Oil exploitation contradicts Kenya's climate goals, legislator warns

by Pius Sawa | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 26 May 2014 13:30 GMT

Wind turbines dominate the landscape at the Ngong Hills Wind Farm, managed by the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) in Kajiado County. TRF/Pius Sawa

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Will the push to extract Kenya's fossil fuels undermine an anticipated new law to promote low-carbon development?

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya is in the final stage of enacting a new climate change law, expected to be approved in the coming months. At the same time, the private sector is preparing to tap significant oil reserves in the north. Will the hunt for fossil fuels thwart Kenya’s efforts to go green and curb its carbon emissions?

After a 2007 study forecast how climate change would impact Kenya, a National Climate Change Response Strategy was launched at the 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen. The government then developed a Climate Change Action Plan to implement the strategy, which was completed in March 2013.

The action plan spells out how to tackle climate change at local, county and national levels. The next step is to enshrine that in law.

“We realised we had collected enough information to start preparing climate change legislation, because it cuts across all sectors – hence the need for a legal framework to coordinate climate change mitigation and adaptation measures,” said Wilbur Ottichilo, member of parliament for Emuhaya Constituency in the western county of Vihiga, and backer of the climate change bill in parliament.

Yet while Kenya’s climate policy focuses on promoting low-carbon development, the current government is also prioritising mining and oil exploration. Petroleum discoveries have been made in Turkana, the Nyanza region around Lake Victoria and off the coast in the Indian Ocean. Coal has been found in Kitui in the east, and iron ore in Taita on the coast. The government has enacted a mining bill, and dedicated a new ministry to the sector.

British company Tullow Oil, meanwhile, has sunk seven oil wells in the semi-arid northwestern county of Turkana. In a January update, it said it had discovered estimated reserves of over 600 million barrels, adding that the overall potential for the basin could top 1 billion barrels. The company’s exploration director, Angus McCoss, said results so far suggested the area could become “a significant new hydrocarbon province”.

Kenya is hoping that resource exploitation will create jobs and wealth. But Ottichilo believes it runs contrary to efforts to tackle climate change. “Our policy and law is focusing on low-carbon strategy, meaning we want to go more towards renewable energy rather than fossil fuels for our development,” said the environmental scientist.

‘CATCH 22’

A first attempt at passing a climate change law in Kenya failed early last year, when the president vetoed it, reportedly on the request of the environment ministry, which felt it had not been adequately consulted. But those involved this time around are confident there has been much wider dialogue on the new climate change bill, which is due for a second reading in parliament in June.

The draft bill identifies activities that have increased Kenya’s emissions, including industrialisation, vehicle pollution, illegal charcoal burning and uncontrolled logging for firewood.

Among the solutions it proposes are fines and jail sentences for polluters, solar equipment and energy efficiency in new buildings, and community kiosks that sell solar lamps and charge mobile phones using solar power.

Under the law, land owners would be required to plant trees on 10 percent of their land, and farmers would be helped to adapt to climate change, especially in dryland areas.

Exploitation of Kenya’s fossil fuel reserves, however, could undo some of this good work, Ottichilo warned. The East African nation now contributes less than 0.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but it could become a big emitter if it ploughs ahead with mining and oil, Ottichilo warned.

“We have found ourselves in a catch-22 situation, where we have discovered large resources of fossil energy but at the same time, the global position is that use of fossil fuels must be reduced. So as we go to exploit (them), we are going to find a lot of resistance,” the politician said.

That international shift means fossil fuel discoveries will not help Kenya’s development leap forward as they would have done even 20 years ago, Ottichilo added.


Martin Oulu, a climate change consultant in Nairobi and researcher in the Human Ecology Division of Sweden’s Lund University, said Kenya’s oil exploitation should be viewed from an equity perspective.

“Even though Kenya might be seen as becoming a ‘polluter’ by exploiting its oil, the country's emissions per capita will still be way lower than those in the more developed northern countries,” he said.

Poverty levels remain high in Kenya, and it is off track to meet several of the Millennium Development Goals. If oil exploitation generates state revenue that is used to lift people out of poverty, and it is carried out with the best technology causing minimal pollution and harm to other economic sectors, then the potential rise in Kenya's carbon emissions is more than justified, Oulu argued.

If well-managed, it may not even lead to an increase in the country's net emissions, nor go against the principles outlined in the Climate Change Action Plan, he added.

The Action Plan aims for low-carbon, climate-resilient development, but also emphasises this should be tailored to the country’s circumstances, recognising Kenya's low historical and current responsibility for climate change, he noted.

“(It is essentially saying) we must do our small part as Kenya, but lifestyle change in the more developed parts of the world must form a large part of the discussion,” Oulu said.  


Nature Kenya, an NGO that helps communities rehabilitate deforested areas, believes conservation and development have to be balanced. Leonard Muhanga, one of its extension officers in Kakamega, argued that protecting nature is hard for poor communities.

“A local person will not be convinced that trees help bring clean air and rain if they don’t have an alternative source of livelihood (that doesn’t involve cutting down forests), and that is why we give them projects like bee-keeping,” he said.

Oil production could be an economic stimulus for northern Kenya, with the overall good outweighing the bad, if it is done in the right way, Muhanga added. For example, if liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) becomes cheaper as a result, the rate of deforestation will go down as people switch from fuel wood to gas for cooking, he said.

Climate expert Oulu agreed, arguing that replacing firewood with LPG could lead to a fall in net carbon emissions, as well as health benefits from less indoor pollution caused by smoke.

“Remember, deforestation is a key source of carbon emissions for Kenya,” he noted. According to Kenya's Climate Change Action Plan (2013-2017), forestry and other land use accounted for nearly a third of national emissions in 2010.


Ultimately, the impact of fossil fuel exploitation on climate change policy will depend on how Kenya’s oil find is managed alongside green energy sources, Oulu said.

He expects the government to continue investing in renewable energy, including biogas and small-scale hydropower, since having “as many and varied sources of energy as possible is the best energy security strategy for a country”. 

Legislator Ottichilo said Kenya would be better off leaving its oil in the ground and concentrating instead on developing renewable sources like wind and solar.

Solar-powered lamps are becoming cheaper by the day, and the country also has high potential for geothermal power, at over 10,000 megawatts of capacity, Ottichilo said. It is also constructing Africa’s largest wind firm in Turkana, which will be capable of producing 300 to 400 megawatts.

“If we bring all this energy together, you will find very soon - in the next 10 years – that Kenya will have enough renewable energy for itself, so the need for fossil fuels will go down,” he argued.

Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi.

This story is part of series of articles, funded by the COMplus Alliance and the World Bank, looking at progress and challenges in developing nations’ efforts to legislate on climate change, ahead of the June 6-8 World Summit of Legislators in Mexico City, organised by the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International).

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