Oil, conservation and development

Elison Karuhanga  

What you need to know:

We can develop these natural assets and conserve the environment at the same time.

"We are in the middle of an interesting debate in Uganda. It is a debate about development and conservation. As the reader may know, Uganda is set to start producing oil in the next three years. This is likely to cause increased economic growth. We are already seeing a new airport, brand new roads and a number of interesting opportunities as a result of this project.

There is also a strong lobby fighting this project. They are mainly international NGOs and “climate activists”. They are well resourced, have an excellent public relations team and have been careful to mainly use young Ugandans aged 16-21 as the face of this activism. These young climate activists have met and continue to meet all manner of world leaders including the Pope. They appear and are interviewed on international television networks that use more energy than Wakiso District.

What is their case? They claim the pipeline will be emitting about 34.3 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. This is false. Uganda will be emitting a total of approximately 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from all its oil projects and not just the pipeline. The pipeline contribution is almost negligible. This is because the pipeline will be buried underground and, therefore, will not be emitting much into the atmosphere. By contrast, tree cutting in Uganda causes emissions of at least 3.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. That is double the emissions from oil and gas. Deforestation, not oil and gas is and will be, the biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Uganda. Deforestation is caused mainly by underdevelopment and poverty.

In any event, the emissions from our oil can easily be neutralised by planting trees. Trees literally breathe in carbon dioxide. Any student of primary school science can tell you that trees remove carbon dioxide from the air. It follows, therefore, that tree planting can actually make our oil project carbon neutral.

Clearly, we can develop these natural assets and conserve the environment at the same time. It is not a binary choice.

Uganda has been serious about its climate change obligations. In August 2021, President Museveni signed the National Climate Change Act. Uganda also amended its Public Finance law to provide that before any budget is passed the Finance minister must ensure that the proposed budget is climate change responsive and “contains adequate allocation for funding climate change measures and actions”.

Under the Paris Agreement, Uganda is supposed to be funded to reduce its carbon emissions. Instead of waiting for this funding, Uganda from its meagre resources puts aside money in every budget to fund climate change measures.

So why can’t the environmentalists see that development and conservation can coexist? I am getting persuaded that to some in the international NGO community, backwardness and under development in Africa is what they actually are trying to conserve. A recent article in the German paper Tagesspiegel on the pipeline persuaded me of this.  The research in the article was sponsored by the “European Development Journalism Grants Programme” which itself is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Among the many bad things that EACOP had caused, according to this research, was the construction of “oil roads”.

The article states: “After resettlement, all families received a standard house as a replacement - three small bedrooms, a tiny bathroom, a living room, a cooking area and latrine behind the house.” The people were not used to living in such houses. Before, the article claims, when a son became 18 he had his own hut. Now he has the inconvenience of a house. Clearly the people don’t need roads, electricity, piped water when they can go to boreholes and live in huts. This is conservation of under development.

It is no wonder that the Ugandan activists who are at the forefront of this campaign are people between 16 to 20 years. Some of them should be in school sitting exams. I agree that they are the most genuine activists. They are firm believers in their cause. However, it seems to me that the public relations companies that send these people to speak are actually worried about having an adult conversation.

The writer is an advocate and partner at Kampala Associated Advocates