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The future of climate change in Africa

In December 2015, the international community gathered in Paris for the twenty-first yearly Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The first universal agreement was signed that ‘all parties’ (not just the developed countries or historic emitters) would take action to achieve the global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions, and pursue measures which would hold global temperature rises to 1.5°C. As Simon Chin-Yee writes in April’s briefing, the agreement has particular significance for Africa.

When we think of the impact of climate change on Africa, naturally we think about the environmental impacts. The scientific consensus, as reported in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment report (2013-4), is that the impacts of climate change will affect food security, water availability, and human health in Africa significantly. Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods will become more frequent and more intense. According to climate models the estimated yield losses for food crops by 2050 are 22% across sub-Saharan Africa, with yield losses for South Africa and Zimbabwe in excess of 30%. Global mean sea level will continue to rise during the 21st century (under all emissions scenarios) to levels which could threaten coastal settlements, economies, cultures and ecosystems in Africa. Severe climatic impacts are predicted on migration, disease patterns, biodiversity, and ecosystems.

Less frequently considered are the political effects of climate change, the consequences of the need to mitigate and adapt to a climate changed future. The Paris Agreement was based on all countries – including African states – submitting intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) to tackling climate change. Libya was the only African state not to submit an INDC prior to the conference. According to Climate Action Tracker, the INDCs of Ethiopia, Morocco and the Gambia were rated as sufficient with the level of global action needed for global average temperature rise to stay below 2°C. Morocco was praised for putting forward an economy-wide target to reduce emissions by 13% below business-as-usual in 2030, whereas Ethiopia pledged to reduce emissions at least 64%. In contrast, South Africa’s pledge to reduce emissions by 34% in 2020 and 42% in 2025 was rated as ‘inadequate’ by Climate Action Tracker. This takes into account the overall carbon intensity of South Africa’s coal-reliant economy, and the fact that its overall emissions are expected to increase by 110% and 141% in 2020 and 2025 respectively compared to 1990 levels.

Of course, with Africa contributing less than 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel between 1980 and 2005, the success of climate mitigation efforts does not depend on action taken in Africa. However, this does not mean that climate mitigation and adaptation policies are not impacting politics and governance in Africa.

Countries like Ethiopia, South Africa, and Rwanda are implementing high profile green economy strategies that aim to generate new forms of cleaner growth and green jobs from investment in renewable energies, public transport, and sustainable agriculture. Kenya and Morocco are making major investments in wind and solar power generation. Countries like Tanzania, the DRC, and Gabon could potentially generate millions of dollars of revenue from global funds in return for protecting large tracts of forests as a form of carbon credits for avoided deforestation. The newly created Green Climate Fund is intended to generate new sources of finance to help the developing world adapt to the effects of climate change, with a target of $100 billion per year by 2020.

Optimistic commentators are therefore talking about the prospect of a new green revolution in Africa, built on green jobs, renewable energy, and environmental conservation. In the words of Rob Davies, the South African minister of trade and industry, “The next industrial, technological revolution is green industrialisation. The last one was ICT [information and communication technology] and South Africa and Africa largely related to that as service providers for somebody else’s product and technology.”

But as Simon Chin-Yee points out, many African commentators were far from optimistic about the impacts of the Paris Agreement on and for Africa. There is little prospect of countries being held to their promises and at current levels the INDCs would still lead to a global average temperature rise of almost 3°C or higher, described as a “suicide pact” for Africa. Sufficient levels of new financial support are a long way away at present, and the new deal effectively prevents any liability or compensation being awarded for already existing loss and damage caused by climate change.

For Nnimmo Bassey, Nigerian environmental activist and chair of Friends of the Earth International between 2008 and 2012, the Paris Agreement “betrayed the poor, the vulnerable and all those already suffering the impacts of climate change. It set the stage for a climate-changed world, and did little about averting it.”

Africa will be on the frontlines of climate chaos in the years to come, and the ramifications will be political, social and economic as well as environmental.

Featured image credit: Orlando power station, Soweto, South Africa. Photo by Carl Death. Used with permission.

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