Thursday, December 06, 2007

Watching where they tread

from The Guardian Katine Project

John Vidal on how the fate of Katine's villagers lies in the hands of the leaders meeting this week in Bali to discuss climate change

Joyce Abuko in Katine treads as lightly as anyone on earth. She walks everywhere, or sometimes travels on the back of a friend's bike. Nothing she uses is wasted. Her home is made of mudbricks and grasses, her possessions total a couple of big yellow plastic jerry cans to collect water in, a mat to sleep on and some plates.

She burns a single candle at night and she cooks on wood which she collects from a nearby forest or, if she can afford it, charcoal. When she had a cow, it emitted a few climate-changing methane burps and farts, but that's about it.

Lifetime carbon dioxide emissions of this mother of five: a few kilos of carbon dioxide a year. Total lifetime carbon footprint: as near as dammit nil.

Similarly Katine, her community. The 24,000-odd people who live in the sub-county of the same name own one or two cars between them and almost certainly none have been up in an aeroplane.

They come and go by bus to the local town, Soroti, and some travel six hours to the capital, Kampala, once or twice a year.

Their cattle herds have a minimal impact, but altogether Katine is a minute contributor to the environmental problems of Uganda and the world.

Total emissions of 24,000 people? If all of them burn wood, then perhaps a few dozen tonnes of carbon a year – the equivalent of half a dozen two car UK families.

The report from the UN development programme last week set out the maths. Uganda's share of world carbon dioxide emissions was officially 0.0%, and its emissions share per person - remember that there are some very dirty industries and hundreds of thousands of old cars in Kampala - was 0.1 tonnes of carbon.

That compares with 20.6 tonnes for every person alive in the US - a 2000% difference. Put another way, one American emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as around 2,000 Katineans.

Three thousand miles away from Katine, in Bali, Indonesia, people like Joyce and places like Uganda are high on the international political agenda this week as world leaders start to thrash out a fair climate deal to follow on from the Kyoto agreement, which runs out in 2012.

Every day, Oxfam, the World Development Movement and other charities and scientists, ram home at the conference that those people with the lightest carbon footprint and the least means to protect themselves from climate change are inevitably going to be the first victims of developed countries' energy-rich lifestyles.

China may be the west's bogeyman, now emitting as much carbon dioxide as the US, but in per capita terms, each Chinese emits only one sixth of each American.

The damage that climate change will inevitably bring is not underestimated.

In the short term, says the UN, the effects of a 2C rise in temperatures - what scientists say is the absolute maximum that eco systems can tolerate - could be "apocalyptic" for the people of Katine and other poorest people.

People in rich countries can respond to climate change by adjusting their thermostats. In Katine, the crops fail, the seasons change, floods and droughts come when least expected, people go hungry, and women and children spend more hours collecting water.

The UN report was stark. Africa in 1992 emitted less than 3% of the world's emissions, but if average temperatures are allowed to rise by another two or three degrees an extra 600 million people in the continent will go hungry; more than 300 million more poor people could be flooded out of their homes, and 400 million more people could be exposed to diseases like malaria, meningitis and dengue fever. In other words, failure to act on climate change will have grave consequences in some of the poorest places in the world.

But there is some hope in Bali. Not only will any global agreement have to allow Uganda and other African countries to carry on developing, it will have to involve the rich countries helping the poor financially.

This might be done in different ways. Britain, for instance, may not be able to cut its emissions down, but it could pay Uganda to "offset" them by not cutting down its forests, which store carbon.

How much could that be? Uganda fells nearly 86,000 hectares (212,420 acres) of its forests a year, most of it for firewood and charcoal for people like Joyce. One analysis suggests that an "avoided deforestation" initiative could be worth nearly $172m a year to Uganda, depending on how much deforestation it could "avoid" and the market price for carbon offsets.

Rich countries are also under immense moral pressure in Bali to help Uganda and other developing countries adapt to the climate change that their actions over many years have created. In a minute foretaste of what could come, Katine lost perhaps one tenth of its crops this year in the huge rains that inundated 19 countries and did millions of pounds of damage.

On the outcomes of Bali and follow up conferences, hangs the fate of at least 10,000 places like Katine and more than 1 billion women in Joyce's situation. For the moment, they must go on helping themselves.

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