The effects of climate change on Africa

The evidence is clear. Africa is already experiencing the powerful impact of climate change. Weather patterns are changing and resulting in more droughts and floods, higher air and water temperatures.

The evidence is clear. Africa is already experiencing the powerful impact of climate change. Weather patterns are changing and resulting in more droughts and floods, higher air and water temperatures.

Glaciers on the famous Ruwenzori Mountains, long fabled as the Mountains of the Moon, have shrunk by half since the late 1980s - symbolic of profounder changes taking place.

The effects on people, particularly the poor, are severe. Farmers, pastoralists, fishing communities, and town dwellers are vulnerable to changes in water availability and lower agricultural productivity.

Warmer climate increases the risk of contracting vector-borne diseases such as malaria. Even if the temperature rise can be kept within the 2°C band, an additional 40 – 60 million Africans are likely to be exposed.

As agricultural yields drop by as much as half in some areas, other sources of income need to be found for people to meet their basic needs.

Economic necessity and competition for access to resources are already resulting in displacement, mass movement of people within countries and across borders, heightened social tensions and, in many cases, violence.

The economic implications of these changes are enormous. Receipts from agricultural activities, which account for over half the jobs and GDP in many African countries, may decline sharply. And just as national revenues are strained, demand for public expenditures will increase.

African Ministers of Finance are meeting in Rwanda this week to craft a response to climate change. They are central to finding a solution, for climate change cannot be treated as a sectoral issue.

It is a fundamental determinant of the success of economic growth and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The news is not all bad. Climate change opens up opportunities to generate revenues and diversify economies.

Projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can help rich countries meet their carbon offset obligations and generate substantial revenues for entrepreneurs and governments – such as through the Clean Development Mechanism which allows industrialised countries to invest in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries as an alternative to more expensive emission reductions in their own countries.

Other schemes, such as the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation initiative, offer the opportunity for African countries to benefit from global payments for preservation of forests which in turn capture carbon and preserve soil, water and life. 

Indeed, long-term climate change strategies offer a chance for African countries to ‘leap frog’ towards efficient renewable technologies.

Governments need to put in place effective policies and creative market measures to mobilize investment in renewable power such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, as well as in national and regional infrastructure. 

As one example, much greater flexibility is needed to allow independent power producers to supply the national grid are urgently needed where they are not already in place.

A resource-efficient Green Economy future will require financial support and technology transfer from more advanced economies. This would only be fair.

After all, Africa accounts for a mere 2.3% of the fossil fuel consumption, even though it has 13.8% of the world’s population. But recognition of Africa’s moral case, as the region that is least responsible yet most vulnerable, is not enough.

African governments need to decide how they will adapt their economies and protect their people, and to set out what they expect the international community to do to support them. 

First, African governments need to take the lead in crafting development strategies that take into account the need to adapt to climate change as well as invest in infrastructure and clean energy that go to the heart of national development strategies. 

Shovel-ready projects that bring affordable and environmentally sustainable energy to African communities need to be fast tracked and implemented right away. This would be good for Africa and help sustain global demand at a time of global contraction.

Second, international organizations, including the African Development Bank, regional economic commissions, the UN and the Bretton Woods Institutions, need the funds, leadership and technical competence to support governments to respond to climate change.

And third, any new global climate deal must address the special needs of the least developed countries, most of which are in Africa. It must include binding commitments to ensure that they have access to financial resources and technological knowhow.

It must also reform the Clean Development Mechanism and similar instruments to ensure that they truly work for Africa, which they do not at present. 

The importance of the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December this year cannot be underestimated. The best way to ensure that the voice of poor countries is heard is by promoting a clear position on key issues, including the steps that they and their partners will take to ensure financing of adaptation and appropriate mitigation actions using new and additional sources of swiftly accessible funds, including from carbon markets, and to ensure that existing international aid commitments are met.

Arriving at a common negotiating position will not be easy, either for Africa or the world’s least developed countries.  Africa is not homogenous, and countries’ needs vary.

But a strong common position for least developed countries is needed, championed by Africa’s Heads of States, and anchored with G77 and Chinese partners, as the cornerstone of an effective diplomatic and political campaign to secure a fair deal in Copenhagen.

Successful outcomes from the upcoming meetings of African Ministers Finance and of the Environment will be the best input to the African Union Summit in July, and to the make-or-break negotiations in Copenhagen. A lot more is at stake than the glaciers on Mountains of the Moon. 
Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary general, chairs the Africa Progress Panel:

Lord Stern is IG Patel professor of economics and government at the LSE and led the 2006 Stern review on the economics of climate change.

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