Uganda can ‘drink’ its oil and have it (too)

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Clinging to their environmental recklessness, and justifying our right to pollute the atmosphere, won’t solve our problems.

The scuffles over the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) have only intensified, with more regional and international environmental and climate activists joining the fray, arguing that it will be an ecological disaster.

 They have upped pressures on funders and operators like Total Energies. Some have jumped ship. On the other hand, the Uganda government has also sharpened its attacks on environmental activists and critics from the West. The attacks are both physical and in words. They say the green and renewable energy brigade in the West are hypocrites. After polluting the world and growing rich in the process, they now want Uganda and the rest of Africa not to exploit fossil fuels and grow their economies. That the clean energies they are urging less developed countries to use, like solar power and wind, are just not enough to power large-scale industries, and that the technology is still primitive when it comes to storage, for example.

However, this is one of those wars where both sides are right. In global terms, Africa’s emissions are peanuts. Africans are right, therefore, to make this point to argue against too-large a burden of climate change mitigation falling on its shoulders. However, though it is the world’s most minor climate sinner, it suffers the most consequences. The industrialised nations have polluted for centuries, yes, and brought us to the brink. If we add our little share to the carbon emissions, the climate will tip, and our pain will be highest.

 Consider what will happen to landlocked Uganda. Sea level rises are already battering Africa’s coasts, with over 50 percent of the coastline of several coastal nations exposed to an average erosion of two meters per year. That threatens our export and import lifelines in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Mombasa, Kenya. How safe will Tanga port, where the pipeline is landing, be by just 2030 if the current rise in global temperature is not halted and reversed? The West has caused a large part of this crisis, but we can’t rewind that clock. Clinging to their environmental recklessness, and justifying our right to pollute the atmosphere, won’t solve our problems.

 So, again, if you spend to grow out of poverty, you cut your nose to spite your face if you do it in such a way that the climate will come back and wipe away your investment. You will remain poor.

 There is a way out of this impasse. First, there’s a need to note the small but significant progressive things Uganda has done that other oil producers like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia didn’t. Uganda, for example, prohibits flaring - burning waste gas during crude extraction - which produces deadly methane. It will be converted into liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for domestic use by Ugandans.

 Oil industries, seeking to be better ecological enterprises, have dealt with the problems Uganda’s oil faces. It needs to put some low-carbon points on the table.

 The fellows at Madhvani’s Kakira sugar factory are turning sugarcane waste into ethanol, a wonderfully clean fuel that can be used to power motors. There is a lot of trucking already involved in EACOP. The government could rule that in a year’s time, all heavy transportation for EACOP must use at least 50 percent ethanol fuel as an additive. That would also help Kakira grow into an alternative energy giant and possibly put Uganda on a path to becoming an African ethanol power.

 Once completed, at 1,440 kilometres, EACOP will be the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world. If it undertook to plant just 1,000 trees along one kilometre of the pipeline, that would be 1.44 billion trees. In one year, a mature, healthy tree can absorb more than 21.77 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange. In a year, the EACOP tree corridor would absorb 31.3 billion kilogrammes (31.3 million metric tonnes) of carbon dioxide.

 Considering that this year humans are projected to project 36.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from a small corner of the world, EACOP would be doing a whole lot of good. And it could choose to double its effort and plant 2.88 billion trees.

 It would be harder to do, but it could also plant a parallel solar power panel field for at least half the distance of the oil pipeline. How would it fund it? It could create a fund that is out of reach of the grubby corrupt hands of corrupt Ugandan and Tanzanian officials, invest just $2.5 from each barrel of oil sold into it for the first five years, and stop. That would be enough to pay for the trees and solar fields. That wouldn’t solve all the problems with EACOP, but it would make it a formidable opponent to go against.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter: @cobbo3

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