NAIROBI Africa is leading the push for clean energy policy-making as climate change turns millions of its people into "food refugees," the head of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) Achim Steiner said.
"On the African continent, there is sometimes more leadership being shown by countries, by governments, than we see in some of the industrialized nations," Steiner told Reuters.
"Kenya is currently doubling its energy and electricity generating infrastructure largely using renewables. These are policies that are pioneering, that are innovative," he said.
Kenya generates most of its energy from hydroelectric dams but water levels have fallen due to recurring drought. It is now investing heavily in geothermal and wind power.
The African Development Bank is financing Africa's biggest wind farm on the shores of Lake Turkana, one of the windiest places on Earth. The $819-million project aims to produce 300 megawatts (MW) of electricity per year, boosting Kenya's energy supply by 30 percent.
Toyota and Hyundai are building a fourth geothermal power station in Naivasha, 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Nairobi, which will increase geothermal capacity from 115 MW to 395 MW by 2014.
"We see across the continent both a realisation of how threatening climate change really is and also the inevitable necessity that governments have an interest in beginning to put their own development priorities on a different trajectory," said Steiner.
Investments in renewable energy are hitting record levels. In 2010, $211 billion dollars was invested in renewable energy, the majority of it in the developing world, Steiner said.
As the world's poorest continent, Africa is also the most vulnerable to the extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels brought by climate change.
"The consequence of global warming for Africa is one of disruption, of greater vulnerability, higher risks and enormous expenditures to cope with these changes," said Steiner.
In the Horn of Africa, some 13 million people are going hungry due to prolonged drought. In Somalia, the crisis is compounded by conflict.
"The specter of having millions of people being food refugees at the moment is one that simply should not happen," said Steiner. "What we have seen here over the last five, six months I think is a shame for the world."
Time has run out to get a new binding deal on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in place before the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012.
Expectations are low that U.N. climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, from November 28, will achieve anything more than modest steps toward a broader deal.
The Kyoto Protocol obliges developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent of 1990 levels by the end of 2012.
Scientists say pledges so far to curb emissions will not prevent the planet heating up beyond the two degrees Celsius threshold they say risks more extreme weather, crop failure and major floods. Global average temperatures rose by 0.7C over pre-industrial times during the 20th century.
"The world is facing a situation where the only protocol that it has been able to put in place to address climate change is on the verge of actually being abandoned in Durban and that is a very serious situation," said Steiner.
He estimated that it could take two to five years to reach another global agreement.
The European Union, Russia, Japan and Canada have said they will not sign a second commitment period unless bigger emitters, notably China and the United States, provide firm evidence that they would join too.
"The world is going to pay a terrible price for this standoff and Africa in particular," said Steiner.
(Katy Migiro reports for AlertNet, a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. For more stories and information, visit www.trust.org/alertnet)
(Editing by Barry Malone and Janet Lawrence)