What is Climate Change

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, humans have largely altered the environment and to some extent the climate system. Their activities such as the combustion of fossil fuels, burning of biomass and continued growth of industries has led to an astronomical increase and concentration of aerosols, greenhouse gases (GHGs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere. Furthermore, agricultural practices which lead to changes in land use patterns especially deforestation for large- and small-scale agriculture have replaced forests’ biodiversity with increasingly monoculture crop systems. All these human activities have affected the physical and biological properties of the earth’s surface with a cascading effect on the local, regional and global climate. 

However, it is important to keep in mind that in the past, our planet has naturally gone through cycles of warming and cooling, but the changes seen today are happening at a much faster scale than would be expected in a natural cycle. This has led to the emergence of other hypotheses which propose to explain all or most of the observed increase in global temperature including: That the warming is within the range of natural variation, the warming is a consequence of coming out of a prior cool period as the little ice age, and that the warming is primarily a result of variances in solar irradiance, possibly via modulation of cloud cover. For instance, (Oreskes, 2004) said the observed warming actually reflects Urban Heat Island, as most readings are done in heavily populated areas which have been expanding over the last few decades with growing population.

Agriculture – crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry – contributes about 31 per cent of the total emissions of GHGs in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, the most important anthropogenic GHG, is released from deforestation when trees are cut down and allowed to decay thereby oxidizing the stored carbon which is then released in the atmosphere. Cultivating the soils after deforesting (land use change) facilitates the oxidation of some organic matter in the upper layer and releases it into the atmosphere. Methane, the second major GHG gas, is released from rice agriculture, conversion of wetlands and livestock farming. Nitrous oxide originates mainly from soils and the oceans. Nitrous oxide from humans in the agriculture sector originates from fertilizer use. 

The GHG Effect
The natural greenhouse effect is necessary to support life in our planet. Without global warming occurring naturally, the earth’s surface would be about 35o C cooler on average. The climate change problem is being caused by what scientists call the enhanced GHG effect. This is where over the past 200 years, human activities such as burning of fossil fuels and destruction of forests (especially tropical) has caused massive concentrations of heat-trapping GHGs in our atmosphere. With more of these gases in the atmosphere, more infrared radiation is re-radiated back to earth’s surface as heat when some of the incoming solar radiation is absorbed by the earth’s surface and radiated back into the atmosphere in the form of infrared radiation. This is causing what is referred to in the scientific community as climate change.

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Nairobi is a rapidly growing capital city in Kenya anticipating massive new investments in land use patterns, infrastructure for transportation, water and energy as well as building stocks both for residential and commercial use in the next three to four decades. The city’s governor, Dr. Evans Kidero understands that if Nairobi is to contribute to sustainability in its three spheres – economic, environmental and social-cultural – time is now ripe to start planning in anticipation of increased urbanization by the year 2050 coupled with the residents’ increased  income levels. 

The governor envisions cementing his legacy of being the first elected official in one of the city’s newest political office by planning a compact, mixed use and high-density urban neighbourhood design that makes intra-transit in the city more economic and where proximity to work places for residents, schools, shops and services are closer. His intentions will not only cut future greenhouse gas emissions and energy use per capita as compared to other sprawling cities, but also significantly cut the costs associated with mobility, commuting times, minimize traffic accidents and associated air quality problems. 

People will not see the need of using personal vehicles but rather opt for public transit systems, cycling and even walking. This will have dramatic reductions on the probable congestion on the roads, pollution and illnesses all which serve to undermine the performance of the country’s main economic hub and the capacity for changing in the future costly, high-emitting and non-climate resilient infrastructure. As is the case in many other developing countries, the high population growth rates are happening in urban areas where more energy per capita is consumed than in rural areas. The governor’s plans will save enormous future energy costs and achieve continued emissions reductions for many years to come.     

The recent financial economic crisis we all have experienced will not help the governor of Nairobi city drive capital investments towards a long term sustainable perspective. This is especially so because supporting a more dense and mixed urban form is very much associated with extra high costs for long-lived capital stock – like roads, buildings, and new infrastructure – and high public pressure. The governor will have to rely on multilateral donors and development agencies to make his technical plans and infrastructure financing a success. For the governor, the real challenge is to start changing the city residents’ urban lifestyle – how people live, work and play their daily lives.   

Governor Kidero’s plans will achieve sustainability by eliminating the probability of smog in the capital which is generated by burning combustion fuel especially from fossil fuel-fired power generation plants and car engines. When air quality is improved and the cost of living is reduced, the health of the local ecologies and population also improves so does the quality of underground water reservoirs. The productivity of the urban populace as workers also improves. The collective atmosphere of the urban environment also gets better and becomes more attractive. When the city becomes more liveable and efficient in its day-to-day operations, it will be much easier to attract and retain highly qualified urban professionals in diverse sectors and industries. Housing will become more affordable, businesses more competitive and new job opportunities and skills will be created. As such, money and skills will not flow out of the urban communities for instance in the form of energy purchases from fuel suppliers and utilities; rather, it will be retained within.

This blog is an entry to the Masdar’s 2014 Engage Blogging Contest: Smart Cities and Sustainable Development. The contest’s 2014 Engage Page with other submitted blog entries can be found at http://www.masdar.ae/en/#adsw/engage

Low Emissions Development (LED)

In the wake of the adverse effects of climate change being witnessed across the world, countries are being advised to pursue greener pathways which are not only low emitters of green house gases, but also not dependent on fossil fuels to drive their growth. As such Clean Technology (Cleantech) has significantly gained prominence in the post-2015 development agenda and is poised to gather more preference in the transitioning and emerging economies. Hence, some regard cleantech as the beginning of a revolution that will change the places where we live and work, the products we manufacture and purchase, and the development plans of cities, regional governments, and nations around the globe. 

Wikipedia defines cleantech as a diverse range of products, services, and processes that harness renewable materials and energy sources, dramatically reduce the use of natural resources, and cut or eliminate emissions and wastes. Cleantech is relatively a new phenomenon of economic development and it is increasingly being recognized as a vital component for economic growth and has seen a significant rise in economic activities. According to clean energy periodic reports, the markets for clean energy technologies grew from less than USD7 billion in 2001 to over USD188 billion in 2010. This staggering increase is a result of the growing constrains to economic growth due to environmental degradation, high oil prices, scarcity of natural resources and climate change.

Cleantech includes a wide verity of environmental, social and economic activities predominantly comprising the fields of:

  1. Recycling – reuse of resources in an efficient way reducing the cost of production and environmental pollution.
  2. Renewable energy – introduce new forms of energy production wind power, solar power, biomass, hydropower and biofuels.
  3. Information technology – The use of computerized systems and information processing to reduce the use and strain imposed on natural systems, such as computerized watering systems etc.
  4. Green transportation – transport with low impact on the environment such as non-motorized transport, green vehicles, Car Sharing, and urban transport systems that are fuel-efficient, spacesaving and promote healthy lifestyles.
  5. Green chemistry – design of products and processes that minimize the use and generation of hazardous substances. Green chemistry seeks to reduce and prevent pollution at its source.
  6. Energy efficiency technologies – reducing energy consumption e.g. Lighting- Compact Fluorescent Lights or LED lighting.
  7. Water technologies – water desalination, water purification, waste water treatment, etc.
  8. Green buildings – Architecture, design, construction and maintenance of building that hold a small environmental footprint.

 Cleantech will bring thus about Low Emissions Development (LED) which spurs many positive impacts to national development goals. It promotes wider sustainable development benefits, which helps address pressures related to economic growth, population growth, urbanization, and resource use. A LED trajectory contributes to global emissions reductions. In this sense, it is a mechanism for mitigating climate change. 

One of the main arguments why is it useful for countries to consider LED while achieving their national development goals is that if current global trends of emissions continue, serious climate change impacts will affect countries. The distribution of impacts is likely to be unequal and tilted against many of the world's poorest regions, which have the least economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt.

LED can help prevent and manage heat waves and droughts that involve huge risks for reduced agriculture and harvest losses, forest fires, and heat-related deaths. It also can help prevent and improve water stress and pollution. This will contribute to increased access to safe and clean drinking water, which prevents health risks. Furthermore, LED policies can help manage a wetter climate that will cause similar social and economic costs, such as increased flooding in many vulnerable urban areas.

LED can thus help turn the challenges of developing countries into opportunities. It should be seen as a development approach that assists countries to achieve sustainable economic growth and improve living standards while slowing the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. National LED strategies should be suitable to country-specific needs and consistent with a country's sustainable development priorities.

Challenges of LED
Although there are many benefits associated with a transition to low emissions development, there still remain challenges. Questions policymakers will ask themselves include: What sectors will have to adapt? How much will this cost? What might be the social costs of a transition to low emissions development?

Another challenge is that it will take increased initial investments in urban infrastructure, electricity generation, and energy efficiency. In addition, it will require behavioral changes from consumers and producers in society. For example, there will have to be greater appreciation of environmental quality, a change in consumer attitudes, and an economic approach that goes beyond GDP and includes environmental and social values of development.
*Some proportions of this post have been derived from the World Bank Institute’s course on LED*