On Monday the United Nations (UN) reported that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached record highs. The Guardian noted that the last time the Earth experienced similar CO2 concentration rates was three to five million years ago, when the sea level was up to 20m higher than it is now. Two years ago in Paris, 195 countries committed to keep global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The UN reported on Tuesday that pledges made under the Paris Agreement amount to a third of what is required by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. What does this mean for Africa? Despite a twelve-fold increase in CO2 emissions since 1950 the continent contributes less to global CO2 emissions than Japan; in spite of this, the effects of rising global CO2 concentration in Africa will be devastating.
In addition to setting these voluntary conditions the Paris agreement also allocated $100 million to assist developing African countries prepare for the effects of climate change. This is because the UN is acutely aware of Africa’s vulnerability to rising temperatures.
Africa will not only struggle to deal with the effects of climate change, it will also experience these effects sooner. In their fifth assessment report on climate change the UN explained that “land temperatures over Africa will rise faster than the global land average, particularly in the more arid regions, and that the rate of increase in minimum temperatures will exceed that of maximum temperatures.”
One reason for this is Africa’s geography. As Guy Midgley, a Stellenbosch University scientist involved in producing these UN reports, told Africa Check, much of Africa exists between the tropics, with arid and semi-arid regions on either side. Temperatures in some of these central tropical regions have risen at more than twice the global rate over the last five decades, and the high temperatures, low rainfall and long dry seasons in arid and semi-arid ecosystems make them particularly vulnerable to climate change as well.
Another is the continent’s changing ecosystems. The rate of desertification in Africa is high, with deserts in the semi-arid areas of West Africa said to been moving at a rate of 5 kilometres a year. These expanding areas usually make rain-fed agriculture impossible, which could have serious implication for Sub-Saharan Africa where rain-fed agriculture accounts for 95% of farmed land.
In addition to all of these geographic and climatological vulnerabilities, Africa is poorly equipped to deal with climate disaster. Wealth and infrastructure often determine a country’s ability to adapt to climate change, and without the data, computing power and analytical ability to take early action African countries will struggle to adequately prepare for the effects of climate change.
What does this mean for Africans?
Stark rises in temperature will have devastating effects on the ability of African countries to produce enough food. South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen are currently experiencing a famine that has placed 20 million people at risk of dying due to a lack of food. While this famine is largely due to bloody wars and insurgencies which disrupt local agricultural systems and the delivery of food aid, severe droughts have exacerbated the situation.
Rainfall in Somalia has been cut by almost a third and 3.2 million people are in urgent need of water, according to a report from global poverty organization Oxfam. In Ethiopia, rainfall was reduced by 16% in the 2016/2016 period. That same report attributed drought from climate change as a contributor to food crises across Africa.
Reduced rainfall is particularly dangerous in Africa since most agriculture is unirrigated. Africa’s reliance on maize, a crop which is very sensitive to drought and extreme temperatures, threatens millions of people as maize production is expected to decrease by over 10% by 2050. The UN Office of the Special Adviser on Africa has said that 75% of Africa’s population will be at risk of hunger by 2080 if temperatures continue to rise.
This is a problem that will snowball once it gets underway. Droughts force pastoralists to overstock in order to survive. People in rural areas are forced to strip trees and shrubs for fuel. Decisions made to survive in the short term have disastrous effects in the long term, further endangering those who survive on the edges.
Warming currents and sea level rise.
Africa is caught between two oceans just as it is caught between two tropics. Warming currents on both sides of the continent are driving the sardines and anchovies on which many coastal communities and fisheries rely further south.
Apart from warming waters, Africa’s 30 500km coastline is also experiencing rising sea levels and ocean acidification. This has led to disastrous increases in coastal erosion which have resulted in serious infrastructural damage in West Africa. Many of Lagos’s poor live in floating shanty slums in the city’s lagoons, and are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. In Mozambique soil erosion has eaten up land 2 to 3 kilometres inland, dislocating fishery landing sites and even entire communities. Fish catches in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo are projected to drop because of climate change—possibly by one half.
These developments have massive implications for coastal communities across the continent, where a quarter of all people rely on the ocean as a primary source of food. Coral reefs across the western Indian Ocean, essential for tourism, fishing and the protection of the shoreline, have declined by an average of more than 35% after bleaching events in 1998, 2010 and 2016.
Coupled with the damage caused by coastal erosion, the effect of climate change on Africa’s coast can have serious economic consequences for some of the poorest countries in the world. Togo’s economic losses as a result of coastal erosion in 2016 totalled about 2.3% of the GDP. If temperatures rise even 2 degrees Celsius, the World Bank claims the continent’s per capita consumption would decrease 4-5%, potentially crippling many African economies.
While the World Health Organisation reports that cases of malaria, of which Sub-Saharan Africa claims 89%, have fallen by 37% globally between 2000 and 2015, higher temperatures threaten to reinvigorate the spread of malaria. A paper published in Science found evidence that rising temperatures affect mosquito population numbers and how the malaria parasites develop in hosts, as well as the altitude at which malaria can spread.
Coupled with the potential of erosion to destroy homes and keep people in malaria areas in cramped conditions, climate change presents a definite threat that malaria will spread to higher and higher altitudes in central Africa.
Erosion, droughts and high temperatures also have the potential to exacerbate other diseases. Cholera, Hepatitis E, measles, meningitis and a host of other bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases all have the potential to become deadly epidemics in crowded, unsanitary conditions.
What’s being done
Both the World Bank and the UN have produced initiatives that aim to stop rising temperatures in Africa, prevent drought and boost farming. These include the $100 million boost allocated to developing African countries in the Paris agreement, as well as another $100 million transit project to combat carbon emissions in Nigeria and a subsidized program to increase biodiversity in Ethiopia and Kenya.
African countries have also been urged to restructure their energy industries. Shifting away from oil dependence and into sustainable energy projects like solar power definitely makes long-term economic sense, not least, says the UN, because it has the potential to lift tens of millions out of poverty.
Africa’s oceans and coastline are getting particular attention. In November 2016 the Marrakech Climate
Conference was held in Egypt. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the FAO announced a “African package for climate-resilient ocean economies,” which Africa Renewal described as “an ambitious bundle of technical and financial assistance focused on measures to build resilience, reduce vulnerability, develop early warning systems and optimize carbon sequestration.” The initiative hopes to mobilize between $500 million and $900 million in the next three years to fund these programs.
African countries also participated in the Ocean Conference in New York last year as well as the African Ministerial Conference on Ocean Economies and Climate Change in Mauritius. These conferences were dedicated to assessing and addressing the challenges faced by coastal and marine systems in Africa and methods to developing climate-ready ocean economies.
Affecting the impact of climate change on Africa is a massive endeavour. Africa contributes less to CO2 emission than many individual countries and just 100 companies are responsible for 71 % of greenhouse emissions. Clearly what needs to be done extends far beyond what happens in Africa. This is why adherence to pledges made in the Paris Agreement are so important.
To stem the rising temperatures to which Africa is so vulnerable will require a sense of global urgency that has yet to be observed. Innovative solutions to the problems we already anticipate, like those we hope to see from events like the African Ministerial Conference on Ocean Economies and Climate Change, might kindle specialised efforts and inspire the greater urgency and significant investments necessary to catalyse the building of resilient ecologies, cities and communities across Africa. World-shifting developments like this may seem optimistic, but never has so much been on the line.
Decisions made to survive in the short term have disastrous effects in the long term. Those living on the edges already forced to strip trees and shrubs have lost the option of acting in their long-term interests, and many Africans may soon find themselves in the same position. Unless these considerations and many others within and outside the continent begin to be taken very seriously, options may be one of our first resources to run out.