Australia carbon axe leaves poor ‘helpless’ says Zambia minister

Latest blow means rich countries need to deliver on finance and emission cuts in 2015, warns Wylbur Simuusa

By Ed King in Pori

Australia’s recent decision to axe its carbon tax has exacerbated poor countries’ feelings of helplessness in the face of climate change, says Zambia’s agriculture minister.

Wylbur Simuusa says the move by prime minister Tony Abbott to ditch the country’s flagship emissions cutting measure left him stunned.

In an interview with RTCC on the sidelines of the Pori environment festival in Finland, Simuusa says that for a UN climate deal to have any hope of working, he needs to see more support for Africa from wealthier countries.

“These are the countries we are looking up to for hope that we are going to survive this. If they are backtracking we have no hope,” he says.

“They have the capacity, technology and resources to deal with this. If they can’t it’s the end of the world for the smaller ones.”

The UN is drafting an agreement that should be ready by November this year, before major economies reveal what greenhouse gas cuts they will make early next year.

Before then, Simuusa wants a small coalition of developed nations, which he says could be led by Finland and another smaller country like Costa Rica, to help bridge the gap between rich and poor and try and broker a climate deal early in 2015.

If countries wait until the UN’s Paris summit next December, when the agreement or treaty is set to be signed, it could be too late, he warns.

“Things have regressed – there is no indication of an improvement in terms of progress, everything is at a standstill,” he says.

“Experience has shown it is very hard to predict how progress will be until the summit. What we need is a catalyst.”

Simuusa says the performance of the agriculture sector can 'make or break' a government

Simuusa says the performance of the agriculture sector can ‘make or break’ a Zambian government

According to the minister, farmers he speaks to are already facing impacts linked to climate change, with erratic rainfalls tricking them into planting their crops earlier than they should.

“They panic and plant, but there is no rain till December. Everything dries out. So you plough and plant in January. But by March the rain is gone, so it has left the farmer with no proper plan.”

Sugar cane, maize and wheat make up the bulk of Zambia’s agricultural produce – generating over $370m from exports annually.

Without investments in irrigation, seed varieties, mechanisation and better weather services, this source of income could suffer.

Over 75% of the country’s water supply is used for agriculture, but irrigation systems are basic and frequently not interconnected, partly due to the large number of subsidence farmers, he says.

As the UN climate science panel’s IPCC WG2 report observed earlier this year, a lack of cash or credit in Africa means many farmers lack the capability to adapt to changing conditions.

Some small projects have had huge effects. According to the IPCC, a scheme to boost soil fertility on degraded lands, planting faidherbia trees with small doses of mineral fertilizers, has doubled yields of maize.

The minister cites a recent farm he visiting which employed ‘climate smart’ practices, planting trees and conserving water. The farmer’s maize crop had rocketed from 1.2 tonnes per hectare to 5 tonnes.

He’d like to take the farmer on a road trip, get him to speak to his colleagues and explain the simple techniques he took to make his farm more resilient – but says the money isn’t there.

Simuusa admits the Finnish government, with whom he has a close working relationship, is offering valuable support to the country, financially backing adaptation projects.

But he says the wider finance landscape remains bleak, and remains sceptical about the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which is still hunting dollars for its initial capitalization.

“There’s a feeling that even if we try, we will not get anything from that fund, because worldwide there are more powerful beasts – and it’s a fund we can’t really rely on,” he says.

“We need more reliable support from a surer source. If it comes it would be a big bonus, but the feeling is that we can’t be sure.”

Diplomatic impasse

This uncertainty over the country’s future in a warmer world, and a lack of assurances from traditional climate ‘leaders’ like the EU has led to African countries sticking closely together at UN talks.

Simuusa acknowledges out that the ill-trust that pervades the talks ensures some of the world’s top carbon polluters – such as China and India – escape real interrogation from the developing world.

He says fellow African leaders quietly acknowledge China’s responsibility, but rarely make a stand within the influential G77 + China negotiating bloc, because they want to maintain pressure on western countries.

“It’s cut-throat, vicious, emotional – it’s really ugly, people don’t mince words” he says.

“But you won’t get that within the group. I don’t want to say hypocritical – but that’s how the game is played. China pollutes more than most – but you’ll not hear anyone in that group of 77 condemning China.”

“We need to get to the point where it’s not a divide. Where it’s not them and us. If there is a country within the group who is not doing their bit, we should be able to say – hey – you are letting us down and messing us up.”

That level of public shaming may be some time off – but Simuusa does see some merit in Ban Ki-moon’s forthcoming climate summit.

He argues that while it’s not an opportunity for negotiations, it may allow the space for heads of state to explain how they’re affected by warming temperatures.

The summit could provide the personal touch that longer scientific reports can’t deliver, and offer a chance for new alliances across the developed and developing world to be struck.

“Big countries may not appreciate how devastating the effects are… in Zambia the rain pattern affects the food and 80% of the livelihood of our people,” he says.

“Please think. As big as you are, the small guy is going through hell, and we don’t have the muscle or technology to defend ourselves against a force like climate change.”

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