Africa’s top priority

New studies point to extreme environmental disruptions in store for Africa, prompting leaders to seek regional remedies.

"With [African] political will now on the rise, countries can focus more on acquiring the technical expertise and funding," writes Munang [AP]

At each African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) meeting Ministers of Environment across the entire Africa file into one room and dedicate themselves to discussing key regional policies and initiatives related to the environment. There were criticisms of the previous talks held in Doha, Qatar where the commitment to climate change adaptation was seen as muted. Emerging reports now document extreme environmental disruptions and crippling costs associated with failing to implement adaptation options.

According to these reports, Africa will experience no shortage of climate change impacts. Africa’s coastline is expected to undergo a sea-level rise 10 percent higher than the rest of the world. Arid areas in Africa are expected to increase in size by 4 percent, and north, west, and southern countries in Africa will see declines of 50-70 percent in groundwater recharge. Under current plans damages are expected to comprise about 4 percent of African GDP. In a case without adaptation measures, damages are expected to hit 7 percent of African GDP or about $350bn per year by the 2070s.

Held in October 2013 in Gaborone, Botswana, the 5th Special Session provided a platform to “get it right”. The session provided the opportunity for African countries to further consolidate and enhance Africa’s common negotiating position for the climate change talks that will take place in Warsaw, Poland, in November. With this special session, AMCEN took it upon itself to address previous inadequacies in supporting adaptation approaches to climate change.

What adaptation achieved

The African Adaptation Technical Report likely provided the impetus that strengthened support for adaptation. The report builds on the Emissions Gap Report as the adaptation gap is a direct function of the emissions gap. It documents a future where curbing emissions is not enough and adaptation to climate change is a must; demonstrating that in a “3.5-4°C World” costs are overwhelmingly high and may reach about $45-50bn per year within the next 27 years. The ministers registered their commitment in the Gaborone Declaration by urging member states to use the report in decision-making and requested that the report be updated on a yearly basis.

The ministers also recognised the growing dialog on climate change adaptation that bridges the continent by highlighting a conference attended by nearly 800 participants including farmers, development professionals, policymakers, and private sector leaders amongst many others. The 1st Africa Food Security and Adaptation Conference held in August, clearly demonstrated the link between adaptation and food security, and the resulting conclusions and recommendations from the conference were endorsed and supported by the ministers.

AMCEN also took a bold step forward and adopted a decision to “recognise and support the Africa Adaptation Knowledge Network as the continental network for co-ordinating, facilitating, harnessing and strengthening the exchange of information and knowledge for climate change adaptation.” A cohesive network to facilitate adaptation expertise has long been overdue.

Fostering regional methods to solve interstate issues is now a readily obtainable option. Climate impacts rarely stop at national borders and wise policymakers will continue to grow regional approaches already in place.

Policy implications

What does this newly strengthened commitment to adaptation mean for Africa? More than one thing. The report suggests that the biggest challenges will be securing political will, technical know-how, and adequate funding. With political will now on the rise, countries can focus more on acquiring the technical expertise and funding. These undertakings will be accompanied by the necessity to prioritise adaptation activities, make cost-benefit judgment calls, and find low cost solutions.

Adaptation activities include a spectrum of options ranging from the environmentally-preferred early warning systems and ecosystem-based adaptation approaches to hard infrastructure development. National priorities for adaptation have already been set by several countries in their National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) but for projects to have the largest effect at curbing climate change impacts in the long-term, efforts should be made to promote the right mix of the most effective activities. The Adaptation Gap Report suggests the most effective adaptation activities include the development of more drought-resistant crops, early-warning systems for floods, droughts or fires, and urban infrastructure protection measures such as seawalls, dykes, and wave breaks. Countries will then have to determine which national agencies will be the most effective at implementing these strategies.

Securing technical expertise in often uncharted territory has been and will continue to be a tall order. That’s why a political commitment to streamlining adaptation expertise via the Africa Adaptation Knowledge Network was a much needed advancement. With this opportunity, now having the highest political backing, practitioners should utilise the platform to its fullest potential to engage in scientific and data exchange, share practical adaptation actions, learn about the experiences of others and use best practices, and locate available experts.

Finally, fostering regional methods to solve interstate issues is now a readily obtainable option. Climate impacts rarely stop at national borders and wise policymakers will continue to grow regional approaches already in place. In showing support for the First Africa Food Security and Adaptation Conference, AMCEN has illuminated at least one clear path towards regional collaboration. The conference demonstrated that continental dialog on food security and climate change adaptation which promotes ecosystem-based adaptation tactics have broad appeal in Africa as a low cost, flexible solution – already seen as successfully operating in many sectors.

By letting the ink set on the Gaborone Declaration, the ministers cement a new ambition for the continent and provide it with a solid foundation for success. The decisions adopted in Warsaw will need to come to fruition for Africa to experience an authentic leap forward in combating climate change.

Dr Richard Munang is Africa Regional Climate Change Head & Co-ordinator at the UN Environment Programme. Follow him on Twitter: @MTingem