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Climate Change in Africa: What Does It Look Like?

Authors: Oh Ee Ting, Toh Jo Lyn Megan

Editor: Tan Chok Geow

From 1960, every decade has been hotter than its previous one with 2010s being the hottest decade on record (Meyer, 2020).

The latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reiterates that climate change is indubitably human-driven (2021). Not a single region is unscathed as countries grapple with unprecedented high global temperatures, increasing weather extremes, and rising sea levels. However, the impacts of climate change are not felt equally. As a result of their unique sociopolitical factors, countries face varying degrees of climate risk. Among them, Africa remains one of the most vulnerable regions.

Why is Africa so susceptible to climate change?

Vulnerability is assessed by 3 conditions; “exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity” (McCarthy et al., 2001). Exposure is characterised by one’s location and changes in physical conditions such as temperature and precipitation. Sensitivity refers to the predisposition of different groups to respond to climate change. For example, a wheelchair-bound person is more sensitive to flooding due to their inability to get onto an elevated platform quickly to seek shelter. Lastly, adaptive capacity is a measure of one’s socioeconomic ability to adapt to the direct and indirect effects of climate change.

Firstly, Africa is extremely vulnerable due to the sensitivity of its populations (Boko et al., 2018). 60% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population depends on agriculture as a main source of income and a whopping 95% of these farmers are reliant on rainfall to water their crops (Jemima et al., 2021). Increased exposure to climate hazards such as high temperatures, droughts and extreme rainfall, and can reduce crop productivity. This will have adverse impacts on livelihoods, food security and economic development. It is evident that climate implications are far-reaching and affect all sectors of the economy.

More importantly, Africa is lacking in climate resilience due to its poor adaptive capacity. Currently, it is plagued by factors such as widespread poverty, poor quality of governance, undeveloped state infrastructure, and high levels of conflict (Boko et al., 2018). According to the World Bank, about 40% of its population lives in abject poverty (2021). This means that when climate disasters happen, the poor are left reeling from the impacts and are reliant on state intervention to rebuild their lives.

Cyclone Idai is a prime example that has wreaked havoc on the lives of the poor. It has reportedly killed 700 people in Southern Africa and wiped out entire villages (Chutel, 2019). The impoverished live in makeshift, fragile homes that stand no chance against ravaging storms. Africa also lacks a functional system to deliver emergency aid, which can dramatically reduce the rate of recovery. This highlights that low adaptive capacity is a key reason that Africa is highly vulnerable to climate change.

How is Africa responding to climate change?

Generally, Africa has shown a strong commitment to combating climate change. Since 2015, all countries have been closely reviewing their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement. The region boasts one of the highest levels of ratifications to the agreement at over 90% (World Meteorology Organisation, 2019). However, there remain disparities among African countries due to the differences in governmental support and access to resources.

At one end of the spectrum, we have Gabon - one of the few high-income African economies. Over the last two decades, it has consistently preserved its forests that are part of the world’s second-largest rainforest - the Congo Rainforest (CAFI, 2021). This was only possible due to its government’s emphasis on environmental protection. Legislation such as the banning of logging in national parks and a forestry law have kept deforestation at a remarkable low of 0.1% each year (Pilling, 2021).

Furthermore, Gabon has set a precedent for being the first country in Africa to be rewarded financially for its efforts in reducing emissions. Gabon will be receiving a sum of $150 million over ten years from the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI, 2021). This will help pave the way for more African countries to be recognised for their conservation efforts and historic low rates of emissions, as well as allow them to tap on their natural capital as a source of growth.

On the other end of the spectrum, Tanzania, an underdeveloped country, has poorly enforced laws relating to environmental protection. Despite several adaptive measures such as rainwater and floodwater harvesting, the government has relegated environmental protection to the bottom of the national agenda. Since 2015, it has chosen to prioritise rapid industrialisation and infrastructural development to boost economic growth (LSE, 2018). It is unfortunate that the government has chosen the traditional fossil-driven growth as it has relinquished the golden opportunity to implement green growth initiatives that integrate development and mitigation efforts.

Recommendations: Where can Africa go from here?

Given its vulnerable state, it is imperative for Africa to actively invest in adaptation and mitigation measures. While the region may face constraints due to low levels of development, it should not view climate change mitigation as a cost that distracts from other priorities on the national agenda. Rather, Africa needs to jump on the opportunities that green industries such as renewable energy will provide (Ngozi, 2020).

This means that not only will green industries improve Africa’s capacity to respond to climate change, but they also represent vital opportunities for the continent to leapfrog the dirty industrial phase to achieve sustainable growth.

Climate change is a global issue with devastating impacts and developed countries are just beginning to acknowledge this fact. However, time is of the essence and the world, particularly regions bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, cannot wait for these richer nations to take action.

It is thus essential for Africa to work as one region to enact effective policy changes to combat the adverse effects it faces from climate change. While African economies have been traditionally sidelined in the climate change debate, they can draw lessons from the Pacific Islands. Following the launch of the Pacific Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency set up by Ministers of the Pacific Islands (Pereira, 2018), Africa can similarly set up a specialised government agency focusing on taking climate action and source for their own pool of investments. Furthermore, the coalition of leaders of the Pacific Islands and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) has helped shape climate policies on the global stage (Mcleod, 2019). By drawing on the strengths of one another, Africa too can gain a voice in the international arena.

A famous proverb in Africa sums it up pretty well. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”


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2. CAFI. (2021, June 6). Gabon becomes the first African country to receive payment for reducing CO2 emissions. Africa Renewal, UN.

3. Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy. (2018, October). Climate change governance in Tanzania: challenges and opportunities. London School of Economics and Political Science.

4. Chutel, L. (2019, March 23). Cyclone Idai has left 500 people dead and devastated southern Africa’s most vulnerable. Quartz Africa.

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6. David Pilling. (2021, July 20). Africa’s green superpower: why Gabon wants markets to help tackle climate change. Financial Times.

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12. Robinson Meyer. (2020, January 16). This is your life on climate change. The Atlantic.

13. World Meteorology Organisation. (2019). State of Climate in Africa.

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