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  • Writer's picturestephannie Adinde

Should Africa be worried about climate change?

“Environmentalists and economists have been cat and dog. Environmentalists see economists as the mercenaries of a culture of greed, the cheerleaders of an affluence that is unsustainable. Economists see environmentalists as romantic reactionaries, wanting to apply the brakes to an economic engine that is at last reducing global poverty.”

Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet

During my time at university, as I eagerly registered for new classes, I skipped the module on climate change and sustainable development and moved on to more interesting ones like project management and public policy. "It's a western problem", I thought, and there are more pressing issues to deal with. However, I soon discovered that I was mistaken. The reality is, climate change is not peculiar to the Global North, it affects every one of us in different ways.

Climate change, environmental sustainability and resilience have become buzzwords in the global policy space. In the past year, I am certain that you have come across at least one of these terms. There is finally a global acceptance that climate change is very real and if we do not start making radical changes, we will all have to face the consequences in the near future. The numerous high-level conferences and summits that have been held by the United Nations (UN) since the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015, and even more by various global interest groups denote the growing significance of the issue.

The winners and the losers

Less than 3% of the world’s total emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) emanate from Africa and in per capita terms, Africa contributes the least to global climate change. This is primarily because of the low levels of industrial activity on the continent. Yet, Africa will feel the most adverse effects of climate change.

The erratic rains and floods, prolonged droughts, crop failures and rapid desertification that are now prevalent in most countries are already signifying that climate change is disrupting the environment of many African countries. There is evidence that temperatures are rising on the continent and Africa is warming faster than the global average and this is likely to persist over the years (See Figure 1). The negative impacts of climate change are exacerbated by other factors such as poverty, diseases, and a burgeoning population.

Figure 1: African annual mean temperature anomalies ◦C for the past 100 years

On the other hand, rich and industrialised nations are collectively responsible for approximately 7 out of every 10 tonnes of CO2 that have been emitted since the industrial era commenced. China, the European Union and the United States are the biggest culprits, contributing more than half of total global emissions.

Although developed nations are largely responsible for climate change, Africans will pay the price. The impact of climate change on poverty and human security could be disastrous since many African livelihoods depend on rain-fed agriculture. Climate change is currently amplifying water scarcity in Africa and creating food insecurity; all these factors combined with high levels of poverty could lead to heightened conflict in an already fragile region. African lives, livelihoods and infrastructure are all at risk.

Climate change and water

There are predictions that Southern Africa will become drier, and Eastern and Western Africa will become wetter, with more intense rain and higher chances of floods. Some projections suggest that around 250 million Africans could face water shortages by 2020 if there is no immediate intervention.
The recent water crisis in South Africa sheds light on this. Infrequent rainfall due to climate change affected water supplies within the region. The situation became so severe that in Cape Town, a “dirty shirt” challenge was initiated to see who could go the most days without washing their work shirt. Restaurants and businesses were encouraging people not to flush after going to the toilet. The city was 90 days away from switching off the taps.

The water crisis in South Africa has been averted, but if care is not taken, other African countries may experience a similar crisis in the coming years.

Climate change and food security

The food production system in Africa is one of the most volatile in the world. Six out of ten people depend on agriculture for their income. The potential impacts of climate change in Africa are vast; disrupting many aspects of peoples' livelihoods. One of the most profound impacts will be on food security.

Climate change is predicted to negatively impact agricultural activity and food security in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Increasing temperatures, drying up of soils, increased pest and disease pressure, and lowered livestock production will lead to food insecurity in the region. The 2012 food crisis in the Sahel attests to the the adverse effects of climate change and the impact it has on economic and social progress.

Estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicate that there is a possibility of international food prices rising by 2050 due to climate change. If this happens, the vicious cycle of poverty will be reinforced as a result of lowered food consumption. Other key sectors such as health and education will also suffer because of increased pressure. To add fuel to the fire, FAO implied that food production will need to increase by at least 50 per cent by 2050 to meet up with the rapidly growing population.

Africa needs to adapt

Tackling environmental degradation and eliminating global poverty have become the two defining challenges of our era. Unfortunately, there are no exact figures to quantify the economic costs of the negative impacts of climate change in Africa. However, what is clear is that the costs will be severe and if left unchecked, these threats will paralyse any opportunities for development and undermine productivity and growth in African nations.

While there is no clear roadmap on how to put an abrupt end to climate change, there are modifications that can be implemented to mitigate the impact in the coming years.

The first step should be to inform and educate. Not a lot of Africans fully grasp the concept of climate change, environmental sustainability and its implications. So, mass education about the consequences of climate change to both individuals and society is paramount. People need to know that there are real and severe repercussions for behaviours and actions that undermine the environment.

Climate change affects men and women differently due to the nature of their traditional roles and responsibilities in the home and community. The majority population of rural farmers in Africa are women who rely on agricultural income for their sustenance. Women should therefore be at the epicentre of climate change policy discussions and negotiations since they are the ones who would be disproportionately affected. A lot of their activities from collecting firewood, fetching water, and harvesting crops will be directly affected by climate change. So, it is imperative that their knowledge, experiences, skills, and leadership are harnessed towards climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Regulation is also key. Attaching monetary costs to environmentally harmful activities could incentivise companies to adopt a cleaner and more efficient approach in their activities. Economists have termed this the 'polluter pays' principle. The penalties for environmental pollution must be such that the cost is prohibitive enough to discourage any benefits accruing to the polluter. Some effective approaches often used to correct environmental externalities include tradable permits, emission taxes and emission controls.

Most importantly, Africa needs to be at the forefront of climate change negotiations and agreements. In the past, African countries have been passive and spoon-fed by the "developed" regions, taking whatever was handed to them. That outlook has to be changed if Africa is to make any substantial progress. The unique geography of the continent means that all 54 nations need to come together to discuss what works for each country and how they can collectively develop a strategy that works for the greater good of all member countries of the continent.

In conclusion, Africa should indeed be worried about climate change. This is a problem that the so-called aid cannot solve.
Thanks for Reading,

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