The paradox of climate change: How Africa can step up climate action to lighten its vulnerability

Africa is the most vulnerable continent to global warming. About 70% of Africans depend on agriculture as a source of livelihood, and in turn on rainfall to guarantee agricultural productivity.

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      Unfortunately, climate change is leaving these people with a heavy burden and unclear future. The effects of global warming in the form of floods, droughts and biodiversity extinction have left many Africans without the basics of life, including foodwater and housing. But by boosting climate action on both mitigation and adaptation, African governments can lessen the burden of climate change on the continent.

      The 2018-2019 El Niño-induced conditions typified by droughts and floods are expected to leave about 10.9 million people in dire famine and poverty in the Southern African countries of Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Moreover, the climate shocks together with civil unrests in the East African countries of Somalia and South Sudan have left about 6.3 and 7.0 million people respectively in need of food assistance from various humanitarian organisations.

      The impact of climate change in Africa goes beyond food insecurity. Climate change leads to water crisesinfectious diseasesbiodiversity extinction and direct loss of human lives. This means it is a tremendous threat towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa. Africa already lags behind in realising the SDGs due to socio-economic and political challenges prevailing in the continent. Climate change widens this gap by worsening hunger, disease and all inequality problems. It also intensifies poverty by easily and quickly leading masses to (fall back into) poverty.

      Although Africa is highly vulnerable to climate change, there is not much climate action, let alone knowledge of climate change on the continent. Indeed, the recent Afrobarometer survey finds that four out of ten Africans have not heard of the term ‘climate change’ yet, and about 51% think that ordinary people cannot do much to help abate the climate change problem. 67% of climate-literate Africans admit that global warming has made their lives worse. According to scientists, it may only get worse if no greater action is taken. Africa’s additional efforts can make a difference.

      To mitigate or to adapt?

      Africa on average emits the lowest greenhouse gas emissions annually. Nevertheless, there are peak and random periods during which the continent emits extreme greenhouse gases (GHG) as a result of El Niño conditions. For example, scientific research demonstrates that Africa emitted about 5.4 billion and 6.0 billion tonnes of net carbon dioxide from agriculture, forestry and other land use sectors in 2015 and 2016 respectively. This is higher than the annual total emissions by the USA (5.3 billion tonnes) and hypothetically makes Africa the second largest region, after China, in contributing to global warming. Hence, even in Africa, climate change mitigation policies are equally vital.

      African countries should strike the right balance between mitigating climate change and addressing its consequences. Policymakers in the region need to incorporate the climate change agenda into the local development contexts. National visions, development plans and budgets at both decentralised and centralised levels should accommodate climate change mitigation and adaptation policies.

      Most African governments have not specified their climate action goals. A case in point, the intended nationally determined contributions highlight water, agriculture and health as key priority areas for adaptation action. However, only 18% of the goals made in these areas are quantitative and more than 30% lack a time frame within which they should be achieved. Therefore, the climate adaptation and mitigation national agendas should entail clearly stated and quantified goals and objectives that fit in the time frames of national development plans and long-term country visions.

      According to ECDPM analysis, adaptation policies should go beyond (simply) addressing the aftermath of climate change to include a transformation to more sustainable practices. African governments can sustainably mitigate some of the consequences of climate change through grassroot climate actions.

      Agriculturalists in the region mostly apply conventional practices such as bush burning, flood (rain-fed) irrigation and overgrazing, and four in five people in the region use solid biomass (fuelwood) for cooking. Even though some African countries have banned plastics, most still accept their use, and worse, their careless disposal. These practices worsen the climate change problem by causing land degradation, desertification, deforestation, food insecurity, water scarcity among others, and make land emit instead of absorbing some of the GHG emissions.

      With an estimated 1.1 billion increase in Africa’s total population, there will be more pressure on land use. African policymakers should therefore plan strategically and implement policies that improve land management for a better future of its forthcoming generations. But how can they achieve that?

      First, governments should endorse and spearhead an all-inclusive, massive awareness campaign on climate change by distinctively stating its risks and opportunities. This should be done through climate change literacy talks, workshops and conferences at international, national and local levels. School curricula should also be updated to include the latest information on climate change.

      Second, governments can boost climate action in the region by adopting and financing implementation of sustainable practices in agriculture, forestry and other land use sectors. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on climate change and land with high confidence states that eco-friendly practices like water harvesting, micro-irrigation, erosion control, improvement of the land drainage system through careful disposal of plastics, and conservation of high-carbon ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, and peatlands among others will highly mitigate climate change. Massive application of these practices will greatly mitigate the El Niño effects and promote sustainable development.

      Third, there is a need to build capacity of climate change experts who can provide advisory services to the agriculture, forestry and other land use sectors. Moreover, most international climate financing is directed towards the private sector’s clean energy and eco-friendly projects. However, these still operate under their national business climate which encompasses high license fees, taxes and unfavourable laws and regulations. African governments should provide incentives to the enterprises that are engaged in creating business solutions to address the challenges of climate change.

      Finally, there is a climate financing gap. This is partly because national governments have largely left climate financing to international bodies, organisations and institutions. National development banks and other relevant local financial institutions should therefore liaise to leverage additional public and private finance for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

      Africa’s improved climate action would make a big difference. Consequently, the mitigation and adaptation policy recommendations mentioned above will facilitate achievement of the Addis Ababa Action Plan and the Paris agreement goals. But, more importantly, they would improve the quality of lives of the African people.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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