Climate change is a quintessentially global problem which, to be properly addressed, requires a collective solution with the collaboration and commitment of all countries at all levels of government (local, regional, and international). However, this does not imply that all regions around the world are equally affected by this phenomenon. Africa, for example, is among the regions that are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of global warming and climate change.
Much like other parts of the world, temperatures in Africa are rising whilst extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense. While some areas are witnessing very low levels of rainfalls – which are causing droughts, especially in East Africa and the Horn of Africa – other regions have been badly flooded. South Sudan, for example, has recently declared a state of emergency with thousands of people affected by devastating floods.
However, what makes Africa one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change is the compound effect of its geographical position and its territorial conformation coupled with poor socio-economic conditions and fragile institutional and political governance structures plaguing many African countries.
As such, climate change is burdening an already fragile context, aggravating Africa’s ‘multiple stresses’: food insecurity, biodiversity loss, political instability, and conflicts.
Many African countries depend on agriculture as their main economic driver: as such, they are particularly susceptible to climate change, which endangers crops productivity and jeopardises the livelihoods of people and communities as well as their food security. Migration and human displacement may also increase in numbers as floods, droughts, and storms increase because of climate change. There are also some security risks related to climate change as it may become a multiplier of conflict by creating competition over increasingly scarce resources people rely on for their livelihoods.
Africa’s Paradox: Low Emissions, High Vulnerability
Although many African countries are among the most exposed and vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, their contribution to the problem is limited in terms of historical and current emissions. Today, Africa is not a significant source of climate-altering emissions, accounting for only around 3.9 per cent of global emissions. There is no African country among the major global emitters. Only South Africa, the biggest African emitter, exceeds 1 per cent of the world’s overall emissions, while the rest of the continent produces marginal amounts. As regards the historical distribution of CO2 emissions by region, Africa’s impact on climate alteration has always been marginal, contrary to other parts of the world which have dramatically increased their relative share in recent times. At the beginning of the last century, in 1900, Africa accounted for 0.12% of global emissions; by 1950 its quota rose to 1.5%; while at the beginning of the new millennium it was at 3.5%. For a large part of the 20th century, Europe and the USA were by far the major emitters. If in 1900 over 90% of emissions originated from these two regions, their share fell to 85% by 1950 and to a little less than 50% in 2000. This downward trend has been counterbalanced by the rise of emissions by a small group of emerging economies particularly across Asia, most notably China – which today accounts for around 28% of global emissions. On the contrary, throughout this period the rise of emissions by African countries has been decidedly limited.
The mismatch between Africa’s condition as the minor contributor to the problem and yet one of the most vulnerable regions to its adverse effects represents one of the paradoxes of global climate politics. The question around how to differentiate efforts fairly and who should pay for the price of climate change has always been central – and controversial – during UN climate negotiations. Members of the UN climate governance system have attempted to reach an agreement on principles regarding who ought to contribute – and how much – to mitigation and adaptation efforts. Largely as a consequence of the “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities” (CBDR–RC) principle under the UN climate regime, most Sub-Saharan countries have not been subjected to a legally binding obligation to reduce their emissions while being financially supported by developed countries in light of their poor economic capacity.
Besides the mitigation efforts, which marginally involve Africa, what really affects several African countries is adaptation to climate change, which is already manifesting its disruptive effects on its peoples and ecosystems. However, many Sub-Saharan countries have relatively low adaptive capacities in terms of know-how, technology, and finance. In addition, many African governments do not prioritise climate change in their internal political agenda: they consider it a problem that ought to be solved elsewhere and by developed countries above all.
Financing climate mitigation and adaptation in Africa
Finance represents one of the key challenges for effective climate action in Africa since it plays a fundamental role in mobilizing capital for the transition to a decarbonised economy through investments in emissions reduction as well as to create a resilient system through local investments on adaptation.
Under the current international legal regime established by the Paris Agreement, developed countries with more financial resources shall provide financial assistance to developing countries to support their mitigation and adaptation actions. According to art. 9, other parties are also encouraged to voluntarily contribute. At the Paris COP21, developed countries pledged to collectively mobilize $100 billion per year to assist developing countries’ mitigation and adaptation efforts. This amount will be revised by the parties in future negotiations with the aim of setting a new goal that takes into account the needs and priorities of developing countries. In this regard, the COP26 will be decisive.
A recent report released by the African Development Bank (AfDB) estimates that to achieve the objectives stated by the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, African countries’ financial needs for mitigation actions will amount to $715 billion over the next decade (2020 -2030). Meanwhile, cumulative adaptation costs for all African countries are estimated to be between $259 to $407 billion for the same period. Nonetheless, the investment gap in these two areas is estimated to be quite high.
Climate change is becoming one of the defining global threats of our time. Africa is among the most vulnerable areas to the impact of global warming and its related risks, including droughts, famine, flash floods, and human displacement. Moreover, the combination of climate exposure and political fragility, endemic to most of African countries, creates a double burden that severely threatens both lives and livelihoods. Today, the global challenge presented by climate change, coupled with the urgency around the energy transition and sustainable growth, are made even more crucial by the Covid-induced crisis, which is urging to strike the right balance between the much-neededglobal recovery and the recognition of environmental targets.
While post-pandemic recovery packages represent an opportunity for many developed countries’ governments to look ahead and build a low-carbon and climate-resilient future, many African countries risk lagging behind in this geopolitical and geo-economic race towards a sustainable future. In anything, the great fiscal stimulus implemented by many countries – with the additional aim of re-structuring the basis of their economies – may deepen the divide between rich and poor countries. Therefore, African countries should be granted the necessary conditions to place themselves on a pathway for low-carbon and resilient development, making serious efforts to transition towards low-carbon technologies, resilient infrastructure, and renewable energies.