By Gift Briton  

The recent election of the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) Bureau got Kenyan climate scientist, Dr. Cromwell Lukorito, declared vice-chair of Working Group II after he won by more than half of the votes against his Sudan competitor.

In an exclusive interview with Science Africa, Dr. Lukorito clarifies what this election means to Africa and how it will impact the ongoing talks about loss and damage funds. He also talks about issues of climate adaptation and mitigation in Africa among others.

Dr. Cromwell Lukorito

What are the criteria for electing IPCC vice chairs and how many are there from Africa?

The election of global vice chairs is based on thematic Working Groups. We have three Working Groups under the IPCC including Working Group I which deals with the physical science of climate change.

Working Group II, where I am involved, looks into issues to do with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change, and Working Group III deals with issues to do with mitigation of climate change.

Each of these particular groups has two vice chairs from Africa, with the continent being one of the six regions of IPCC.

The criteria used to choose these vice chairs is that he/she must be a scientist in the climate arena with demonstrable capacity in terms of his/her contributions towards climate change knowledge and application.

The person must also have demonstrated the capacity to be able to contribute towards the technical aspects of the IPCC in terms of providing some guidance on technical matters as well as policy in the science space.

What is your main duty as the vice chair of IPCC Working Group II?

First, my position as a vice chair is to deputize the chair of my working group in terms of giving advice on how best we can be able to do the work of IPCC.

And the major task we have at hand is to produce assessment reports constituting the seven series of the IPCC assessment reports.

We are also tasked to make sure that we recruit credible scientists who will be the authors of the assessment reports as well as any other emerging reports, and develop their capacities and the capacities of national focal points so that they can bring on board the scientific community that will deliver on this important task.

Apart from that, I also have to chair these meetings and many other assignments that will be assigned to me by my authorities.

What does your election as the vice chair of IPCC working group II mean to Africa, including Kenya?  

Like in any other position, I know there are always expectations. But I want to indicate that this position is not a Kenyan position. It is, at the lowest, an African position.

So, my contribution is on behalf of Africa, Kenya inclusive, but playing a major role in the global arena where we want to support the chair, set the right agenda, and have diversity and inclusivity of inputs from across the world.

And as we do that we benefit Africa because the continent’s voice then gets articulated at the global level considering that we’ve been talking about Africa being highly impacted by climate change.

My duty is to make sure that I work with national focal points and mobilize the right capacities to bring out Africa’s context which I then articulate at the Bureau level for it to become an agenda and for it to become an item to focus on in the assessments.

This is because whatever comes out in the assessments through the synthesis reports is what is going to advise and inform planning, policies and decision-making going forward.

When you look at the global climate negotiations, the only evidence that they can be able to spin on to make a case is if it has been scientifically proven, if there is evidence. And the source of this evidence is what now IPCC has documented.

So, having our context within the assessment report or special reports becomes very important. And therefore the first-line benefit for Kenya and Africa is to have its specific context captured at the global level as a framing for even negotiations for climate financing mechanisms because our case will be clearly understood.

Also, in this mobilization of scientists, you see our scientists actually getting an advantage. Their scientific works which never see the light of day can now be fast-tracked through the support that the Bureau will give towards the publication of those pieces of work in high-impact scientific journals which will then capture the attention of the global authors and therefore have their profiles elevated.

So, those are some of the benefits that we are likely to get because a well-articulated position will attract partners in collaborative research and other necessary partnerships.

We also see Kenya really benefiting because we see ourselves as a convening destination for Africa and for the globe. Issues to do with conferences and tourism are also going to be enhanced. Because, when I am here a vice chair and therefore a convener for Africa, chances are that most of these convening will be within limits where I am and therefore that adds to a bit of growth in terms of our economy because there will be forex inflow which of course everybody is struggling for globally.

How are African countries progressing in terms of climate change adaptation and what major gaps exist?

Africa has no problem with adaptation because we are where we are because we have been adapting.

People can look at us as vulnerable but we are alive because there are actions that we have been doing that have enabled us to live with the adverse impacts of climate change over generations.

Africa has prioritized adaptation as a major climate action component other than mitigation because we know that it is where our survival lies. We are highly vulnerable and impacted and therefore any initiative we do is towards making us live with this change and that’s the whole concept of adaptation.

We are quite rich in terms of indigenous and local knowledge systems which we are now trying to safeguard even as we improve on them so that they can actually elevate our adaptation capacity.

Africa is very well positioned to leverage its rich and diverse indigenous and local knowledge systems which of course have supported generations to generations.

The only risk that we have been faced with is the over-popularization of exotic technologies and practices which indeed may appear to work in the short-term but quickly collapse, therefore, introducing into our systems some maladaptations which is related to increasing new risks and exacerbating our vulnerability.

Africa is still committed to adapting to the adverse impacts of climate change. The only issue that becomes a challenge as we try to adapt is that we occasionally fall short of some requisite technologies which we need to be able to cushion our indigenous systems because the shock signals appear to be overwhelming indigenous knowledge systems.

Within our context, we see a lot of changes taking place as a result of population growth putting immense pressure on the ecosystem to deliver goods and services to a level where we may not be able to see some of our indigenous knowledge support systems including some indicators now disappearing at a fast rate.

So, the issue of technologies and the issue of declining economic growth in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are major risks to our successful adaptation, pointing towards resilience building.

What are these technology gaps that exist in Africa?

One area that I wish to take us to is the area of water resources. When we look at the water resource in Africa, it is constantly dwindling.

Water systems are drying up at a very high rate pointing to the fact that there is a need to shift from our traditional rain-fed agriculture, for example, towards irrigated agriculture.

And we are doing this in an environment of water scarcity meaning we need high-efficiency water delivery, irrigation system and infrastructure that will then support our agriculture which is our main means of livelihood and economic growth.

The dwindling of water resources means we need also technologies to increase water availability. Although one may say that we have coastlines with immense water adjoining our land mass, the issue is, yes we have a lot of water in the oceans and inland lakes but how is the quality of that water? It may not be directly useful for agriculture.  Therefore, we need technologies to sterilize this water in an economical way so that we can avail suitable water to support in areas of agriculture.

Energy is indeed another very important area where we need technology. The technologies are there yes but are they accessible by all? We are talking about renewable energy like solar but look at the infrastructure required for the exploitation of solar. It is still way beyond the bulk of the population who are indeed the majority.

Those are the two areas which we need to really look at and this will cascade into the food security equation again. Technology, especially in post-harvest handling is required so that we can extend the shelf life of our indigenous produced foodstuffs.

How does climate change affect African economies and how will your election as IPCC working group vice chair impact the ongoing talks about loss and damage funds?

The GDP of African countries is declining very fast because the economies are driven by the agriculture sector.

The agriculture sector looks at the context of crop production systems and livestock production systems including fisheries and forestry.

Looking at the climate shocks that are now weighing in on Africa, we see that the productivity of these particular systems whether crop-based or livestock-based agriculture is actually declining in the sense that the export share of our cash crops is also declining meaning that the revenues that we get from foreign exchange earnings is also going down and our food commodities are also dwindling because of the declining productivity, as a result, putting pressure on our governments to sustain the country populous through imports of essential food commodities.

And what this means is that we are now committing a lot of forex reserves toward sustaining food imports. This in a way is presenting a lot of risks to us.

So, the issue is that together with the associated loss and damages arising from extremes of weather impacting our human and natural systems including infrastructural collapse which then serve to deepen our vulnerability and therefore the need for climate financing.

Climate financing here has to be looked at in terms of seeing how we access the loss and damage funds that were recently put in place following the previous COP decision.

But how to access these loss and damage funds is not automatic. We need to document and quantify these losses and damages that we are actually facing. We need to document the impact of climate change on our sectors. We need to quantify the losses and damages and if anything, quantify the gains of our climate action in terms of mitigation and adaptation.

That way, we shall then be in a position to put up a case that could trigger the loss and damage funds as well as the general climate financing.

We must take a deliberate effort to lay our case for loss and damage financing. Talking pointing towards wanting to attract sympathy will not serve us in any way.  We need to get down to work and be committed to quantification and documentation of these impacts and loss and damages that we are undergoing.

What role does Africa have to play in limiting global temperatures below two degrees Celsius?

For a long time, Africa has been hiding behind the fact that they are less emitting compared to the rest of the world and therefore suffering unfairly.

But the global atmosphere has no boundaries in it. Any boundaries between countries and continents are only on the surface of the earth. But where the climate element is operating has no boundaries.

And that means that even if you’re contributing less and others contributing more, you will inevitably be impacted. And that does not give you the passport to become careless in the manner you do things.

As minor as we are emitting, we are also adding to the sum total of the global emissions which are affecting everybody.

So, Africa must be committed to conserving its heritage, and by so doing we shall be enhancing our forest cover because we valued forests, more so, indigenous forests because they were resources for our cultural activities, medicines, honey, hunting and many other things.

Africa should not waiver in its endeavor to preserve its environment with forests being one of them.

Africa must fall back to its indigenous knowledge systems of food production and preservation.

This will enable us to continue decreasing the little that we are emitting because that way we can take up our responsibility as Africa and even take up the responsibilities of others as we make sure that at the end of it, all the overall global emissions are not going to overshoot the limits.

Africa is the most vulnerable segment in the world and therefore, we must be more concerned and more obedient towards following the agreements, treaties, policies and protocols globally directed towards climate mitigation so that we can limit temperature rise which is only coming through because of increased greenhouse gases.

Africa is where we have a lot of environmental degradation, unfortunately.  As much as we are not emitting much, we are on a trajectory that is more dangerous than any other place in the world where degradation especially land degradation is the highest. Look at our fragile arid and semi-arid lands, we are doing inappropriate land use practices there.

We are extending unsustainable agriculture; we are engaged in overstocking issues on our pasture resources and under-grading those areas.

Therefore, Africa should not hide behind the historical fact that we are emitting less and therefore we can continue being reckless as we mismanage the environment upon which we are driving our goods and services for our welfare and livelihoods.

Is planting trees enough in mitigating climate change?

Planting trees for me in the context of Africa is not even the way we should go. I think we need to grow trees; we don’t need to plant them. Planting means we are only posting some seedlings into some soil.

The issue of management in a fragile ecosystem that is water-stressed and subjected to high temperatures will not actually guarantee the survival of the same tree seedlings.

So, I want to encourage more tree growing and which tree and where becomes very important. Because tree and plant biomass has been proven to be a great absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Trees growing is indeed very critical for us. We must up the game in tree growing. But the only advice I give even as we put a lot of emphasis on trees growing is which tree are we planting where because there are trees which can only do very well in certain ecological settings so that they can be in harmony with overall ecological systems in those particular places.

So, the trees must also be proven by expert units. In Kenya for example, we need the Kenya forestry research institute and Kenya forest service to be at the forefront in leading this tree-growing exercise in the country because it is not about us planting anything anywhere in the form of a tree that will serve this ecosystem functions.

Tree growing is one of the mechanisms of greenhouse gas mitigation through the enhancement of the carbon sink. But it is not the only way because it is doing one role of only attempting to harvest what already exists in the atmosphere and storing it.

Even if a tree falls under a storm or a branch dries up let’s not chase after it for firewood because by using it as a fuel source we then return back to the atmosphere even more carbon than the one that the tree used during photosynthesis so we must allow it to return back to nature.

Another area of concern where greenhouse gases come from is the area of energy use.  A solution to substitute some of the energy sources which are heavy emitters of greenhouse gases is an area that we should prioritize. Green energy, renewable energy and clean energy are the way to go.

In the area of agriculture, we must also do something because agriculture is a heavy emitter of greenhouse gases through the use of fossil fuels in mechanized agriculture, through enteric fermentation of our ruminants and therefore technologies are required so that we have these ruminants emit less.

This will come in the areas of highly digestible animal feed where efficiency is very high in terms of digestibility to lower the methane emissions from that particular angle.

Rice production in wetland conditions is also a major area for us to watch and we need technologies that will support the mode of rice production that we call the system of rice intensification(Sri).

So the issue of energy becomes very key to watch and therefore if we are moving towards electrification of our transport system for example again that will add onto the list of gains and benefits that will come towards mitigation interventions.

How can we improve climate change awareness, considering that a good number of people still are not really aware of what it means?

People know so much about climate change. The problem is only the manner in which we are putting it and the terminologies we are using to communicate it.

I interact a lot with the people in the society including the old folks. What they tell me is that nowadays things are no longer the same.

And they would take me to about seventy years back and narrate how things used to be. And they are convinced that things are no longer the same.

So, if we look at what was happening in the 1960s, vis-a-vis what is happening today and they are adequately narrating their experiences, don’t you think that it is a demonstration of their understanding of climate change?

So, the many jargons that we are driving along to communicate the simple message that all is not well within our climate system need to be relooked.

People even in the villages tell you, ‘No, I didn’t not harvest as much as I did in the last season because of climate change.’

They are talking so much about it. But as to whether whatever they’re going through is really a climate change issue or simply a temporary shift in behavior, perhaps requires clarity. Then the issue of capacity building and awareness creation becomes very important.

But more so by using observations by the same communities and trying to give them what the implications of their actions will have not today but tomorrow going forward.

And amplify the fact that there’s a much bigger cost as a result of inaction than the cost that they would suffer from the impacts of the current climate. That is the kind of framing of the messaging that we need to take.

Climate change is only being communicated in a global language but down here also we must develop our own narrative that will make sure that every other person is actually a player in taking action towards limiting global warming and slowing down the rate at which the climate is changing.