Africa and climate change: What’s at stake?

Climate change predictions show a very bleak future for Africa. Funding for adaptation should be on the global agenda.

Newly arrived Somali refugees wait outsi
Drought across the Horn of Africa has created thousands of climate refugees [AFP]

The Warsaw climate change conference in November this year is the next milestone towards the 2015 deadline for adopting a new climate change agreement.

With many issues to resolve and the deadline approaching, negotiations are likely to be intense. Africa does have much at stake, but also much to bring to the negotiations.

A climate-stressed continent

Severe droughts in the Horn of Africa in 2011 and in the Sahel region in 2012 highlighted Africa’s vulnerability. The threats to people and development will worsen as warming is projected to be greater than the global annual mean, with an average increase of three to four degrees over the next century. These continental changes will affect the livelihoods of millions and permanently displace many thousands. Agricultural losses are forecasted to result in the loss of between two and seven percent of GDP and, by 2050, average maize, rice and wheat yields will decline by up to five percent, 14 percent, 22 percent respectively. These stark statistics are the evidence of a growing realisation of what is at stake for the continent.

Was Doha enough?

The Doha climate change conference in December 2012 made only limited progress and failed to set more ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That failure increases the risk of a rise in average global temperatures by two degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Studies by the World Bank indicate that even with the current commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 per cent likelihood that temperature increases would top four degrees by the end of this century, potentially triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes – including extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a rising sea level, affecting hundreds of millions of people.

What should Warsaw deliver?

Africa hit by drought

African countries have for long held positions in favour of an ambitious global climate agreement. The Warsaw climate change conference, followed by the 2014 climate conference in Peru, will be important stages in finalising the current round of negotiations scheduled for completion in Paris in 2015. The aim is to adopt a future climate change agreement, but many issues need to be resolved before that. The key issues that will have to be resolved to give Africa a chance to avert potentially catastrophic climate impacts need to include the following: 

A new legally binding agreement in 2015: A fair new agreement that brings into effect equitable access to sustainable development, and an equity reference framework. It needs to include rules that make it clear what parties need to do and, most importantly, ensure that emission reductions are sufficient in light of scientific knowledge.             

Adaptation: Greater adaptation efforts in Africa are essential, and they should be supported financially and politically by many different stakeholders in Africa and around the globe. Not only should long-term climate finance from developed countries be accountable and transparent, but it should also be directed as a priority to the most vulnerable developing countries.

Agriculture: Agriculture should be part of the future international climate change regime. The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) recommended that adaptation in agriculture should remain the primary objective for Africa and that a comprehensive work programme on agriculture be established under the Cancun Adaptation Framework. Key issues of focus include: the critical impact of agriculture as it contributes to sustainable development in Africa, the adverse impacts of climate change on agriculture in countries, technology transfer, appropriate breeds, how to support farmers address the impacts of climate change affecting their production and the entire value chain and the livelihood connection. During the 14th AMCEN session in September 2012, the ministers provided guidance on the common African position on agriculture.

Loss and damage: The increasing likelihood of severe climate impacts in Africa makes loss and damage a priority issue. Adaptation is a priority, but it will not be enough. Establishment of a dedicated institutional mechanism on loss and damage is crucial. Emphasis on the Climate Change Convention principles, considering adaptation as the core, and means of implementation to link agricultural adaptation to technology transfer and finance for capacity building should be part.

Distribution centres are a scarce source of food as the Horn of Africa food crisis deepens [Reuters]

Finance, technology transfer and capacity building are imperative. African countries are among those least likely to have the resources needed to withstand adverse impacts from climate change. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, developed countries agreed to work towards mobilising $100 billion per year by 2020 to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation. They also pledged to deliver “fast start finance” approaching $30 billion by 2012. Disappointedly, a report by the African Climate Policy Centre of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) shows that, of the $29.2 billion pledged since 2009, only 45 per cent has been “committed”, 33 per cent “allocated” and about seven per cent actually “disbursed”. Currently, “fast start” finance, however slow in arriving, is largely directed toward “mitigation” projects, which tackle the causes of climate change, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Seyni Nafo, the spokesperson of the African Group at the Doha talks, insisted: “In Africa, we need to know how much is new, where it is coming from, and whether it will be directed to the adaptation projects that are desperately necessary.”

Priority for adaptation

Africa has experience and lessons to share that others can learn from. For example, the First Africa Food Security and Adaptation Conference, which took place in Nairobi in August 2013 – with the theme “Harnessing Ecoystem based Approaches for Food Security and Adaptation to Climate Change in Africa” – showed a wealth of experience.

Almost 800 delegates from across the continent backed Ecosystems-Based Adaptation Approaches as the first step towards enhancing food security and adapting to climate change. Many of the ecosystem-based practices and technologies we need are already in use in the continent and elsewhere. For example, in Uganda, a project promoting agro-forestry and conservation agriculture resulted in more fertile soils and increased yields. This in turn reduced time and cost in preparing land for farming, leaving more time available for diversification, for instance, into livestock rearing.

The project also resulted in lower use of agrochemicals and improved biodiversity. It is estimated that 75,000 people benefited from the project. Around 31,000 tree seedlings have been planted to harness the ecosystem and boost household investment in the short and medium term. The encouragement of chili (capsicum annum) production, earns poor households about $60 per week during the off-peak season and about $240 per week in the peak season. The ability to generate surplus incomes from their agricultural practices has dramatically contributed to the food security of these households, all while improving efficiency and encouraging better agroforestry practices.

Effectively meeting the challenge of climate change will require a compromise of monumental proportions by all countries. Communities across the African continent are already building resilience to climate change by stimulating their existing ecosystems. Bringing these isolated success stories to scale and making them the rule rather than the exception could chart a better course for the continent.

Positive or negative signals for Africa from Warsaw?

The climate negotiations face considerable challenges. Tensions between expectations that developed countries take the lead in combating climate change, as they have committed to doing, and expectations that large developing countries with rapidly growing emissions do more will continue to be at the centre of the talks. Finding ways forward in areas such as adaptation and loss and damage will test the willingness of countries to find compromises.

Lack of progress in Warsaw will raise significant concerns for Africa. With the 2015 deadline approaching, it is crucial for African countries that there is enough progress in Warsaw to help generate greater political momentum towards the final meeting in Paris in 2015.

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

Joy Hyvarinen is the Executive Director of the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD).