Rwanda: On the road to Copenhagen

Human induced climate change is no longer a subject for debate, it is a reality. There is ample scientific evidence which shows that the planet earth is threatened by environmental disasters with increasing potential to compromise the present and future livelihoods unless rigorous global responses are taken.
Rwandan youth carry trees for planting during the Environment Week (File Photo)
Rwandan youth carry trees for planting during the Environment Week (File Photo)

Human induced climate change is no longer a subject for debate, it is a reality. There is ample scientific evidence which shows that the planet earth is threatened by environmental disasters with increasing potential to compromise the present and future livelihoods unless rigorous global responses are taken.

Climate Change is any long-term change in the patterns of average weather of a specific region or the Earth as a whole. According to the policy brief produced for Financing for Development, Conference on Climate Change, Kigali, May 21-22, 2009, Climate change is now being observed and measured globally and in Africa. 

Average global temperatures have risen by almost 0.8ºC over the last century, and slightly higher in Africa, with a particularly sharp rise over the last 50 years rise.  There have also been rises in sea level, and changes in the pattern of rainfall, extreme rainfall (floods) and droughts.  These trends are very real and are accelerating. 

The brief further asserts that the rate of change will increase over the next 50 years, probably by more than twice as much as over the entire 20th century. 

By 2050, average temperatures in Africa are predicted to increase by 1.5°C to 3ºC, and will continue further upwards beyond this time. 

There will also be major changes in rainfall in terms of annual and seasonal trends, and extreme events of floods and drought, however there are wide variations in the projections. 

Nonetheless, the overall scale of the change will be dramatic.  As an illustration, the current climate of Kigali would be replaced with dramatically hotter and potentially wetter conditions.

Impact of climate change

Evidence shows that the Earth is currently facing a period of rapid warming brought on by rising levels of heat-trapping gases, known as greenhouse gases, in the atmosphere.

According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s foremost authority in climate change issues, global  greenhouse  gas  (GHG)  emissions  have grown  since  pre-industrial  times, with  an  increase  of 70%  between  1970  and  2004 (IPCC 2007).

Since the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas are burned for economic growth. Burning these fossil fuels as well as other activities such as clearing land for agriculture or urban settlements, release GHGs which change the original purpose of green house effect.

These carbon intensive activities have been without any control in most part of the world. In most economic planning, the social cost of these activities has been taken for granted.

The climate change affects the basic elements of life for people around the world like; access to water, food production, health, and the environment.

As the world becomes warmer, hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages, coastal flooding and cyclones.

One of the most significant observations of climate change impacts on global scale has been the global market failures. In 2006, Sir Nicholas Stern, whose review on economics of climate change gained global media attention, reported that climate change is the greatest cause of market failure the world has ever seen (Stern 2006).

IPCC further predicts global GHG emissions will still continue to grow over the next few decades if the current  climate  change  mitigation  policies  and related  sustainable  development  practices are not strengthened in a way that ensures a reversal of past trends.
Climate Change and Global Governance

Though all countries will be affected, poor countries and populations are more vulnerable and will suffer most even though they have contributed least to the causes of climate change.

The costs of extreme weather, including floods, droughts and storms, are already rising, including for rich countries. Obviously, this is the time for global governance to solve the problem for what free market alone cannot solve (a lesson we learnt from global financial crisis).

Beginning from the second half of 20th Century, international, regional and national environment protection agencies and networks, research institutions and NGOs were founded to do research and handle global environmental issues.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), headquartered in Nairobi, was founded to coordinate the development of environmental policy consensus by keeping the global environment under review and bringing emerging issues to the attention of governments and the international community for action.

With World Meteorological Organization (WMO), UNEP established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. In 1992, the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, produced a treaty, United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (man induced) interference with the climate system.

One remarkable result of all these global initiatives to address climate change has been the Kyoto protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol , a supplementary to the UNFCCC was adopted by the Third Conference of Parties to UNFCCC (COP-3), in December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan and went into force in February 2005.

Under the Kyōto Protocol, developed, or industrialized countries are subject to legally binding commitments to curb their emissions of the six main greenhouse gases.

The targets are based mostly on the emission levels of these pollutants in 1990. Most industrialized nations and some central European economies in transition (all defined as Annex B countries) agreed to legally binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of an average of 6 to 8 percent below 1990 levels between the years 2008-2012.

The Kyoto Protocol allows individual governments to offset some of their emissions by sequestration (absorption of carbon in what is referred to as carbon sink) activities such as reforestation. 

In addition the Protocol has three market-based mechanisms to help bring down the costs of abating emission: Emissions trading , Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and Joint implementation (JI). 

Joint implementation allows a country with an emission reduction or limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to earn emission reduction units (ERUs) from an emission-reduction project in another Annex B Party. 

Under CDM, Annex B countries are allowed to earn saleable certified emission reduction (CER) credits, which can be counted towards meeting Kyoto targets, by implementing an emission-reduction project in developing countries.

Still, most industrialized and developing countries are reluctant to comply with the Protocol and further mitigation of GHGs. Developing countries such as Brazil, China and India always pointed out the emission stock accumulated by the industrial countries over 250 years and claimed that they should not be forced to bear any of economic burden of reducing pollution.

There was a success story in international cooperation to cut gases from depletion of ozone layer through multilateral agreement- the “Montreal Protocol.” However, this time, Kyoto Protocol, a mechanism to control climate change, has not been as successful as the Montreal protocol.

Critics of the Kyoto argued the protocol was not realistically drawn; participant countries had been pushed to zero sum game by rigid system of targets and timetable for emissions reduction; high and uncertain cost of cutting significant amount of carbon discourage commitment to comply with emission standards in Kyoto protocol (McKibbin 2008).

Responses to Climate Change

To date, the popular view is that, no country, including superpowers, can confront this challenge alone. A considerable number of conferences and conventions have been developed with the aim to enhance a global response.

As results, several institutions, conventions and protocols came into force and provide the guidelines for global governance on climate change. However, strong commitments and actions are yet to be seen.

In December 2009, the 15th conference of parties to UNFCCC will be convened in Copenhagen in order to set the post Kyoto framework for action.

In Rwanda, we believe a global response builds up from individual countries commitments and actions. We, as a country are signatory party to all the key protocols and conventions related to climate change and as such Rwanda is committed and is rigorously engaged in forging a country position that will compliment the regional and global position for effective responses to the challenge of climate change.

Before the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, even though Rwanda was commended for few successes in forestation programs, the environment degradation continued to emerge as a serious threat. 

This was explained mainly in terms of lack of clear land use and settlements plans, subsistence agriculture with inappropriate farming practices that include unregulated use of fragile ecosystems, low levels of education and skills in off farm activities, lack of plans for substitute energy to wood fuel.

This already precarious situation became worse following the war and genocide leading to massive displacements inside and outside the country, sequenced repatriation and resettlements programs.

The aftermath of the Genocide has seen a decade of actions beyond just recovery to restore our ecosystems and promote environmental actions geared to ensure sustainable management of the natural resources base.

During these ten years Rwanda achieved 56.3 percent growth in forestry from 473,200 Ha in 1999 to 742,538 Ha cover in 2008. Efforts in land conservation particularly on arable land have reached averages of 70 percent, water hyacinth harvesting program is ongoing on affected waters, lakes and rivers shores protection program continues after protecting more than 400 km Lake shores, most significantly along Lake Kivu with different plant species.

Successful national regulatory programme on plastic bags ban as well as regulation of refrigeration and cooling systems that have high potential for GHG emissions have made a positive difference. 

These programs coupled with energy initiatives such as biogas, energy saving stoves, mini hydro power, roll out plan for access and cost reduction on electricity, sanitation and waste management plan, sustainable agriculture with land consolidation and protection, crop intensification and agro forestry, pollution control are a set of bold actions the government is undertaking as a national response for adaptation and mitigation to climate change.

Despite the achievements challenges in need for more resources by  both public and private investments remain particularly in the areas of energy, waste management, rehabilitation of fragile ecosystems and support to communities that live in proximity to protected areas.  

During the last National Environment Week in 2009; Rwanda renewed its commitment to protect the environment through public awareness initiatives spotlighting bold approaches on plastic bags (Polythene) ban and launching the first Rwanda State of Environment and Outlook in fulfillment of the Organic law on the environment requirements. 

In order to have sustainable development and intergenerational equity, Rwanda’s government has to adopt and implement several policy options while actively participating in regional and international convention.

On the road to Copenhagen

The thirteenth COP conference in Bali , Indonesia which took place in 2007 detailed the Bali Action Plan (Bali Road Map) adopted an ambitious plan to reach a global long-term agreement, which is to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012.

The Bali Action Plan aims to reach this agreement at the COP 15 conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

As planned in Poznan, Poland representatives from 190 countries met in Bonn, headquarters of the UNFCCC, in April and June to hammer out the details. In September, world leaders will discuss about this at the UN General Assembly.

By the end of this year, in December, in Copenhagen, a final agreement is to be adopted to ensure there is a post- Kyoto Protocol.

Rwanda’s preparation for Copenhagen

Rwanda was a host to the African Finance, Economic Planning and Environment Ministers meeting in Kigali, for the Third Conference on Financing for Development, from 21 to 22 May 2009. This was under the theme “Climate Change: Financing Opportunities and Challenges to Achieve the MDGs in Africa”.

At the meeting H.E. Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda, in his opening address underscored the importance of placing the environment at the center stage of Africa’s development process.

This was considered on the basis of enormous additional costs and challenges environmental degradation imposes on the continent’s achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

He called on African countries to strengthen their self reliance, mobilise their private sector to be part of the solution, and for African countries to engage more robustly in global dialogue as well as undertake binding commitments, including resource mobilization not only externally as has been the tendency, but more increasingly from within African governments on the environment.

The contents of the communiqué served as the basis for discussion to develop an African position at the subsequent African Ministers of Environment Conference (AMCEN) in Nairobi during the week of 25th May 2009 where Rwanda’s Minister of State in charge of the Environment participated.

The outputs towards the African position have been endorsed by the African Union (AU) meeting in Addis Abeba.

In specific terms, a study conducted in Rwanda has compiled indicative emissions projections for Rwanda, which are consistent with the objectives in the Vision document and other strategic national planning documents.

The study considered the potential for low carbon development and assessed different national emission indicators and potential targets and the potential mechanisms that might emerge at both regional and global negotiations that have influence on potential positions and implications for Rwanda.

Based upon these studies and other various experiences and initiatives across various sectors, there is every confidence that Rwanda is well prepared to add her voice to the global debate on climate change in Copenhagen.


With forthright positions that favour significant GHG emission reductions coming from the US, the EU and China, the year 2009 is a crucial turning point for every state to decide what kind of planet Earth they would like to leave as an inheritance for future generation.

Digits in the Countdown for Copenhagen are getting smaller and all that can be said for now in the most affirmative of terms is that, Rwanda is ready to state her position in the global arena on the most pressing issue of our time – Climate Change.

About the authors; Vicent Karega is the Minister of State of Environment and Mines while Rose Mukankomeje is the Director General of Rwanda Environment Management Authority.


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