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Thika Road, a legacy in inequality: UN Under-Secretary

Africa should leapfrog to cleaner energy as it did with the mobile phone in the arena of connectivity/COURTESY

Africa should leapfrog to cleaner energy as it did with the mobile phone in the arena of connectivity/COURTESY

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 27 – The Thika ‘superhighway’ has long been heralded as a symbol of Kenya’s economic progress but that’s not how United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director and UN Under-Secretary Achim Steiner sees it.

He sees it instead as, “yet another symbol,” of the inequality on the continent as governments seek to emulate the path taken by their developed counterparts.

A path he says they would be mistaken in taking given the price the continent is already paying for the fossil fuel driven industrialisation of the West.

“If you spend all your money on building more roads, widening roads, speaks to an equity issue. The mass of the working population either has to walk on a mud track next to the paved million dollar road because there’s no pavement to allow people to walk safely or cycling lane so cycling to work is a life-threatening risk and above all they don’t have comfortable public transport. Thika Highway is an example of where we invest in serving a minority,” he said during the United Nations Environment Assembly on Tuesday.

Building bigger roads in an effort to appear more westernised, he said, was an exercise in folly and retrogressive even given many Western nations faced with air quality problems on account of car emissions were now encouraging their populace to walk, cycle or take public means to work not only on account of its health benefits but economic benefits as well given the vast amounts of money lost in in time spent in traffic.

“Even if you build bigger roads without a functional public transport system in place, people will keep buying cars.”

READ: #Travel: Champs-Elysees to be pedestrianised once a month

On Friday he focussed on the inequality that would be perpetuated should Africa, in the example of the West, pursue development at the expense of the environment and not sustainably.

Development underpinned by high carbon fuels such as coal which emit greenhouse gases, lead to global warming then climate change, he said, would only make life more difficult for the majority of their populations who are smallholder farmers or subsist on less than a dollar a day.

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Climate change which is evidenced by extreme weather conditions such as drought and flooding, would impact agricultural output, “and already is,” Steiner said, and by extension food prices.

On a grander scale, Chief of UNEP’s Geneva based Economy and Trade branch Steven Stone told Capital News, climate change compromised the ability of African and other states vulnerable to climate change, to borrow.

“When countries borrow money on the Capital Markets they float bonds and food prices affect their credit rating and cost of capital. Those countries whose economies are agriculture based are most exposed to these risks. So a country like Kenya is exposed to these climatic risks and it can affect Kenya’s borrowing capacity,” Stone said.

A report by financial research firm Standard & Poor shows that sovereign credit ratings are impacted by natural disasters whose intensity and frequency have increased on account of climate change over the last decade and that the least prepared — those in the developing world — are often the most vulnerable.

“Extreme weather conditions that likely lead to a radical rise in meteorological disasters, and their magnitude, are increasingly becoming part of everyday life. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, more than 370,000 people died in extreme weather incidents between 2001 and 2010 – a 20 percent rise over the previous decade. Our planet is expected to become even more lethal,” the report reads.

It would therefore be in Africa’s own interest, Steiner argues, to pursue sustainable development through green energy in the form of geo-thermal, solar and wind power as opposed to following in the, “develop first, clean up later,” footsteps of the developed world.

“I  have often felt that it is one of the great myths of the twentieth Century that Africa always has to follow a generation later on technology.”

Instead, he says, Africa should leapfrog to cleaner energy as it did with the mobile phone in the arena of connectivity.

“We are already living through the early signals of climate change affecting this continent whether in terms of rainfall patterns, droughts and floods but also sea-level rise. This continent according to some of the work UNEP has done, will in the coming decades probably be spending billions of dollars just in adapting to the consequence of global warming and that is money spent in just staying in the same place. Not in advancing.”

READ: Steiner reflects on time at UNEP, speaks on his future

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But unless the developed world acknowledges the damage it has inflicted on the planet and atones by providing the deep financial and technological muscle needed to set Africa on the green energy path, Director-General of the Global Green Growth Institute and former UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer told Capital News, purely green energy driven development is an awful lot to ask of African leaders.

“Most people in slums in Nairobi probably pay a lot more for water than middle income people. The middle income people have the resources to invest in the infrastructure that will bring them piped water cheaply whearas the poor people have to buy from a shop or water truck which is more expensive.

“It’s the same thing with coal and renewables. A coal plant is cheap, a wind farm is expensive. The problem with a coal plant is that you have to keep putting coal into it to keep it running whereas the wind farm – once you’ve built it – it will run for free. The problem is many developing countries don’t have enough capital to buy the expensive wind farm but they can scrape just enough money to buy the coal fired power plant.”

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