Learning from Niger

Learning from African farmers on climate change.

At a recent international scientific meeting in Niamey on desertification:

Dr. Chris Reij of Wageningen University revealed new evidence that three million hectares of degraded land in Niger have been rehabilitated by farmers on their own initiative. This phenomenon had gone unrecognized because it was a continuous slow development over the past thirty years over a vast area, and few had been carefully studying what farmers actually do. Because of their chemical composition, very hard crusts called ‘laterite’ tend to form on top of these Sahelian soils, making large areas useless for crop production. Farmers figured out how to break through those crusts and drop manure including native tree seeds into the holes, allowing the trees to grow and cover the land, which gradually breaks down the crust.

There’s similar good news from Niger’s neighbour Burkina Faso. An earlier paper by Reij decsribes the spread of a similar system for sorghum farming from around 1980, using small pits called zaï plus low stone embankments for water control. It was inspired there by two farmers, Yacouba Sawadogo and Ousseni Zorome, with small-scale funding and extension work by the British NGO Oxfam.

What’s the lesson for the USA?

The CIA World Factbook describes Niger and Burkina Faso as two of the poorest countries in the world; it estimates their PPP GDP per capita as $1,000 and $1,200. Niger actually ranks last on the UN index of human development.

These dirt-poor, uneducated African farmers have been practising the revolutionary, reality-based problem-solving method known as commonsense. Roughly speaking, this goes:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Find something that works.
  3. Do it, and keep doing it, and push your neighbours to do it.

It looks as if the adults are back in control of one branch of the US government; some of them may even be nearly as capable as Mr. Sawadogo. Is there perhaps a chance that his methods may be brought to bear on climate change? Of course the problem is much more complex than his, and the solutions more expensive; but then the resources of the United States are also orders of magnitude greater, and its opportunity costs for action much lower.

The British government has just issued a fat and alarming report on the economics of climate change. It bears the name of its chief economic adviser, Sir Nicholas Stern, who has held the same job at the World Bank.

The sum response by the Bush White House was an e-mailed statement:

The U.S. government has produced an abundance of economic analysis on the issue of climate change. The Stern Report is another contribution to that effort.

So that’s all right then.

Unlike the White House I propose actually to read the Stern report over the coming weeks, and share my thoughts with you if I have any.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

4 thoughts on “Learning from Niger”

  1. On Stern:
    – the attacks are around the discount rate used, and indeed he doesn't seem to specify what discount rate he does use
    – this leads the attackers (Bjorn Lomberg in the Wall Street Journal, for example) down the path of 'well, we could spend all that money curing {AIDS,malaria etc} and that would be a better way to spend the money'
    – it also leads them down to (David Smith in the Sunday Times) 'this is all politically motivated' or as The Sun memorably put it 'Blair saves world. We pay'.
    The elephant in the room, that Stern mentions (but then says it's too difficult to quantify), is what happens if the climate scientists are right, and we engineer a world temperature rise of over 5 degrees centigrade?
    Then spending 1% of world GDP between now and 2050, or 5%, to reduce Green House Gas emissions, is not going to look like too bad a bet.
    This is, in essence, the precautionary principle endorsed by the Economist.
    Don't expect the Stern Report to move the debate much. Those who want to do something will focus on the relatively low cost of doing so*, those who don't, will focus on the discount rate, the uncertainties of global warming, etc.
    * the best critiques I heard were by Tol, and by Dieter Helm of Oxera. I can't do justice to the first (a Dutch researcher working in Ireland, who clearly knows a lot about climate change research).
    On the second, Helm points out (as does Stern) that the proposed carbon taxes are no more than those imposted on consumers by the tripling of world oil prices since 2000. Yet consumption of oil has not fallen by that much.
    Helm is on firm ground when he says that it is likely that the costs of CO2 abatement may be high, given efforts to date have not achieved the sort of reductions one might have hoped.
    The Stern Report has a lot to say for itself, and I highlight some parts that I thought were quite good:
    – making an economic case for doing something re global warming
    – highlighting the decline in R&D on energy by governments and industry
    – taking a global perspective, unified around the cost of avoiding carbon emissions (he suggests an average 'social cost' of carbon of $85/ton of CO2 (c. $200/ ton of Carbon emitted, which is higher than most commentators have used).
    The global perspective encourages a lot of lateral thinking. He points out that saving the rain forests is a relatively cheap way of reducing the stock of global greenhouse gases, compared to sone abatement measures in the First World.
    The conclusion one is left with (having read about half of it, and skimmed all of it) is that:
    – the world needs to reduce CO2 emissions by 70% by 2050. Or more for the developed countries.
    – that is going to be very hard to do, the absolute costs sound large, but taken relative to GDP at that point, manageable
    – action sooner rather than later will have big benefits, because the damage CO2 causes is proportional to the *stock* of CO2 in the atmosphere, not the flow of CO2 into the atmosphere
    Happy reading and look forward to your comments!

  2. CA appears to have rejected prop 87 (taxes on oil produced instate to fund alternative fuels research).
    Now you can argue all you want about how this was rejected on technicalities (people are sick of specialized taxes, people disapprove of propositions in principle, etc) but I don't buy it.
    Couple this with the successful passage of 5 CA bond propositions and what I see is an electorate that is absolutely and categorically unwilling to face reality. They refuse to believe anything the hear that might change the existing oil use situation, just like they refuse to believe that bonds today means having to pay for them at some point. (The whole reason Arnold is behind the bonds is so that he can play Father Christmas while in power, but not have to raise taxes.)
    All in all, I don't see much hope for US action on future energy issues until it's too late. (Where too late does not mean we're all going to die, don't be stupid, it means that the cost of the remedies will be far far higher than the cost of prevention would have been.)

  3. Careful with the science assumptions in the Stern report. Some non-denialists with real credentials (Connolley, Annan) think it overemphasized the most dangerous scenarios.

  4. Brian S.
    The Stern Report pretty much tracks the IPCC view, as far as I can see.
    What it says is 20% chance of 5 degrees centigrade or higher.
    I haven't read Connolley or Annan on this, but what the Stern report says is that we can't quantify the damage of 5 degrees centigrade or more (so it doesn't try). It also says it thinks mass methane release/ interruption of the THC (the Gulf Stream) is 'unlikely'. But how do we know?
    But this is precisely what we *should* be worrying about.
    The situation is very close to the one we were confronted with with the hole in the ozone layer. We still don't know what the long term impact on the ecosystem is of losing the planet's ozone layer, but it was scary enough that we did something about it (and apparently only in the nick of time, given that that hole is still expanding).
    The reality is the more extreme situations of global warming have to have very small probabilities, before we are justified in spending lots of money doing something about them.
    The climate scientists are increasingly talking at stabilisations at or below the current CO2 levels, not the IPCC 'safe' level of 550ppm.
    What is happening is the economics are driving the policy recommendations *not* the scientific evidence (which is scary, and getting scarier).
    I will go and look up Connelly and Annan, but that is my gut reaction.

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