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I hope sense will prevail at COP21, says Tanzanian 2007 Nobel laureate on climate change

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Dr Jamidu Katima, 2007 Nobel laureate on climate change. LA Bagnetto

World leaders, scientists and climate negotiators are gearing up for the upcoming COP21 climate change conference in Paris at the end of November. Amid fears that a deal might not be struck in at the summit, RFI spoke to Jamidu Katima, a 2007 Nobel laureate and professor of chemical engineering at the University of Dar es Salaam on the hopes he has for COP21 and the work Tanzania needs to carry out its climate change programs.


You are a 2007 Nobel prize laureate, along with Al Gore for your work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Do you think Tanzania has come a long way in the eight years since?

The answer could be yes or no. Yes, in the sense that now we have an agreement, and the politicians are appreciating that yes, climate change is an issue. We’ve tried to put some things in place, for example, looking at the NAPA, the National Action Plan for Adaptation, and also we’ve tried to look at the mitigation strategy. So what we have now are instruments which are yet to be implemented. They are all ready to take off. There are projects which we’ve already identified in the mitigation area, we have technologies we’ve identified in the adaptation area, but at the moment, I think that we have not started implementing them in full. For the time being, I’m involved in the technology and needs assessment, which is a UNFCCC-driven process, where we are trying now to come up with technologies that can actually mitigate or adapt, in the energy sector, the agricultural sector, and the water sector. Probably, these will form projects that can be implemented to try and mitigate climate change, but at the same time, assist government to adapt to climate change.

I was talking to a number of activists, who said they tracked the money. They said that only two per cent of the money is actually allocated to climate change, that the problem is more economic than environmental. Would you agree with that assessment, and do you think that more needs to be done in terms of funding?

I don’t believe in having money, having money, having money. You really need to know exactly, if you have money, what you are going to do with that money. If you don’t have well-defined projects in the mitigation area, if you don’t have well-defined projects in adaptation, you’ll get money but you’ll end up doing nothing to assist those who are actually affected by climate change. So, in my opinion, money to me is secondary. The primary thing is knowing exactly what we can do with the money, so that we assist those who are impacted by climate change, so that their life is better than the way it is now or the way it will be in the next few years when climate change is having a severe impact on our economy.

In terms of climate change and allocation, do you think it would be necessary to create, perhaps, a ministry of climate change, or do you think that these projects that haven’t been implemented yet should be implemented within the different ministries or departments to make it more effective?

I think you are touching a very fundamental aspect on whether by creating an independent institution you are really giving high profile to a problem. The problem you’re having is that as soon as you create it as a separate entity outside the whole system, it will just be looked at as a separate entity. And what we need is a coordinating body, with the activities of implementing the mitigation and adaptation have to be done in all these different sectors. So you don’t want it to…concentrate them in one unit, thinking that it will be enough. These are cross-sectoral, and they need multiple stakeholders to really participate. And, as soon as people start looking at the ministry, as ‘that ministry’, then you have a huge problem. So what I would advocate is that it would have a strong coordination mechanism, where every player in their own ministries or own sectors can come together to have a common understanding on how to move forward to solve the climate change problem.

Can you give us some insight into some of the energy projects you’re working on with climate change?

When you are looking at the mitigation, the options are definitely focusing on renewables. And when you look at renewables, our energy is still dependent on fossil fuel. So if you can use the wind energy which you have, use geothermal, use the micro hydropowers. But if you ask me, I would put more emphasis on how we make use of biomass. At the moment, more than 80 percent of our energy is biomass based. And because the majority of our rural people are still using biomass, that is where the greater impact could be, because we’ll be touching upon many people. Then actually looking at the wind, of course, we have some projects which are coming up, we have geothermal coming up, but all these are limited. When you look at the huge potential of biomass, probably that’s where we could put more of our efforts and achieve more.

Tanzania is part of the V-20, one of the ‘vulnerable countries’. I’ve spoken to activists all around the continent, who’ve said that it’s really hard for them to get their voices heard. Do you think that people are listening to your opinion?

Probably what you can say is that everyone has been ignored (laughs). Because the issue here is that you look at your own problems. And when you don’t get a solution to your own problem you say, ‘I’ve been ignored.’ But if you look at the setting of the structure of the negotiations, everyone is trying to struggle in their corner. In my own opinion, and this is purely my own opinion, we’ve been all along trying to form a coalition with unlike people. I’m talking the likeness of the strength of economy, the amount of greenhouse gases being omitted-- all of these have a very significant impact on UN negotiations. For example, when you take the G-77 and China, which is a good arrangement, but in G-77 and China you have those who are emitting a huge amount of carbon dioxide. And here you have Tanzania which is vulnerable, emitting a very small amount of carbon dioxide. And you want to have a common agreement. Definitely, when you are arguing in this bigger setting, you can’t claim that ‘my voice hasn’t been heard’ because this is the way things have been happening. I think that if we realize that now, ‘ok, let’s try and look at the common problems, with common agendas’, and then say, ‘you are my friend but what you are doing is hurting me more, can you do something?’ and then start talking to each other. ‘Yes, we belong to G-77 but you’re emitting more, your emissions are actually impacting my economy, can you at least to do something?’ Probably that will go a long way than just waiting for only the G-80 to solve our problems.

COP21 is going to be held in Paris this year—what do you hope will be accomplished there?

Although I’m not that optimistic, but I hope sense will prevail, that we need to do something. I don’t expect that we’ll come out with a blueprint on the agreement on what to be done. But at least we may get an agreement that yes, we need to have a framework. Because since Copenhagen, we haven’t been able to agree on anything, we just talk, talk, talk, talk. And probably this time around, people have already realized that we need to do something. And as soon as we agree that we need a framework, probably that will give us some hope that we work on the framework, we’ll come out with the legally binding limits and whatever. At that moment I’m still not optimistic, the reason being that when I look at the enthusiasm that was there when we were approaching the Copenhagen was very high, and it’s just collapsed. And of course the following COPs couldn’t actually do much from what happened in Copenhagen. So, my wish is that good sense prevail, and people come to realize that yes, we need to do something, and we don’t have to agree that this is how it should be done, but we have to agree that we need a framework and then let the scientists work on what we can achieve.