There is no reason anyone should have expected fireworks after a group of environment activists promised to demonstrate against the proposed Lamu Coal Power Plant during the World Environment Day observed on Wednesday. The activists, under the umbrella of Friends of Lamu lobby group, have been waging a lonely battle for the past five years. But if they did this time, the media curiously stayed away. Apparently, matters to do with the air we breathe are not sexy enough.
Experts opine that Kenya does not need coal power; it already has more than enough from renewable energy sources. They argue that the amount of air pollution — mostly carcinogenic particulates — that is likely to be generated by the plant will be catastrophic, and this country has few of the resources needed to mitigate the effects. But who cares about its impact on the environment if there is money to be made?
Right now, the proposal is in limbo due to the activities of environmentalists under the banner DeCOALonise Kenya. They have taken the matter to court, arguing that at a time when the rest of the world is moving away from fossil fuels, Kenya intends to take a giant step backwards. This shows a clear lack of vision. If the country does not require any energy from coal, or from the equally ill-advised nuclear power plants, why would it embark on such potentially costly misadventures?
Even as the country marked the World Environment Day whose theme was “Beating Air Pollution”, it was clear the hearts of the country’s political and business elite were not in it. We can only hope that the message will sink among them that if Kenya must deal in coal, it should mine that to be found at Mui Basin, but only for export.
The absurdity of the whole thing is that initially, the coal to run the Lamu plant will be imported from South Africa. I am no businessman, but this does not make sense.
What makes even less sense is China’s involvement in the affair. It is ironic that the main World Environment Day ceremony was hosted by China in the picturesque Hangzhou city famous for attractions like ancient temples, pagodas, waterways and artificial islands. This pristine city was an unlikely venue for such a conference. It would have been more appropriate to settle on Beijing City which offers ample lessons on how to fight air pollution and win.
Beijing was very recently one of the most polluted cities in the world. In fact, as late as 14 years ago when I first visited the city, so polluted was its air that the smog was actually tangible — any slight exposure during certain hours of the evening and you became all clammy and started gasping for breath. It was difficult to understand how you could survive at all without air-conditioning at home unless you lived in a gas-mask. However, five years later, everything changed.
The way the Chinese authorities performed this miracle is set out in a report titled “20 years of air pollution control in Beijing” compiled by the city authorities in collaboration with Unep. According to the report, the multi-pronged war started in earnest in 1998 when it was recognised that the price the citizens were paying for the country’s rapid industrialisation was too high. So they first modernised the components of the machinery used in factories to reduce the emissions.
Next, they scrapped ageing motor-vehicles, outlawed all taxis, restricted the number of personal vehicles entering the city at any one time, and promoted the use of mass transit electric vehicles. They also closed major coal-fired power plants and eliminated coal-fired boilers. That is why it is puzzling that people who have experienced the perils of relying on fossil fuel should seek to dump obsolete coal plants in Kenya to satisfy the craving of a few tycoons for super-profits.
We in Kenya have made efforts to combat air pollution, but they have been relatively puny and half-hearted. We have tried to get rid of ageing cars, but since nobody took into account the country’s relative poverty, the move was doomed to fail. Attempts to implement a workable mass transit system in Nairobi were stymied early by lack of enabling infrastructure. Even our efforts to decrease the number of vehicles in Nairobi and its environs have failed.
Right now, we should not worry too much about running off the road the few decrepit, fume-spewing trucks that ply our roads hauling scrap metal even when they themselves are scrap held together by rust and sheer will.
We should, instead, worry about the pollution that is silently killing thousands of poor Kenyans who have no choice but to use charcoal and wood for cooking.
What we shouldn’t do is to behave as though we have all the time in the world to clean up our act. Waiting until we can no longer breathe is not an option.
Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]