the Clean
Development Mechanism. The problem, from Africa’s point of
view, is that these projects mostly go to China, India and Brazil,
while Africa gets a mere 7 percent. In company with many smaller
developing countries, African nations called for a more equal distribution
The conference ended in an “agreement,” as it does almost
every year. But looking through the small print, little progress
was made. True, operating rules for an Adaptation Fund were agreed
upon, so that activities to adapt to climate change in developing
countries can be supported when the fund holds any significant amount
As for a greater share of clean-energy projects, countries promised
to go away and consider how this might be managed. There may be some
scope for pushing the World Bank or other government funds to try
harder in Africa, but generally it is a matter of where private companies
want to invest. For all the fine talk, this is unlikely to change
Perhaps most disturbing is the lack of urgency among governments
to negotiate a new set of commitments after 2012; there is a need
to tighten targets for rich countries while finding some way of limiting
the rapidly rising emissions in countries such as China and India
while fostering their ongoing development. Neither rich nor developing
countries showed much sign of ambition. Developed countries pointed
to the fact that China is expected to pass the United States as the
world’s largest emitter in 2009, while developing countries
pointed to the lack of meaningful effort from richer nations, and
to their own relative poverty. If we are ever to get a deal, countries
need to move away from endlessly rehashing the same old pretexts
So where do we look for hope? One bright spot is the recent developments
in the United States. While delegates sat in stalemate in Nairobi,
congressional elections on the other side of the Atlantic produced
a House of Representatives and Senate much more ready to take serious
action on climate. For years, the biggest sticking point in global
negotiations has been that the United States, the world’s largest
emitter and richest economy, has been unwilling to take the problem
of climate change seriously. Not only is this a huge problem in itself—the
United States belches out fully a quarter of the world’s carbon
dioxide—but it provides the perfect excuse for inaction among
others. America will not rush back to the negotiating table, but
even solid national policy to limit emissions will change the international
For the next few years, what happens at the climate conferences will
depend on what happens elsewhere—not the other way around.
Rob Bradley is director of the international climate policy initiative
at the World Resources Institute (www.wri.org). His latest book is
called Growing in the Greenhouse: Protecting the Climate by Putting