The world is facing a planetary emergency; and Africa is particularly vulnerable.
The projected impacts of climate change, deforestation and land degradation could lead to the extinction of species and intensify the frequency and impacts of droughts and floods, with far-reaching consequences on communities, ecosystems, food security and infrastructure.
As the world begins to wake up to this crisis, there is a lot of talk about solutions. It is good to see more people talking about the need for urgent action.
But far too many, including those in Africa, overlook two essential ingredients: nature and youth. This duo cannot be ignored in the search for solutions to our planetary crises.
In my home country of Kenya, there is simply no way we can achieve our national target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 without addressing deforestation and land degradation—which remain the largest source of emissions here.
Deforestation has long been a problem. When Kenya gained independence in 1963, 10% of the country was covered in forest. By 2009, this number had dropped to 6% as a result of charcoal and timber production, agriculture expansion, unregulated logging and urbanisation. Not only has this increased our contribution to climate change, it has had a number of other devastating impacts, including soil erosion, increased flooding and dramatically reduced availability of fresh water during droughts.
Water towers under threat
Kenya’s five montane forests — called “water towers” because of their ability to store water during the rainy season and release it slowly during dry periods — provide 75% of our fresh water supplies.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimated that between 2000 and 2010 more than 28,000 hectares of forest was lost from these water towers, “leading to reduced water availability of approximately 62 million cubic metres per year”. The resulting costs to our economy far exceeded the financial gains from forestry and logging during that same period by a ratio of four to one.
Nearly a decade ago, the government at the time began to wake up to the problem and made a constitutional commitment to replenish the country’s forests back to 10% of surface area by 2030, which is equivalent to more than 1.6 million hectares of reforestation. Sadly, though, initial efforts were hampered by illegal logging, land disputes, and political infighting.
The good news is there are signs of progress, including new government-led initiatives. For example, the government has moved forward its deadline for the 10% target to 2022 and has created an enabling a legal framework to achieve it. On top of that, it has committed to restoring 5.1 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes by 2030 as its contribution to the African Forest and Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), a pan-African, country-led effort to restore 100 million hectares of deforested and degraded landscapes.
But the simple fact is that we are not making nearly enough concrete progress given the massive scale and urgency of the threat. Yes, the challenges Kenya is facing on this front are very real. For example, the government has estimated the total cost of implementing the 2022 target to be around $430 million over four years, requiring a mix of public and private financing that has not yet emerged. And access to a sustainable supply of high-quality tree seedlings is also proving problematic seeing as the effort is estimated to require 1.8 billion of them.
But there is no time for excuses; we need to dramatically pick up the pace of our efforts. While there is no single solution, one way to take immediate action is by mobilising our young people to become champions for nature. This certainly isn’t a new idea and there have been youth climate groups in Kenya and the region doing great work for a number of years.
However, 2019 has seen the rise of a global youth movement for climate action on a scale never seen before; and this movement has spread to Africa, which has the youngest population in the world. The scale, energy and momentum of this movement creates new opportunities that simply didn’t exist before.
This growing movement of young people are passionate about their futures, motivated and eager to learn. We have the energy and the drive to take action. But, in most cases, we don’t have the information or the know how. That’s why any serious effort to harness the power of this youth movement and transform it into a force for change must begin with education, both as part of formal school curriculums, as well as through initiatives like Youth4Nature. In order for youth to be stewards of nature-based solutions in climate action, we need spaces and resources to strengthen our understanding of what they are and how youth can get involved.
For example, we need to scale up projects like Green Treasures Farms, a Kenyan youth initiative that teaches women and young people in rural Kenya organic farming skills and how and where to plant trees. The project has been running for five years and has had a real impact on local communities by teaching them how environmental concerns and sustainable agriculture go hand-in-hand.
Broadly speaking, there are a number of ways that young people can help make a real impact. On the one hand, we can use our power as advocates within our families, schools, and communities to educate and empower others. And on the other, we can hold our political leaders to account. We must ensure that our leaders continue to push for more action to protect and restore nature. The global climate strike being planned for September 20 offers a good opportunity to send a clear signal of our intent to political leaders.
Time is running out.
We can’t afford to turn our backs on any solution to the climate crisis. And this isn’t just about what we can do in Kenya, or in Africa for that matter.
Nature-based solutions have the capacity to provide roughly 30% of the solution to climate change around the globe. But to achieve this potential, the global community has to step-up support for nature-based solutions. And this includes giving young people the education, support and resources they need to lead initiatives that protect nature and help communities develop and prosper in a sustainable manner.