How quickly can you regrow a forest?

Apparently, 20 years.

Here’s evidence from Brazil:

reforestation….. Salgado was to take over his family’s sprawling cattle ranch in Minas Gerais—a region he remembered as a lush and lively rainforest. Unfortunately, the area had undergone a drastic transformation; only about 0.5% was covered in trees, and all of the wildlife had disappeared. “The land,” he tells The Guardian, “was as sick as I was.”

Then, his wife Lélia had an idea: they should replant the forest. In order to support this seemingly impossible cause, the couple set up the Instituto Terra, an “environmental organization dedicated to the sustainable development of the Valley of the River Doce,” in 1998. Over the next several years, the Salgados and the Instituto Terra team slowly but surely rebuilt the 1,754-acre forest, transforming it from a barren plot of land to a tropical paradise.

Now a Private Natural Heritage Reserve, hundreds of species of flora and fauna call the former cattle ranch home. In addition to 293 species of trees, the land now teems with 172 species of birds, 33 species of mammals, and 15 species of amphibians and reptiles—many of which are endangered. As expected, this rejuvenation has also had a huge impact on the ecosystem and climate. On top of reintroducing plants and animals to the area, the project has rejuvenated several once dried-up springs in the drought-prone area, and has even positively affected local temperatures.

forestcover

Here is the Guardian story.

Perhaps there is hope for countries like Nigeria (see graph) to eventually reverse the deforestation trends across the Continent over the last five decades.

Urbanization might help in the medium-to-long term, although its effects will be moderated by what happens to agricultural productivity. Climate change will matter, too. Finally, Kenya and Ethiopia provide suggestive evidence that the Continent’s ongoing population explosion might not decimate its forests after all. On Nigeria, it would be interesting to determine if the decline in forest cover is due to population growth or climate change effects in its central and northern regions.

This is the dumbest paragraph by Thomas Friedman you’ll ever read in your life

You can learn everything you need to know about the main challenges facing Africa today by talking to just two people in Senegal: the rapper and the weatherman. They’ve never met, but I could imagine them doing an amazing duet one day — words and weather predictions — on the future of Africa.

The title of his column in “Out of Africa: Part III.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Younger Me: 18th century European views of Africa and Africans are sticky. This means that occasionally, even educated sophisticates like Friedman (especially as they get older), can let slip horse manure like this.

Current Me: This is racism masquerading as stylistic hyperbole. For an uncomfortably high proportion of Americans — whether educated or not, in media houses or in the seminar room — Africa is a simple place with simple people facing simple problems that require simple solutions. Africa is just different in every dimension imaginable.

Very few of these people ever updated since reading Joseph Conrad.

In order to know about Africa’s future, you don’t need to talk to someone with a sophisticated understanding of the Senegalese economy (or for that matter, Africa’s other 53 economies). Just talk to the rapper and the weatherman. Or some dude in Kibera. Or a warlord somewhere in Eastern Congo. And then pepper your story with some quotes from WENA (Western Europe, North America, and the Antipodes) diplomats.

Think about it. At least two college-educated people at the New York Times looked at this and let it through.

Also, there is a way to have an intelligent conversation about climate change in Africa without always tying it to conflict and migration to Europe.

H/T Matina Stevis.

Ignore the hype: Kenya’s home solar users have not leapfrogged the grid

A recent article in the New York Times describes how a solar home provider will, “help some of the 1.2 billion people in the world who don’t have electricity to leapfrog the coal-dependent grid straight to renewable energy sources.” Does that mean someone didn’t read my previous attempt to stamp out the phrase “leapfrogging” in the context of distributed solar energy for households in the developing world?!? Alas!

One of the reasons I object to the phrase leapfrogging is that, at least given current technologies, home solar systems do not provide anywhere close to the same level of service as electricity from the grid. By contrast, a mobile phone, the oft-cited analogy in the leapfrogging discussions, has at least one notable advantage over a landline – it’s mobile.

Together with my co-authors Ken Lee and Ted Miguel, I just released a working paper that provides direct evidence that home solar users have not leapfrogged the grid

That’s Catherine Wolfram of Haas at Berkeley. Read the paper.

Regular readers of the blog know of my deep skepticism over the “leapfrogging the grid” talk.

And it’s not just in Kenya. Wolfram reminds readers in the post that:

The Center for Global Development describes recent research that makes a similar point. They found that nearly 90% of households in Tanzania who already had “access to electricity outside of the national grid, such as solar power” still wanted a connection to the national grid. They also link to an article that describes villagers with a solar microgrid in India who still want “real” electricity, by which they mean grid.

On a side note, these findings should inform the marketing strategies of solar power companies that may want to go big on the Continent. The last thing you want to do is “NGO-ize” your product by making it seem like it is exclusively meant for those who cannot afford to be on the “real” grid.

Also, Africa’s grids are actually a lot greener than you might think:

Over 60 percent of the existing generation in Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa comes from hydro, geothermal and other non-fossil-fuel sources.

So, pushing households to home solar in Sub-Saharan Africa may not save nearly as much fossil fuel as some proponents would have you believe.

How to achieve energy security for growth in Africa

This post originally appeared on the AfDB’s Integrating Africa Blog where yours truly is a regular contributor.

According to a recent survey by Ernst & Young, 44% of businesspeople in Africa identified inadequate infrastructure as one of the key constraints to doing business in the region.  This means that as Africa continues to grow in the next two decades, infrastructure development must top the investment agenda. General infrastructure development will be especially crucial as African economies undergo structural transformation from being primarily resource-driven to having bigger manufacturing and service sectors. Indeed Ernst & Young estimates that in 2012 43.1% of investments in capital in Africa went to manufacturing as opposed to 12% that went to the extractive sector. 

A key area that will require greater and smarter investment to fuel the region’s economic growth will be the energy sector. 

Everyone knows about the energy woes of many an African country – from Nigeria’s infamous generators to the total lack of functional national grids in some African states. A few countries have initiated plans to boost their energy sectors through investment in power generation (Ethiopia’s 6000MW Great Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile), oil refining (Angola’s planned 200,000 bbl/day refinery in Lobito), and aggressive prospecting for fossil fuels (especially in eastern and southern Africa). Despite these national efforts, for African states to ensure energy security for their growing economies, they must also think regional (and to some extent continental) when developing their respective energy sectors. As intra-Africa trade grows in the next two decades, there will be pressure to integrate energy markets as well. 

The reasons for a regional/continental approach to energy sector development are twofold. Firstly, investment outlays in energy infrastructure development are often prohibitively expensive (because their viability relies on economies of scale), thus necessitating the pooling of resources. Ethiopia’s newest dam, for instance, will cost $4.7 billion. Not many African countries can afford such massive investments on one project. 

Secondly, there is the issue of markets. With 12% of the world’s population, Africa consumes a meager 3% of the world’s electricity. Of this 75% takes place in North Africa (33%) and South Africa (45%). The remainder is shared out among the rest of Sub-Saharan African states. Furthermore, electricity connectivity on the continent remains relatively low, with rates averaging 43% (North Africa stands at 99%, with the other sub-regions between 12-44%).

This means that for projects like Ethiopia’s to make sense, access to international markets must be guaranteed. A key part of the Ethiopian project is the planned interconnector line linking the power station to the Kenyan grid. Joint investment and taking advantage of economies of scale will also help lower the cost of power in Africa. At present the average tariff per kilowatt-hour in the region is US $0.14, compared to US $0.04 in Southeast Asia. It is estimated that investing in regional grids and hydropower will save the region up to $2 billion annually. This is music to the ears of sugar millers, cement manufacturers and many small factory owners across the continent. 

Existing and Planned Power Pool Connections in Africa

Source: Niyimbona, P, UN Economic Commission for Africa; Note: There are additional planned lines connecting Ethiopia to Sudan and Kenya, respectively, not shown on the map.

With this in mind, African states have begun the process of integrating their power sector infrastructure, via regional power pools (see map above of existing and planned power interconnector links). The South African Power Pool (SAPP, established in 1995); North African power pool (COMELEC , 1998); West African Power Pool (WAPP, 2000); the Central African Power Pool (CEAPP, 2003); and the East Africa Power Pool (EAPP, 2005) are all initiatives to establish regional power markets and help harmonize energy policy. 

The COMELEC sub-region (27.4 GW, largely thermal, in 2009) has the highest connectivity and the best infrastructure. The region is also linked to the Middle East via the Egypt-Jordan interconnector line and Europe via the Morocco-Spain line (part of the future Mediterranean Electricity Ring, MEDRING). SAPP, with a capacity of 50GW (78.4% coal; 20.1% hydro; 4% nuclear and 1.6% diesel), is next in terms of infrastructure development.  The remaining pools have 13 GW in the WAPP; 29 GW in the EAPP. There is a plan to link the EAPP to states outside of East Africa as part of COMESA. The 19-state COMESA bloc has an installed capacity of 52MW (69% thermal and 30% hydro) and has since 2009 initiated a process to harmonize regulation and energy policy.   In terms of regional (intra-power pool) trade in power, SAPP is ahead with 7.5%, WAPP 6.9%, NAPP 6.2%, EAPP 0.4% and CAPP 0.2%.  Clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement in levels intra-pool trade in power. 

All these developments are encouraging. But a lot more needs to be done. For starters African states must work harder to harmonize their energy policies. This will necessarily involve greater liberalization of their power sectors, especially with regard to power generation and distribution. There is also an urgent need to invest in interconnector infrastructure to ensure that power can be transmitted efficiently to market. In the Day Ahead Market (DAM) of SAPP, for instance, trading is limited by between 40-50% of the potential level due to lack of efficient transmission capacity. Lastly, there will be a need to connect the regional power pools. This will reduce their overreliance on regional “anchor” economies (the best example of this is SAPP’s overreliance on ESKOM of South Africa, which has its own integrated resource plan). It will also create even bigger markets, including potentially the Middle East and Europe.  

Ultimately, whether or not the dream of regional and continental power interconnectivity is achieved will depend on politics. Unfortunately, so far things do not look good. Almost a decade after the idea of regional power pools set in, governments are yet to harmonize their power sector regulatory policies. In many countries state monopolies dominate, with attendant inefficiencies. And across the continent power supply master plans are still very nation-centric and under the tight control of local vested interests. Moving forward, the challenge will be to convince governments and stakeholders (private sector and consumers alike) of the benefits of having an Africa-wide power market – which will necessarily require the liberalization of national power sectors. The alternative will be more roundtable discussions and promises of policy harmonization that never get fulfilled. 

linking climate change to poor women in the developing world

They do not drive SUVs. Some have never even seen a light bulb. But according to research one of the most effective ways of preventing climate change is to ensure that poor women in the developing world do not have a lot of children.

Because of their advertised positive impact, I used to be a proponent of population control family planning programs in the developing world. And then I saw the data and changed my mind. Reducing the number of people being born in the developing world will not reduce the effects of climate change. What needs to happen is a change in consumption habits in the West and among the upper classes in the developing world. The poor too need to stop cutting down trees for charcoal. But we should not push them into having less children and make it a climate change issue. They are not responsible. Those responsible should change their consumption habits and perhaps invest in providing alternatives to charcoal for the poor.

something to think about

I believe that climate change should be tackled urgently. I also think that conservation efforts, especially of forests and water catchment areas should be encouraged by all means. That said, this quote from the Economist Newspaper raises some very important questions about the rank order of priorities. The decision between polar bears or butterflies and people’s lives is a non-decision.

Strict environmental laws cause long delays in building homes. This is nice for endangered butterflies, but tough for South Africans who live in shacks


 

people don’t go to war because they are poor

So as promised, I read the piece by Burke et al. They claim to have found a correlation between temperature increases and the onset of civil conflict in most of Africa. The mechanism is that hot weather messes up crop yields and therefore increases the likelihood of conflict (especially in places where people depend on rain-fed agriculture). This conclusion is based on the findings of a tight correlation between economic underdevelopment and civil wars. Nice and dandy, if you believe that people fight because they are poor. Sure, the opportunity costs are much lower for the poor aggrieved who oftentimes than not choose the conflict route to settling disputes. But state capacity, in my view, has a much greater influence on whether people choose to fight or not.

The paper’s policy prescriptions are even dodgier. The authors recommend that foreign aid be conditioned on projected adverse effects of climate change. Firstly, this “solution” is based on the premise that greater proportions of Africans will continue to depend on agriculture into the foreseeable future. This might be true, but shouldn’t we be trying to expand African economies and reducing dependence on agriculture (which necessarily forces us to deal with issues of governance)? Secondly, the idea that foreign aid should be conditioned on climate change is just, well, silly. Many a failed development initiative on the Continent can be blamed on the erratic nature of foreign aid. Adding more variance by pegging aid flows to climate changes will only make things worse.

For a more refined critique see Chris Blattman’s Blog.

climate change madness, and bad research

Climate change is real, no doubt about that. But making inferences like this one from observed climatic patterns does not make any sense. It is almost offensive.

quoting the piece….

“Climate change is likely to increase the number of civil wars raging in Africa, according to Stanford researchers. Historical records show that in warmer-than-average years, the number of conflicts rises. The researchers predict that by 2030, Africa could see a greater than 50 percent increase in civil wars, which could mean an additional 390,000 deaths just from fighting alone.”

There are several things that are wrong with this inference. From the start, attempting to predict future patterns of conflict based on past experiences is highly problematic. Unless we presume that Africans are irrational in their violence, there is no reason to infer that they will naturally fight because of the predicted adverse effects of climate change. Past wars had a myriad causes – chief among them state failure. Most of these causes no longer obtain and may not obtain in 2030.

I have not read the actual paper but will sure do so as soon as I can get it and then comment some more about it. For now all I can make of it is: we should save the environment or else the Africans will kill themselves. This is what I call a heap of horse manure.

africa’s population – the economist’s view

The Economist has two interesting pieces on the demographic trends in Africa. The first article notes that the fertility rates on the continent are finally beginning to come down. The second one discusses the chances that Africa will take advantage of the democratic dividend and execute its own green revolution.

As I have argued before, there is a great deal of economic sense in bringing population growth on the Continent under control – at least until people’s life options have been increased enough so that they can make well informed choices on the number of offspring to have. The usual critics of family planning measures – the Church and conspiracy theorists – should take some time to visit slums or rural homes in which overburdened, dis-empowered daughters of the Continent with little or no economic wherewithal run

I reiterate, this lifestyle is not sustainable

The Economist’s Middle East and Africa section has a piece on the plight of those exposed to environemntal disasters due to climate change. The article talks a bit about the nomads of northern Kenya and how their livelihood remain endangered as the place gets drier and the drought cycle shortens. As I have stated before, it is not enough for us to pretend that the type of lifestyles still maintained by the nomads of Kenya, and Africa in general, are sustainable. The simple truth is that they are not. It is 2009 and human beings should not still be living at the mercy of nature, if they can avoid it. It is time these communities were given incentives to start laying the groundwork for a sedentary lifestyle. This is not cultural imperialism or anything. It is what’s practical.

And by the way, it is not condescending to say that nomadic pastoralism belongs in the stateless past when there was no concept of land tenure or stuff like libraries and hospitals and schools that require a sedentary lifestyle. “Incentives” here means some sort of nudge in the right direction. And to be quite honest, sometimes communities might make the wrong choices if the state stays out of their business. If a community chooses a lifestyle that kills half its children before they are five, confines women to the fields and kitchen, promotes high illiteracy rates and is generally backward by universally accepted standards of human life then I believe that the state has a duty to intervene. Now I know that for most of Africa the state is largely unable to do anything, and that is why there are NGOs everywhere (well to some extent). But this (the existence of an interventionist developmental state) ought to be the case.

How we can make the state do what it ought to do is another can of worms. But I think that right off the bat those involved in the development industry should always make it clear that the aim is to guarantee people a decent livelihood and not to merely make them comfortable in their poverty by pretending to “respect” their cultures and ways of life. This faux-respect is the kind of stuff that should never leave anthropology seminar rooms.

And going back to the Economist piece, the clown who wrote that piece should know that talking about the poor of the global south “picking up sticks” in conflicts is not cool. Such a condescending tone does not help anyone. The cheap humor is not worth it.

global warming, africa cannot afford passivism

Climate change is increasingly becoming an issue in African states as more and more of them get exposed to the effects of global warming – the glaciers are disappearing from the top of Mt. Kirinyaga (Mt. Kenya) and Mt. Kilimanjaro and the sea level off Africa’s coasts continues to rise. On this issue, African countries like most developing countries, find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand there is a need to cut green house gas emissions in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences that will befall the planet, but on the other hand these same countries need to industrialise using cheap means that may not necessarily be green. Green technology in its current rudimentary state simply cannot power industries.

Global warming is real, but at the same time it would be morally unacceptable to continue delaying poor countries’ development by forcing them to go green in this stage of their economic development. For instance countries in Africa contribute only 2.5% of the total global green house gas emissions. Currently green energy is expensive and cannot be used in an industrial scale. This does not give poor countries a carte blanche to pollute as much as they want as they continue to industrialise. Industrialisation should go on under strict regulation in order to keep the pollution levels to a minimum.

Africa also needs to seriously plan for the consequences of having a warmer planet. Some countries like Niger and the Central African Republic have made great strides in trying to stop the spread of the Sahara by having successful tree growing programmes even with their rather meagre resources. The AU should learn from these two countries and take up a leading role in campaigning for a green (or just about as green as can be done) industrial revolution on the continent, devoid of the wastefulness that continues to characterize modern living in cities around the world. The Kofi Anan headed Alliance for Green Revolution, I believe, is a step in the right direction and will play a vital role in providing food security for the continent’s peoples when the going gets tough due to global warming induced famines.

Climate change is a global problem and needs to be tackled through a coordinated effort by all players – underdeveloped and developed alike. Indeed it is the developing countries that should be most voluble in this campaign because as the earth warms up and the frequency of droughts increase, the hardest hit will not be the owners fossil energy guzzlers in the developed countries but hapless farmers somewhere in the global south countryside who have never owned a motor car or a CFC emitting gadget.