Climate change in Kenya: narratives and dilemmas

Kenya has been ahead of many other countries in developing a national climate change strategy, and agriculture is one of the key critical sectors of interest. The National Climate Change Response Strategy (NCCRS) dates from 2010, and the National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP) was launched in March this year, stressing low carbon development and resilience in the face of climate change.

However, there are concerns about whether policy goals may be achieved amidst the actors’ many and diverging interests. A new working paper on climate change policy in Kenya sets out to map how these debates are starting to take place in practice, and poses the following questions: what are the arguments, who is promoting them, and what are the implications for Kenya’s agricultural sector?

Narratives in Kenya

Two major narratives straddle the debate in Kenya:

1. Climate change as a threat to food security, and

2. Climate change as an opportunity to address energy and forest degradation problems.

For the first of these narratives, concerns over food security are driving climate change adaptation actions, albeit still in an emergency response mode. Experience of drought has strengthened this concern. Some of the responses to immediate climate change impacts include increasing vegetation cover, expanding carbon sinks and bridging the gap between the dry spells. The wider adoption of drought-tolerant and pest/disease-resistant crops is attractive for some, though it risks overlooking small farmers and informal networks.

The key argument on mitigation is that carbon funding holds great promise for the agricultural sector in that it can give major potential contributions to energy security as well as lower degradation.

Development of geothermal power and increasing the country’s tree cover and other forest resources, including agroforestry practices and improved natural resources management systems, are some of the mechanisms already embraced.

Biofuels are another area for debate, both over the appropriateness of land use and accusations of land grabbing, and the risks to farmers of switching to these mono-crops, thus exposing themselves to price fluctuations in international markets. Effort is also being made to implement Reducing Emissions through avoided deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) projects, which resonate with a narrative which places a significant responsibility for environmental degradation on African agricultural practices. A criticism of this narrative is that it can misattribute blame to delegitimise small-scale farming practices which may actually contribute to sustainability.

The working paper also details arguments around Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA); and international carbon finance, where concerns around the influence of external donors are voiced by several actors.

How coherent is the landscape?

Overall, despite the existence of the NCCRS and more recently the NCCAP, much of the climate change and agriculture ‘landscape’ remains largely undefined. For responses to climate change at the local level, the lack of a coherent climate change policy effort leaves significant spaces for powerful actors to shape the agenda and activities.

‘Technical fix’-style interventions are often posited without tackling the underlying reasons which explain why farmers in Kenya are vulnerable in the first place. New actors have taken on board the climate change issues or reinvigorated their advocacy around this issue – some, perhaps, ‘recasting’ themselves as climate change champions. Linked to this, there is significant space for some actors to present existing activities as ‘climate solutions’, even when these may have adverse impacts on the resilience and adaptive capacity of poor farmers.

Climate change and agriculture efforts in Kenya will remain varied and widely spread over many actors, regions and priority areas, at least in the foreseeable future. This calls for a cohesive, adaptive policy which can respond to surprise and allow for ongoing debate and adjustment to new circumstances.

Download the paper

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Picture: Kenya-Dadaab, August 2011 by ihhinsaniyardimvakfi on Flickr