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Africa Macro 07 May 2021

Climate change in Africa - setting the scene

Simon Freemantle

The planet’s greatest threat poses particularly acute risks for Africa, forcing a rethink of its developmental model

  • Global leaders – and the societies that they represent – are increasingly waking up to the extraordinary threats posed by human-induced climate change and the resultant loss of the planet’s biodiversity. Delegates at last year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos reflected this sea change in sentiment: for the first time, all five of the top risks (in terms of likelihood) identified by WEF delegates for the year ahead were climate related. A year later, and after the world had been thrust into extraordinary turmoil by the COVID-19 crisis, WEF delegates held broadly to this same risk assessment: four of the top five most likely risks identified were environmental, the fifth (unsurprisingly) being “the risks posed by infectious diseases”. 
  • There is, as we know, abundant cause for this rise in environmental anxiety. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2020 was the second-warmest year on record. In all, the world’s six warmest years have all occurred since 2015, with 10 of the 11 warmest years occurring since 2005. In addition to this, and as we explain in this report, rising awareness of the perils of climate change is being driven by an increase in global climate-related catastrophes; growing evidence of the economic and financial costs of global warming; and rising climate activism. To these points, NOAA research suggests that there have been 285 billion-dollar plus weather and climate disasters since 1985 in the US alone; the Universal Ecological Fund has estimated that extreme weather, exacerbated by climate change, together with the health impacts of the burning of fossil fuels has cost the US economy an average of USD240bn a year over the past ten years; and former BoE Governor Mark Carney has argued how financial losses from climate-related events in 2019 totalled USD80bn, “double the inflation-adjusted average for the past 30 years”.
  • Yet, despite these threats – and rising awareness of them – global action to reduce emissions remains vastly insufficient. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global emissions would need to decline by 7.6% each year between 2020 and 2030 for there to be any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C on pre-industrial levels. And yet, even in 2020 global CO2 emissions fell by just 5.8%, a contraction that was achieved by widespread and unprecedented economic shutdowns in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. Further, in tracking the policies geared towards reducing emissions in 32 countries (which account for 80% of total global emissions) the Climate Action Tracker outlines that only one – Morocco – is ‘Paris Agreement Compatible’, with policies in the world’s largest emitters either ‘critically’ (the US) or ‘highly’ (China) insufficient.
  • For Africa, these climate-related threats are even more profound. Though the continent’s contribution to climate change has been negligible (Africa accounts for just 4% of total global emissions) many of its economies will be powerfully affected by its long-term consequences. According to the IPCC, average temperatures in Africa are expected to rise faster than global averages, increasing 2.0˚C above the mid-20th century baseline by 2050 and 4.0˚C degrees above by the end of the 21st century.
  • A range of vulnerabilities will compound these effects in Africa. As we discuss in this report, these concerns include (1) financial and institutional vulnerabilities (which will be compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis); (2) a heavy reliance on agriculture (here, climate change has already had a clear impact on agricultural production across Africa, while half of all African farmers in a recent survey stated that changes in climate have made farming conditions ‘worse’ or ‘much worse’); (3) the prevalence of low-lying and rapidly growing coastal cities on the continent (according to one report, 76 of Africa’s fastest growing cities face “extreme” climate related risks); (4) the greater prospect for climate-related human conflict (and an associated rise in ‘climate migrants’); and (5) the healthcare challenges that may emerge as a result of changing climatic conditions.
  • The confluence of these factors presents complex dilemmas for African policymakers. On the one hand, the continent requires rapid and sustained growth, supported by a profound rise in energy generation, to resolve its deep developmental challenges. Yet, if African economies were to emulate the carbon-intensive developmental model that has created such unparalleled prosperity in the advanced world and in countries such as China in the decades ahead this would profoundly undermine the necessary battle against global warming and add inestimable strain to the earth’s carrying capacity. This would, in turn, compound the continent’s abundant vulnerabilities to the effects of global warming, thus compromising its economic and institutional trajectory.
  • There is a deep inequity in this reality. As former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has argued, “if fairness was the only goal, the impetus to act [in order to mitigate the effects of global warming] would lie solely with developed economies”. Seen in this way, climate change imposes impenetrable risks to African prosperity and again subjects the continent to the adverse effects of external avarice.
  • Yet, seen differently, these changes offer clear and unambiguous opportunities, or at least exciting challenges. The seeming choice – between environmentally harmful growth and sustainable development – is far less binary than many suggest. As former Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn has argued, “there is a myth that political leaders [in Africa] must weigh up the importance of protecting our planet against the immediate short-term needs of our citizens. We must expel this idea that these two are mutually exclusive”. Indeed, research from the New Climate Economy has revealed that decisive climate action could deliver USD26tr in global economic benefits and generate over 65m new low-carbon jobs in the next decade. This would prevent over 700,000 premature deaths from air pollution and generate an estimated USD2.8tr in government revenues in 2030 through subsidy reform and carbon pricing alone. Further, the UNEP has estimated that in order to reduce emissions by the amount outlined by the IPCC by 2030 USD460bn a year will need to be invested in clean energy globally.
  • It is to this nexus – the challenges and the opportunities presented by climate change – that this report series aims to consider. In this launch report we set the scene, focusing on Africa’s vulnerabilities to climate change and argue that the threats that are posed by global warming will require a progressive realignment of the continent’s developmental framework in the decades ahead. In future reports, we will focus on the core elements of this potential reorientation and the imperatives and opportunities that drive them. Naturally, this series leans on the analysis included in our recently updated trend reports (see here, here, here, here and here): essentially, where these reports emphasised the structural basis for Africa’s allure, and pointed to disparities and challenges within them, this new series looks at how the continent can navigate what will, quite likely, be humanity’s greatest challenge in the decades ahead in a way that bridges some of the most pressing developmental inequities, both within Africa and between Africa and the rest of the world, that have featured as prominent WEF risks in prior years.

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