Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - What would the wealthy nations of the West (and their rising rivals in the East) do if they actually wanted to prevent catastrophic warming? Here in Africa, the obvious answer is that they would find the ways and means to discourage deforestation -- the ruinous practice of clear-cutting for timber, charcoal and arable land that accounts for at least 20 percent of the atmospheric carbon burden. Save the trees, and you might just save the planet.
In theory, this ought to be a simple enough task to accomplish, with sufficient motivation and money. But in practice, the incentives created by Western policy are so perverse, according to Tanzania president Jakaya Kikwete, that they reward clear-cutting not once but twice over. So he told Bill Clinton, who is visiting Africa this week to oversee the Clinton Foundation's work on health care and renewable energy.
As Kikwete explained the problem, it has become possible to open forests to loggers for profit and then receive carbon-credit subsidies as a reward for replanting the raped forest. Stupid is too kind a word for this.
The Tanzanian leader expressed frustration, too, with the imperial style that persists in Western efforts to preserve forestland. The agencies that certify projects for carbon credit are overwhelmingly foreign, with personnel parachuted in to perform inspections. While it is essential to verify every carbon credit, the parachute inspection is not, as they say, a sustainable model.
More than a third of Tanzania's land is still protected forest in national parks and reserves, unlike neighboring Kenya, for example, where deforestation is proceeding rapidly. Its president is plainly proud of his nation's greenness and trying to preserve that legacy.
But the economic pressures on the leaders and people of poor countries are enormous -- almost unimaginable. The need for food and fuel, let alone cash, is immediate; the threat of climate change is not.
A glimmering hint of a solution can be found in a rural village called Kitere, hundreds of miles south of the capital. There, a local health clinic assisted by the foundation -- a clinic that is really a rudimentary hospital, serving thousands of people -- is improving its services with solar electrification. Using photovoltaic panels, batteries and AC conversion equipment made in the United States, the clinic now produces enough of its own clean energy to operate lights (instead of dirty kerosene lamps), refrigeration for medicines and a laptop computer. Much of the clinic's operation is still outdated by American standards, but its electrification has greatly increased its capacity to treat illness and save lives.
Across Tanzania, with Clinton's help and advice, more than 50 clinics have installed solar arrays at very low cost. These small beacons of progress point toward a much larger and more comprehensive renewable development program -- a wise bargain, not an act of charity. Our capital and technology, deeply discounted, in exchange for their forestland. The world's poor countries proposed roughly the same idea at the Copenhagen climate summit last December, only to be rebuffed by the wealthy because of the cost.
Yet that is the deal that must be done someday soon to avoid climate disaster. For a fraction of the world's military spending, it could be a Green New Deal that creates new industries, advances new technologies and revives our economy -- much like the spending on World War II boosted America into prosperity. It is a proposition that we can no longer afford to refuse.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com).
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