Africa is not a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

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The possibility of long-term climate change is linked to an increase in gases that trap heat in the atmosphere — called greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases warm the Earth by absorbing energy and slowing the rate at which energy escapes to space. These greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.

The “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis” in a global assessment of climate change science showed that human activity of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is a primary driver of climate change. In 2018, Africa’s total emissions were 1.4 billion tonnes and accounted for only 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

The average carbon footprint of an African is 1.1 tonnes, which is four times lower than the global average. The graph below compares Africa’s total CO2 emissions to other regions and in some cases countries.

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It takes the average American 24 days to produce the same carbon footprint an African produces in a year. Unlike its counterparts, Africa’s low carbon footprint can be largely explained by its current supply and demand for energy. Energy (electricity, heat and transport) accounted for 73% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Africa’s level of development and climate conditions lessens the demand for modern forms of energy in Africa, so much so that energy only accounts for 15% of emissions in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, biomass — a renewable source of energy mainly from charcoal and fuelwood for cooking — accounts for more than 60% of total energy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Even with Africa’s low contributions to greenhouse gases, the temperature in Africa is projected to rise faster than the global average increase during the 21st century. Extensive areas of Africa will exceed 2 °C of warming above pre-industrial levels by the last two decades of this century under medium scenarios as reported in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report.

In northern Africa, the northwestern Sahra experienced 40 to 50 heatwave days per year from 1989 to 2009 and experienced a strong decrease in the amount of precipitation received in winter and early spring. Regional model studies suggest an increase in the number of extreme rainfall days over West Africa and the Sahel during May and July. Droughts and heavy rainfall happened more frequently in the last 30 to 60 years. Studies show the same warming trends across Africa are observed in southern Africa as they experience warmer nights and hotter days.

What are the effects of climate change in Africa?

Climate change affects the relative position of the continents’ population on outcomes such as access to clean drinking water, electricity, and food security. I highlight some of the mechanisms of how climate change would affect Africa’s population.

Unemployment and Food Scarcity

Amongst the many natural disasters caused by climate change, drought is Africa’s principal type of natural disaster. Unlike other natural disasters, droughts have accumulative effects overtime. Droughts lead to a sharp decrease in produce and employment because of the dried crops, withered farmlands, and dead livestock. A large majority of the African population are reliant on the natural environment and the health of its ecosystem. Agriculture contributed 14% of sub-Saharan GDP, 1.9% of Europe & Central Asia GDP and 0.9% of North American GDP. Agriculture also employs over half of the total labour force in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not hard to imagine the effects of droughts (e.g. decrease in employment rates and per capita food availability) on these economies due to high-level of reliance on agriculture, especially when 98% of agriculture is rainfed in the sub-Saharan region.

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Some may argue that droughts create winners. The shortage of the supply could cause farmers to pass on the burden to consumers by increasing the price of their leftover produce. The high prices induced by the drought would also attract goods from other regions/countries to flow into the country, limiting price increase and smoothing the supply shortage. However, these economies are heavily reliant on agriculture, therefore, the negative economic impacts caused by droughts directly affect the livelihood of a significant part of the population. For example, the livelihood of those who depend on subsistence farming would experience poor harvest. A poor harvest significantly reduces the income level of these households and consequently reduces their ability to afford the products offered in local markets. Thus, increasing hunger and reducing food security. The economic implications of the drought are reliant on a complex set of environmental and economy-specific factors beyond what the line of reason made above.

Forest degradation

The Congo Basin Rainforest is the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world, covering over 200 million hectares of humid forest. For context, this is equivalent to 280 million football (soccer) stadiums. This rainforest has helped combat climate change at a global level because of its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which in turn enables the forest to grow more quickly. This phenomenon is called Carbon Fertilisation. The forest absorbs about 0.66 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. To put this in perspective, the Congo Basin captures an equivalent of the carbon footprint of 144 million Africans each year. A recent study found that higher temperatures and increased drought are eroding the benefits of carbon fertilisation, with droughts having a higher negative effect on carbon fertilisation. Previous studies have shown that intact Amazon jungles absorbed 30 per cent less carbon in the 2000s than in the 1990s. The research found that Africa’s tropical forests are 10 or 20 years behind the Amazon. This means that the efficacy of the Congo Basin Rainforest is reducing at a rate which is much quicker than expected and we could lose a vital carbon sink.

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Water Ecosystems and Scarcity

The future impacts of climate change on water resources is uncertain due to inadequate observational data. However, a growing body of literature suggests that climate change in Africa will have an overall modest effect on future water scarcity relative to other drivers, such as population growth, urbanisation and agricultural growth. A good example of the effect of climate change on the availability of water is the Lake Chad Basin. The Lake Chad is a lake shared by Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Over the last 50 years, the lake’s size has decreased by 90 per cent as a result of extended droughts and over-utilisation. Research has shown that the changes in the lake’s water level have mirrored fluctuations in rainfall in the Sahel region. The surface area of the lake has plummeted from 26000 square kilometres in 1963 to less than 1500 square kilometres in 2001. However, Adelphi (a Berlin-based think-tank) showed that Lake Chad is no longer shrinking after examining 20 years of satellite data.

The drying lake has fostered tensions among communities surrounding Lake Chad. There are repeated conflicts amongst nationals of different countries over control of the remaining water, displacing over 2.4 million people. Although there have been “revisited proposals” to alleviate tension in these areas by diverting water from the Congo River to the lake, some findings suggest that the value generated from such proposals cannot justify the cost of these projects.

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Africa already experiences the world’s most dramatic public health crisis. Africa’s public health crisis is exacerbated by its: failure to tackle extreme poverty; weak institutions; lack of medication; and corruption. With Africa’s high health burdens (such as malaria, malnutrition, pneumonia, and diarrheal diseases), changing temperature and precipitation patterns could increase the incidence of these diseases. However, due to these pre-existing factors affecting public health in Africa and the complex relationship between these factors and climate change, it is difficult to quantify how climate change affects public health.

For example, malaria, the world’s most important and deadly tropical mosquito-borne parasitic disease, killed approximately 445,000 people in 2016 — of which 90% were in the sub-Saharan African region. Whilst there are gaps in knowledge on the relationship between malaria and climate change, some studies report that climate change will increase the opportunity for malaria transmission in endemic areas and widen its geographical range. In dry climates, heavy rainfall can provide good breeding conditions for the mosquitoes. Increased droughts could turn rivers into strings of pools, the preferred breeding sites for mosquitoes. At lower altitudes, the increase in temperature will alter the growth cycle of the parasite in mosquitoes enabling it to develop faster and increase the transmission of the disease. This can be seen in the extension of malaria to the highlands of Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Are there any actions to mitigate climate change risks in Africa?

Inadequate infrastructure, particularly unreliable energy and bad transport networks, is one of the largest impediments to economic growth in Africa. Economic development generally has environmental costs and as Africa’s development progresses, demand from its leaders to use oil, coal, gas and large dams (as wealthier countries have done in the past) will increase.

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The graph above shows the positive relationship between economic development (as measured by GDP per person) and environmental cost (as measured by Annual emissions per person). On the graph, I’ve highlighted some countries of interest. These countries of interest highlight different dynamics of economic development (i.e. long-term economic development, short-term economic growth, and economic development by scale). Mauritius and Seychelles are the most developed African countries according to the Human Development Index. The Human Development Index captures the long-term dynamics of economic development. The graph shows that both countries currently produce fewer emissions given their current level of development.

I also examined the three largest economies in Africa (Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt) and unlike Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt are above the trend line i.e. they emit more than what is expected given their level of development. A commonality between South Africa, Algeria and Egypt is their demand for Energy. These countries collectively account for 60% of the total electricity demand in Africa. On the other hand, large economies (such as Nigeria) and fast-growing economies (such as Cote d’Ivoire and Ethiopia), have low electrification rates and are not polluting more per person given their current level of development.

This graph highlights the effect of energy demand on emissions in Africa. Therefore, a substantial amount of climate finance must be directed towards developing low carbon pathways to accommodate the increase in energy consumption and transport emissions that comes from development.

We have established that providing low carbon pathways for African nations is an important strategy to reduce greenhouse gases. With the Climate finance dataset provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we can identify what proportion of climate change funds are directed towards energy-related schemes.

“Climate finance” refers to money — both from public and private sources — which is used to help reduce emissions and increase resilience against the negative impacts of climate change.

Fortunately, data from the OECD shows that energy-related projects account for 22.7% ($45bn) of the funding from 2016 to 2018, of which Africa accounts for 27.9% ($12.6bn) of the energy climate finance funding. Although these figures do not match global investment in renewable forms of energy, these funds could increase the availability of renewable energy sources. That is, as income rises for a substantial segment of the population, households would be able to substitute less expensive traditional fuel for modern renewable energy sources that are available. Thus reducing the environmental costs that would come with the economic development of Africa.

Beyond energy, there are also schemes set up to mitigate the risk of climate change in Africa such as the Africa Climate Business Plan (ACBP). The ACBP is a mechanism that goes beyond providing relief funds during serious climate disasters in Africa. The ACBP also takes a strategic outlook on the risks of climate change by transforming economies to be less reliant on sectors that are more vulnerable to climate change effects and increasing capacity for people to withstand shocks. Thus mitigating the risks of climate change in Africa.

Beyond the help from international parties, African governments have a significant role to play. African leaders seem generally supportive of increasing the pace of mitigation. However, the diverse interest across the continent can create challenges for drafting a specific commitment. For instance, South Africa is (ranked 14th in CO2 emissions in 2017) is considered far more prepared for adapting to climate change given both its relative wealth and predicted impacts of climate change. On the other hand, some of these countries with proven oil reserves, such as Angola, and Nigeria, have economies that are fairly dependent on the resource. Movement away from an oil-based economy could be problematic for them. Nevertheless, African leaders have been able to secure funds from the international community to aid with their adaptation to climate change.

The next stage is for African governments to raise awareness of the effect of climate change in their countries. Research shows that African citizens do not support the implementation of climate policies. Public engagement is a necessary factor in encouraging the sort of values necessary for a sustainable society because society-wide acceptance of the problem in Africa, would encourage innovation and sustainable practices necessary to reduce the effects of climate change.

Economist | Graphic Designer. Passionate about anything data and statistics related. Doing my best to explain Africa using data, economics & infographics.

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