Globally, the use of energy represents by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. About two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions are linked to burning fossil fuels for energy to be used for heating, electricity, transport and industry
What is Climate Change?
Climate change is any long-term alteration in average weather patterns, either globally or regionally. Recently climate change has come to mean the general rise in global atmospheric temperatures from the mid-20th century to the present. This has brought about drastic effects on weather patterns, particularly around the tropics. What used to be predictable weather has become unpredictable and by large margins. From extended droughts such as those experienced in Australia to unusually high rainfall and excessively charged tropical storms in unexpected places (Cyclone Idai – Zimbabwe & Mozambique). It is a fact that climate and the rapidly changing weather patterns are affecting everyone globally but Africa is disproportionately affected. This combined with low adaptive capacities, high population growth and multiple converging stressors (high unemployment rates and poverty levels, weak government supported social systems) leads to undue suffering on the people.
What is Causing Climate Change?
Climate change occurs naturally as part of the earth cycle of heating and cooling, this process took thousands of years before any notable weather change could be observed. The recent acceleration of climate change has been attributed to human actions by scientists (). After more than one and a half centuries of industrialisation, deforestation and large scale agriculture levels of climate critical greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere have risen to record highs1.
The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 412 parts per million in the last 150 years. This has had the impact of rising global temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns/ climate change. Based on the alerting findings by the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the international community has recognized that this increase must be stabilized now and lowered in the next decade to avoid dangerous levels climate change. In the UNFCCC Paris Agreement UN member countries pledged country specific emission reduction measures to keep rising temperatures well below 2°. However current emission pathways indicate a clear trend of a continued increase instead of decrease in global emissions.
What are the Effects of Climate Change
Climate change affects all life on earth. Africa has been shown to be disproportionately affected by climate change since most of the continents land mass lies within the tropics. The impacts of climate change are far reaching, multifaceted and innumerable. They affect ecosystems, societies and economies in profound ways. The following categorizations attempts to simplify the concepts based on abiotic and biotic factors, but they should not be used as the sole basis for categorizing climate change impacts;
1. Impact on physical systems, which include;
Unpredictable weather patterns and extreme weather events – such as extreme tropical storms (hurricanes and tornados), excessively high rainfall or lower than normal rainfall leading to drought.
Rising surface temperatures and increasing desertification - the Sahara Desert for instance is reporting record high temperatures and has grown over 10% of what it was 100 years ago 2. To put this into perspective since 1920 the Sahara has swallowed up a landmass roughly the size of Nigeria or 1.5x the size of Kenya or 2x the size of Sweden. This has been partially attributed to climate change.
Melting Polar Ice Caps and Rising sea level – if emissions continue to rise it is expected that selected coastal cities and residences will be submerged before the end of this decade. As well the Antarctic will be ice free before 2050. Finally the conveyor belt, a system of ocean currents that transport water across the globe could be disrupted and causing potentially drastic changes in temperature and weather patterns worldwide.
Flooding of rivers and lakes – Due to unusually high levels of precipitation, flooding of some rivers and lakes has become frequent. The 2020 East African Floods are a notable example which affected over 700,000 people and lead to 450 deaths across Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti, Somalia, Rwanda, Uganda, DR Congo, Burundi and Ethiopia.
2. Impact on Biological Systems such as;
Wildfires – Wildfires are a natural phenomenon which help replenish forest ecosystems by maintaining high species diversity and limit the accumulation of plants and other debris that may serve as fuel. Fossil records show that wildfires have existed as long as there have been forests and they are a critical ecological process in the recycling of nutrients and maintaining balance in ecosystems where they occur naturally. That said, due to high precipitation followed by extended periods of drought some wildfire incidences have been becoming extreme and instead of maintaining balance have been causing ecosystem collapse by burning away the topsoil and displacing humans and wildlife. The 2019-2020 Australian bushfires are one of the wildfire related catastrophe to hit the world which saw over 46 million acres of land burnt, 3,500 homes and thousands of other buildings lost and 34 people died. It is estimated that over 1 Billion animals were killed and millions of others displaced while several endangered species are also facing the risk of total extinction.
Death and displacement of flora and fauna in terrestrial and marine ecosystems – Plants and animals have evolved over millennia to occupy the ecological niches they live in. Changes in the physical environment may create disturbances that lead to habitat loss for both land-based and marine animals. Droughts are an example of changes that might lead to displacement of animals especially when plants die off for lack of rain. Ecosystems are complex systems with multiple overlapping spheres, whereby losses and gains in organic material and lives are not linear. Multiple drivers often interact to produce abrupt changes in ecosystems (e.g. climate change-driven drought and extreme fire can lead to abrupt changes of terrestrial ecosystems from forest to non-forest, introduced pathogens in combination with climate can cause populations of sensitive species to go extinct)4.
3. Impact on Human Beings
The impact of climate change on human beings is becoming increasingly evident, typically as a consequence of the impact on the physical and biological environment described above. Globally underdeveloped and developing economies (which most countries in Sub Saharan Africa fall under) suffer most the brunt of climate change, mainly due to low climate resilience. Climate resilience is the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to hazardous events, trends, or disturbances related to climate. Most of the climate impact on human beings includes but is not limited to;
Diseases and Death – Extreme weather events (EWEs) have the unfortunate chance of causing death and destruction. Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi killed over 1300 people and displaced thousands of others. After the cyclone a cholera outbreak ensued which also contributed to more deaths. On another level climate change is also affecting infectious disease transmission patterns, diseases that were traditionally associated with tropical and subtropical regions are reaching new areas of the world. There has been a notable spike in vector borne diseases which are spreading to new regions. For example Malaria is being transmitted at higher altitudes, the Chikungunya virus endemic to Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans prior to 2013 recorded new transmissions in the Americas particularly the Caribbean countries and territories 5. As well with the displacement of animals from their habitats leads to instances where these animals come into contact with human beings spreading zoonotic diseases as suspected for the current COVID19 Pandemic.
Climate Refugees / environmental migrants – this occurs when people are displaced due to prolonged environmental changes that force them to either leave their country or move to other parts of the country. Droughts, floods and other EWEs force people to seek sanctuary and succour elsewhere since their lives and livelihoods come at risk. Due low resilience and fragile social systems, majority of climate refugees in Africa sink into abject poverty and into even greater levels of disenfranchisement, this might lead to civil strife and other forms of political instability.
Destruction of crops and food production systems – Changes in rainfall patterns, excessive rain, droughts and desertification can have detrimental impacts on food security. In 2017, 23 countries experienced food crises due to climate and weather conditions. Two-thirds of these countries were in Africa, affecting approximately 32 million people6. When flooding occurs, the topsoil is eroded leaving behind depleted soils which have low food productivity potential. This destruction might also destroy equipment and food stores. There really is no limit to the kind of chaos climate change can have on food production systems, the biggest determinant is usually how resilient the communities are. The environmental challenges from drought increases poverty and hunger by reducing agricultural production and people’s incomes.
Destruction and loss of economic means of subsistence - Most Sub-Saharan Africa economies have agriculture as the main means of production, where also majority of rural communities practice subsistence farming for food and financial security. Climate variability and climate change are affecting these communities making it hard to make a living through agriculture. When EWEs such as drought or floods hit, these communities cannot adapt fast enough and some end up as Climate refugees. Furthermore, infrastructure such as roads or energy supply are prone to climate impacts and undermine the economic viability of goods or market supply. For example in Kenya, floods in 2020 have destroyed the electrical grid infrastructure supplying the marginalised Northern Counties of Mandera, Wajir and Garissa and have triggered a humanitarian crisis. This gives us a glimpse of how climate change, energy and agriculture are intertwined. Relationship Between Sustainable Energy and Climate Change
Climate changes as we know it is directly linked to human activities. Our energy consumption patterns have a direct impact on the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) we release into the atmosphere, what is generally referred to as Carbon Footprint. Globally, over 73% of global GHG emissions have been attributed to energy and this figure is set to rise by over 16% by 2040 7. Many countries worldwide rely on coal powered electricity plants, which have substantially high GHG emissions. Through sustainable energy and related practices, we can reduce our carbon footprint and reduce GHG thereby forestalling climate change.
Energy is defined as the ability to do work. Modern civilisation is possible because people learned how to change energy from one form to another and are increasingly becoming more innovative with these transitions. There are many different forms of energy such as heat, light, motion/ mechanical, electrical, chemical, gravitational, atomic, sound and so on. Each energy form can be converted into other forms. The various forms of energy can be grouped into two general types, which are Kinetic Energy / working energy and Potential Energy / stored energy.
Energy can be sourced from renewable and non-renewable sources. Non-renewable energy sources cannot be replenished with time and appear in finite amounts which will eventually run out. A good example of non-renewable energy sources are nuclear isotopes such as uranium (used in nuclear power stations) and fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil. Over 70% of the energy used in industrial processes comes from non-renewable sources (66% fossil fuels, 8% nuclear energy8), while fossil fuels are also used for many household purposes. Majority of non-renewable energy sources particularly fossil fuels have been the biggest drivers of climate change through the release of GHGs.
Renewable energy sources on the other hand, are naturally replenishing but flow-limited; renewable resources are virtually inexhaustible in duration but limited in the amount of energy that is available per unit of time 9.
Sustainable energy is the provision of energy such that it meets the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable Energy has three key components; renewable energy , energy efficiency 10 and energy use avoidance. Renewable energy as defined earlier, generally applies to those energy resources and technologies whose common characteristic is that they are non-depletable or naturally replenishable 11. Some major sources of renewable energy include; Biomass (Wood and wood waste, Municipal solid waste, Landfill gas and biogas, Ethanol, Biodiesel), Hydropower, Geothermal, Wind and Solar. Energy efficiency, is the goal to reduce the amount of energy required to provide products and services. A good example of energy efficiency is designing a house which incorporates as much natural lighting as possible while relying less on electricity. Avoidance typically related to use energy only when it is needed, such as switching off lights when nobody is in the room.
Climate change Mitigation through Sustainable Energy
As highlighted in the previous chapter, Climate change and energy are intertwined. We can minimize human contribution to climate change through sustainable energy as a way of reducing carbon emissions. This is through reducing quantity of energy consumed (efficiency & avoidance) and increasing the share of renewable energy sources. Some practices to achieve this include;
- Resource Utilization – Using solar panel to generate electricity from the sun (which is freely available).
- Efficient design – engineering things to use less energy. For example, insulating houses to reduce heat loss (in temperate regions). Using energy efficient appliance in our homes such as LED powered bulbs instead of the older tungsten ones.
- Passive design – using designs that don’t require energy such as windows instead of electric lights. Using charcoal coolers to cool items instead of electrically powered cold rooms.
- Reuse -All manufacturing processes use energy. Reuse conserves energy, finding alternative uses for items beyond their original intended purposes saves energy. For example, modifying a shipping container to create a shop, refurbishing a laptop instead of throwing it away, using shopping bags that are long lasting and customers value. Kenya particularly has a thriving culture of reuse especially in the auto industry.
- Lifestyle – changing lifestyle habits can have a profound impact on our carbon footprint. For example, buying of produce that is locally grown and in season will reduce the amount of fuel used to transport food sourced outside your region as well as refrigeration costs for foods preserved when not in season. Reducing amount of processed foods consumed (remember all manufacturing processes use energy). Walking to the local shop instead of driving to the supermarket, cycling to work to reduce fuel consumption, working from home/ telework to reduce traffic and fuel use12. During the COVID19 pandemic a drastic drop in GHG emissions was observed when the lock downs were in place13,14.
- Utilization – Achieving a high utilization for a resource. For example, car-pooling when coming from the same neighbourhood and moving in the same direction instead of each person driving their own car. Using trains which carry hundred (if not thousands) of people instead using cars.
- Waste reduction – Buying only what you need, as well buying products with minimal packaging.
If interrogated closely there are multiple areas in our lives that we can change to reduce individual and collective carbon footprints. All of these make climate change mitigation a multifaceted concept, which involves macro and micro economic levels of intervention.
From the individual level we are able to impact climate change through the illustrated sustainable energy practices, the main point to understand is that it is never too late to start. As Nobel Peace Laurette Professor Wangari Maathai once spelled out the story of the hummingbird and the huge forest fire, a little effort goes a long way.
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