Climate change a stumbling block to Africa’s economies

African countries have in recent years recorded considerable economic gains.

Sub-Saharan African economies are projected to grow by 3.7 per cent in 2010 compared with 1.3 per cent for industrialised countries and 2.5 per cent for developing countries, excluding India and China. But this hopeful outlook now faces new threats from climate change.

According to the World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change, released today, a two-degree Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels could permanently reduce Africa’s annual per capita consumption by four to five per cent. The report calls for urgent action to ensure that Africa’s prospects are not undermined by climate change.

Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions have been modest because of its low levels of industrial output. Yet the continent is likely to suffer disproportionately from climate change. African countries are therefore right to demand that international climate negotiations be based on principles of historical justice.

Financial support

The report calls on industrialised countries, which have released most of the greenhouse gases, to lead the way in charting a new low-carbon economic path. In

addition, the report calls for financial support to enable developing countries adapt to climate change and lay the foundation for low-carbon economies.

Fragile ecosystems are a dominant feature of sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly two thirds of its surface area is dry land or desert, which makes it highly vulnerable to droughts and floods. Much of the continent’s political instability is associated with the fragility of its ecosystems and low levels of technological competence to compensate for the natural deficiencies.

Africa’s economies are also highly dependent on natural resources. Nearly 80 per cent of its energy comes from biomass and a third of its gross domestic product comes from rain-fed agriculture, which supports 70 per cent of the population.

Stress is already being felt in critical areas such as water supply. Today, 20 African countries experience severe water scarcity and another 12 will be added in the next 25 years. Economic growth in regional hubs such as Nairobi is now being curtailed by water shortages.

The drying up of Lake Chad (shared by Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger) is a grim reminder of the dramatic ecological challenges that lie ahead. The lake’s area has decreased by 80 per cent over the last three decades, with catastrophic impacts.

Lake Victoria is receding as well and projected reductions in the rivers in the Nile region signal difficult times ahead.

Uncertainty over water supply affects decisions in other areas such as hydropower, agriculture, urban development and overall land-use planning.

Security issue

Water scarcity is emerging as a security issue. This is mainly because the continent’s 63 trans-boundary river basins together account for over 90 per cent of its surface water. Africa has yet to develop effective mechanisms for sharing such resources.

Africa already faces chronic food shortages.

Climate change will compound the problem. Rainfall variability is projected to increase, undermining the potential to support existing crops. These impacts are

emerging at a time when much of Africa has lost its traditional crops.

It is difficult to breed crops for a rapidly changing climate. A two-degree Celsius increase in temperate could wipe out up to 15 per cent of Africa’s species. This would

also affect non-agricultural sectors such as tourism that are dependent on wildlife diversity and pre-empt development of fish farming and game ranching.

To forestall the impact of climate change on species, Africa will need to double conservation areas in face of growing demand for land. The drama surrounding Kenya’s Mau Forest is a hint of the politics of ecological change that lies ahead.

Species diversity

Most of Africa’s protected areas lack long term funding. Industries such as tourism that benefit from wildlife contribute too little to conservation efforts. There is also the little-known Madrid-based World Tourism Organisation (WTO) that could play a key role in raising awareness on the role species diversity plays in tourism.

Professor M.S. Swaminathan, the father of India’s Green Revolution, warned in a recent issue of Science magazine that most of the crops we depend on are not diverse

enough to withstand climate change. “If their production is affected by a natural calamity, their prices will increase and food-deficient countries are likely to face riots and worse.”

He called for a massive effort to identify genes that would enable crops to withstand climate change. For example, he is working on identifying salt-tolerant genes from mangrove, which can help crops grow in salty water. For much of Africa, attention should be on identifying genes that confer drought-tolerance to crops.

Climate change will also have direct impacts on human health by altering the patterns of the spread of diseases. Changes in rainfall and temperature have resulted in more malaria cases in highland areas of Rwanda. It is estimated that nearly 900 million Africans will be exposed to malaria by 2030 as a result of climate change.

These projections do not include the emergence of new infectious diseases arising from ecological change and human mobility.

Africa’s capacity to detect new diseases, develop diagnostic tools and manufacture new drugs is not catching up with the rise in the threat level.

But behind this seemingly dismal outlook lies a unique opportunity for Africa to lead the way in adopting low-carbon growth strategies. Countries need to complete their demand for historical justice with the design of climate-smart policies.

They can build climate-smart economies that take advantage of the vast amounts of scientific knowledge available. It is estimated that growth in such knowledge is doubling every 14 months.

Power crisis

Building climate-smart economies will involve taking deliberate steps in at least four key areas: infrastructure; technical education; business development; and international diplomacy.

Infrastructure is essential for adapting to climate change. Take energy, for example.

More than 550 million Africans have no access to electricity. Nearly half of African countries have a power crisis.

The continent can therefore lead the way in investing in clean energy. Eastern Africa, for example, can generate over 2,500 megawatts of electricity from geothermal energy

using existing technologies, compared to the current world output of 8,100 megawatts.

Similar adjustments should be made in agriculture. Conventional crops need to be complemented by more resilient food sources such as tree crops. Breadfruit (Artocarpus

alitis), which has been a staple in Pacific islands, is a prime candidate for adoption in diverse African regions.

Creating climate-smart infrastructure will require greater investment in higher technical training. Ministries dealing with agriculture, environment, water, energy and transportation

could play key roles in training local experts in the design of climate-smart infrastructure.

Similarly, African countries will need to invest in fostering “green jobs”. Universities and institutes could help foster the incubation of enterprises that promote sustainability.

The new Victoria Institute of Science and Technology in Kisumu, for example, seeks to advance the use of “green technologies” in economic renewal.

Finally, advancing climate-smart growth strategies will demand new diplomatic leadership.

African ministries of Foreign Affairs will need to strengthen their capacity to engage in science and technology diplomacy.

A look into the future of climate change reveals disruptions that will take on wartime proportions. Responses must therefore match the challenges. Leaders who do not take climate change seriously will be punished by their young followers who have grown up in the age of environmental enlightenment.

The best way to avert political turmoil is to act in time and treat the situation as a state of emergency. That means now.

  • Calestous Juma teaches at Harvard Kennedy School and was a major contributor to the World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change. [email protected]