Tackling climate change - and more - in Mali

by Joe Ware, Christian Aid | Christian Aid - UK
Wednesday, 13 May 2015 14:37 GMT

Bakare Kone stands in front of a solar panel in Zantiebougou, rural Mali. CHRISTIAN AID/Lilly Peel

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Access to climate finance can transform the world - including by bringing solar power to Mali

One of the rocks that climate change sceptics like to throw at those advocating action to tackle climate change is that it’s all very well for the rich developed world to reduce its carbon footprint but it’s immoral to ask the world’s poor to give up cheap energy such as coal.  Yes, climate change may be happening, they say, but it’s unfair to pull up the fossil fuel ladder from developing countries.

The logical conclusion to such thinking is that the emission cuts in developed countries like the United Kingdom will have to be all the faster and deeper while we wait for the fossil fuel burning developing world to catch up – yet curiously the sceptics seem to always leave that bit out.

However their half-baked argument falls down anyway when you consider that locking developing countries into a dirty energy infrastructure for even the medium term will quickly polish off the remaining atmospheric carbon budget. 

As UN Climate Envoy Mary Robinson said recently, the shift to a low carbon economy mustn’t create a clean, efficient, renewable energy powered global north and a dirty, inefficient, fossil-fuel-powered south.

Sadly for the world’s poor, who also happen to suffer disproportionately from climate change, they will need to tread a different development path due to our fossil fuel extravagance. We in the global north need to admit this fact and deliver the climate finance to help them make the transition to a low carbon economy.

Thankfully this process is already underway bringing a multitude of benefits from the trivial to the lifesaving.

If you drive through the village of Zantiebougou in rural Mali the one thing you won’t see any of are electricity pylons. Out here in the sticks, they are beyond the reach of the conventional energy grid.

In West Africa the daily blanket of darkness creates all kinds of harm from kerosene lamp burns to stunting of a generation of school students.

“It was so bad that for three years not a single child passed the exams to get to secondary school,” explains village elder Bakare Kone. “Only rich people were able to have electricity; it was very difficult for ordinary people.”

But with the help of Christian Aid partner organisation, Mali Folkecentre, some of the world’s poorest people are leapfrogging polluting fossil fuels and embracing the clean energy revolution.

Since 2013 a solar grid in the village, harnessing Africa’s most abundant renewable energy resource, has brought power to places that the fossil fuel companies don’t want to go.  Kone explains: “The first thing that changed was the improvement in the grades of the children. The first lights we had were the street lights and the children would study under them. At the end of the year we could see that their exam results were better.”

He added: “Electricity has literally put us on the map. Before you could drive through the village in the dark and not even notice it. Now people come to watch the football. Everyone loves football.  Before there were only a few televisions, they ran on batteries and were expensive. Now there are more televisions in the village and people are informed about the country and what is going on elsewhere in Mali.” And people can now even enjoy a cold drink while they watch the game. “Before we used to have to travel 30 kilometres to Bougouni if we wanted a cold drink,” Kone said.

Improvements in healthcare have been particularly acute with medicines requiring refrigeration now able to be stocked in the village and pregnant women now able to give birth in good light, with such comforts as hot water and a fan. Injections no longer need to be administered by flashlight.

A rural radio station has been set up which informs the community of everything from births and deaths to the start of the cropping season. Nutrition levels are up due to the availability of fresh fish stored in freezers. Traditional celebrations previously limited to afternoons can now extend into the evenings.

As solar costs continue to plummet and storage technology improves these kinds of benefits will be available to more communities.  What is needed is for this technology to be rolled out on a global scale in other parts of the world. 

This December’s UN climate summit in Paris will be an opportunity to kick start this transition. Developed nations must deliver the climate finance alongside the provision of technology and expertise to help developing countries bypass dirty energy.

The developed world may not be able to turn back the clock on our fossil fuel burning but we can deliver the support to help countries like Mali follow a different path for which we will all reap the benefits.

Kone said: “This village was created 400 years ago but from 2013 until now we have experienced more change than in all those years put together.”

Joe Ware is church and campaigns journalist at Christian Aid. He can be found on twitter @wareisjoe