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State of the climate in Africa: pressing the alarm button

South African youth take part in a demonstration during a global day of action on climate change outside Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 25 September 2020. (EPA/STR)

A new report coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) stresses the gravity of rising temperatures in Africa and urges decisive action.

WMO published on Monday 26 October its first-ever report on the “State of the Climate in Africa”. This compilation of research and analysis from different agencies aims to inform political leaders and institutions on how to anticipate the trends and consequences of global warming for the continent. It also identifies pathways to address critical gaps and challenges.

Climate change poses a threat to all aspects of life in Africa, from health to food and economic security. A 2°C global warming is notably predicted to decrease Africa’s GDP by five per cent on average and by at least 10 per cent in West Africa. With risks becoming more severe and more precise, the report sheds calls for urgent action to reduce the world’s emissions faster, increase resilience and exploit clean energy opportunities in the region. WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas said:

“Climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement and stress on water resources. In recent months we have seen devastating floods, an invasion of desert locusts and now face the looming spectre of drought because of a La Niña event.”

Why it matters. Africa’s contribution to greenhouse gases is currently less than four per cent of the total and only one per cent when North and South Africa are excluded. But while it is the last contributor to global emissions, its geographic position on the tropics and its vulnerability place it very unfairly on the front line of impacts. The acceleration of global heating will hit hard between now and 2050, a period during which the African population is expected to double, with an extra 1.3 billion inhabitants. With a foreseeably declining growth due to climate disruption and a sharp demographic rise, poverty alleviation and key development goals are clearly under threat. Opportunities to foster better conditions of life remain, but the responsibility of high-emitting countries to stabilise fast the climate as well as to direct climate justice funds towards Africa will play a critical role in boosting adaptation to the new reality.

Also read: Why enabling all children to flourish helps tackle the climate crisis

Pressure points. Average temperatures in the world have already increased by 1.1°C since pre-industrial times, and by 1.8°C on land, in Africa like elsewhere. But this average hides more acute regional impacts in three areas around the tropical bands: North Africa, the Sahel, and Southern Africa (Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique). Among the many trends, the following should be noted:

  • The increase in temperature in Africa is now + 0.4°C per decade over the last thirty years, taking into account that this will increase over the next thirty years. This means that Africa will reach a minimum of 3°C warming since pre-industrial times by 2050, very likely more, with several regions reaching between 4°C and 5°C (like in Switzerland). If not stabilised after 2050, the total warming accumulated in these worst affected regions could reach +7°C before the end of this century.

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  • Decreasing rainfall especially over North and Southern Africa, and increased rainfall over the Sahel. Paradoxically, because of their violence, these extra rains may not prevent expanding desertification.

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  • Above-average sea-level rise at 5 mm per year in several oceanic areas surrounding the continent. Coastal degradation and erosion is a major challenge, especially in West Africa. About 56 per cent of the coastlines in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Togo are eroding and this is expected to worsen in the future.

  • The tropical cyclone season in 2018-2019 was the most intense ever reported in the South West Indian Ocean area, with Cyclone Idai among the most destructive tropical cyclones ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, resulting in hundreds of casualties and hundreds of thousands of displaced.

  • More extreme weather events and variability, with Southern Africa suffering extensive drought in 2019 while in contrast, the Greater Horn of Africa shifted from very dry conditions in 2018 to floods and landslides associated with heavy rainfall in late 2019. Torrential rains and flooding also affected the Sahel and surrounding areas from May to October 2019, as it did in 2020 again, with major effects on agriculture.

What the consequences are.

  • Major cereal crops grown across Africa will be adversely impacted by the middle of this century. Under the worst-case scenario, a reduction in mean yield of 13 per cent is projected in West and Central Africa, 11 per cent in North Africa, and eight per cent in East and Southern Africa. Millet and sorghum have been found to be the most promising crops, with a yield loss by 2050 of just five per cent and eight per cent, respectively, due to their greater resilience to heat-stress conditions, while rice and wheat are expected to be the most affected crops with a yield loss by 2050 of 12 per cent and 21 per cent respectively. WMO:

Projections suggest that warming scenarios risk having devastating effects on crop production and food security.

  • The number of undernourished people has increased by 45.6 per cent since 2012 in the drought-prone sub-Saharan African countries.

  • Increases in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns also significantly affect population health across Africa. Warmer temperatures and higher rainfall increase habitat suitability for biting insects and the transmission of vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever.

  • The continent’s overall GDP is expected to decrease by 2.25 per cent to 12.12 per cent. West, Central and East Africa exhibit a higher adverse impact than Southern and North Africa.

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  • 60% of internal displacements are already related to the climate crisis.

  • In the most affected areas, competition for water and grazing land between farmers and herders is already leading to social tensions that are difficult to govern, fuelling existing and future conflicts.

Climate action and pathways for development. Conscious of the disproportionate impacts on its societies, Africa has made great efforts in driving the global climate agenda. This is demonstrated by the high levels of ratification of the Paris Agreement – over 90 per cent. Many African nations have committed to transitioning to green energy within a relatively short time frame.

Clean energy and agriculture are, for example, prioritized in over 70 per cent of African Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) of the Paris agreement. In this sector, which employs 60 per cent of Africa’s population, techniques using efficient and clean energy sources seem capable of reducing poverty two to four times faster than growth in any other sector. Solar-powered, efficient micro-irrigation, for example, is increasing farm-level incomes by five to 10 times, improving yields by up to 300 per cent and reducing water usage by up to 90 per cent. With cheaper renewable energy and mini-grids, the continent is also taking the opportunity to expand fast access to clean electricity for households and companies, and therefore improve conditions of life for millions of its citizens.

The bottom line. The historic lack of attention to the warnings by scientists on the unprecedented consequences of the climate crisis has led to a point of no return, making Africa’s chances for better development and improved conditions for life much more difficult. And recent science papers go even further: in a few decades, the threshold of liveability conditions will eventually be crossed in certain Sahelian and southern regions, and western coastal regions will likely face episodes of “wet heat” exceeding 35°C, the survival threshold of the human metabolism. Even though the climate vulnerability index published in 2018 ranks eight major African cities among the 10 most vulnerable in the world, large-scale adaptation strategies must be anticipated, with massive migration towards urban centres like Lagos, Abidjan, Dakar, Kinshasa. In the face of such extraordinary challenges, greater solidarity, accountability and climate justice cannot be avoided in the long run and have the potential to make a real difference for the population’s future. And the sooner the climate stabilizes with the phasing out of fossil fuels, the better.