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Africa requires bold leadership to adapt to climate change

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Last year, the World Bank, put out a series of reports extolling the growing danger of a warming world, saying many communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change today, and many people could experience the harsher impacts of a warmer world within our lifetimes.

Africa is especially vulnerable to climate change and climate variability, even though it produces only a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the world’s temperature up.

The African continent, including Madagascar, is the world’s second largest and most populous continent (more than one billion people in 2010 and expected to reach three billion by the year 2050). Africa also contains about one fifth of all known species of plants, mammals and birds, as well as one-sixth of all amphibians and reptiles. These species compose some of the world’s most diverse and biologically important ecosystems such as savannahs, tropical forests, coral reef marine and freshwater habitats, wetlands and montane ecosystems.

Beside their intrinsic value, Africa’s ecosystems provide the economic foundation that Africa’s citizens rely on for water, food, energy and shelter. With the predictions of increased population growth, the number of Africans that rely on these systems is set to increase, placing far greater demands on these ecosystems. Climate change combined with other external changes (environmental, social, political and technological) may overwhelm the ability of people to cope and adapt, especially if the root causes of poverty and vulnerability are not addressed.

Climate change is a multiplier of existing vulnerabilities including insufficient access to water, food insecurity and limited access to health care and education.

Like all other regions Africa has to find a path to development that protects the natural environment while ensuring enough food, water and energy for all her current and future citizens. This development tight-rope is placed under further tension due to the projected impacts of climate change on the African continent.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its 4th Assessment Report, predicted the following climate impacts for Africa:

  • By 2020, between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change.
  • By 2020, agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised. This would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition.
  • Towards the end of the 21st Century, projected sea level rise will affect low-lying coastal areas with large populations. The cost of adaptation could amount to at least 5 to 10% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) scenarios.
  • By 2080, an increase of 5 to 8% of arid and semi-arid land in Africa is projected under a range of climate.

In October, the IPCC will release its next report (5th Assessment Report), and the question will be how much worse the key indicators have gotten. Over the past 100 years, Africa’s temperature has already increased by an average of 0.5°Celcius above pre-industrial temperatures, and predictions are that extensive areas of Africa will exceed 2°Celcius by the last two decades of this century. This temperature increase will lead to drier and warmer conditions in some areas while others experience wetter conditions. These predictions have dire implications for food, water and energy in Africa.

Climate change and food

Both extremes will affect agricultural practices and hence human health and livelihoods, people’s purchasing power, food markets and food security on a household level. With millions of people already scraping by under the poverty line, any further pressure on livelihoods could have catastrophic implications for human loss of life and political stability. Around the world, including in Africa, there is evidence of how increased food prices are contributing to social unrest. The global economic crisis is adding additional constraints on economic development efforts leading to increased loss of livelihood and widespread poverty.

African economies are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on rainfall patterns. Much of the agriculture in the region is rain-fed. As a result, it is highly vulnerable to changes in climate variability, seasonal shifts and changes in precipitation patterns. Any amount of warming will result in increased water stress. Roughly 70% of the population lives by farming and 40% of all exports are agricultural products. One-third of the income in Africa is generated by agriculture, and crop production and livestock farming account for about half of household income.

Agricultural production in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised by climate variability and changes in areas suited for agriculture. In some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020. From the livelihood perspective, African women are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because they shoulder an enormous but imprecisely recorded portion of the responsibility for subsistence agriculture, the productivity of which can be expected to be adversely affected by climate change and over-exploited soil, according to the IPCC.

Natural disasters will be more intense, while pest outbreaks for both crops and livestock will become more frequent. It will change temperatures and rainfall patterns, influencing plant seasons and affecting certain crop yields. The increasing number of tropical storms also poses a significant risk.

Climate Change and Water

Management of water resources is central to successful adaptation planning and implementation, and to building the resilience of communities and countries.

Rivers and lakes supply drinking water for people and animals, as well as being vital for agriculture and industry. Extremes of drought and flooding will become more common, causing displacement and conflict and less fresh water means less agriculture, food and income. Climate change will have major effects on the world’s water systems, including more floods and droughts.

Like forests, oceans are vital ‘carbon sinks’ – they absorb huge amounts of CO2, preventing it from reaching the upper atmosphere. Oceans and seas provide food for billions of people. But increased water temperatures and higher than normal CO2 concentrations, causing ocean acidification, are having a significant impact. Already, there is a measurable marine shift of fish stock from tropical regions towards the poles with continuing global warming and acidification. Regions like Western Africa could be hit very hard by these both in terms of income opportunities and food challenges for people.

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Climate Change and Energy

Energy is essential for poverty reduction, yet the means by which we have been producing energy is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Millions of people still don’t have access to sustainable energy sources and there is an obligation by African governments to provide energy to those who need it. However, burning more fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil and gas is going to worsen global warming and threaten food and water security further.

Changing the way we produce energy is the most important way for us to tackle climate change while creating the sustainable economy of the future. Many countries in the world – like China, India and the Philippines – are investing heavily in renewable energy generation – Africa cannot afford to be left behind with stranded fossil fuel based infrastructure. Every coal power station constructed today will last for decades, leading to massive lost investments if the world transitions to a low carbon economy that has no place for fossil fuels. African leaders should invest in energy technologies such as solar, wind and geothermal that have a much more sustainable, promising long term future.

There are a multitude of technologies already available that can help us prevent runaway climate change. WWF’s Energy Report sets out the case for renewables to provide all our energy needs by 2050. Such a transition is not only possible but also cost-effective, providing energy that is affordable for all, that creates jobs, promotes livelihood and local economic opportunities and producing it in ways that can be sustained by the global economy and the planet.

Climate leadership

Climate change can be considered Africa’s greatest challenge, and it will require bold and decisive leadership by political leaders to meet the challenge head on.
Political leaders will have the opportunity to define our future as they participate in the processes that will lead to a new global climate deal in December 2015.

There is an opportunity for African leaders to develop alternative growth and development models and not follow what has clearly been a failed economic model promoted by industrial nations. Africa can grow and develop in a way that is sustainable and equitable. But bold and swift action will be required to realise this imperative.

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