Defending Ecosystems An International Priority

No continent will be struck as severely by the impacts of climate change as Africa. Given its geographical position, the continent will be particularly vulnerable due to the considerably limited adaptive capacity, and exacerbated by widespread poverty.

Climate change is a particular threat to continued economic growth and to livelihoods of vulnerable populations. Its farmers’ dependence on rainfall, its weak infrastructure and its lack of social safety nets will add momentum to the problems caused by climate change.

Africa has done little to cause global warming, but it is already facing the worst effects of climate change, including drought, flooding, desertification and land degradation. By 2020, between 75 and 250 million people on the continent will be exposed to increased water stress. In some countries, crops could be reduced by up to 50 percent, due to drought.

Temperature increases in the region are projected to be higher than the global mean temperature increase; regions in Africa within 15 degrees of the equator are projected to experience an increase in hot nights as well as longer and more frequent heat waves.

Global warming of 2˚C would put more than 50 percent of the continent’s population at risk of undernourishment. It’s estimated that climate change will lead to an equivalent of 2 percent to 4 percent annual loss in GDP in the region by 2040. As endangered species go extinct, tourism will collapse. Assuming international efforts keep global warming below 2°C the continent could face climate change adaptation costs of $50 billion per year by 2050.

forest conservation and climate change

According to the IPCC, projections show that the western Sahel region will experience the strongest drying, with a significant increase in the maximum length of dry spells. The IPCC expects Central Africa to see a decrease in the length of wet spells and a slight increase in heavy rainfall.

West Africa has been identified as a climate-change hotspot, with climate change likely to lessen crop yields and production, with resultant impacts on food security.

Southern Africa will also be affected. The western part of Southern Africa is set to become drier, with increasing drought frequency and number of heat waves toward the end of the 21st century.

A warming world will have implications for precipitation. At 1.5° C, less rain would fall over the Limpopo basin and areas of the Zambezi basin in Zambia, as well as parts of Western Cape in South Africa.   

But at 2° C, Southern Africa is projected to face a decrease in precipitation of about 20 percent and increases in the number of consecutive dry days in Namibia, Botswana, northern Zimbabwe and southern Zambia. This will cause reductions in the volume of the Zambezi basin projected at 5 percent to 10 percent.

If the global mean temperature reaches 2° C of global warming, it will cause significant changes in the occurrence and intensity of temperature extremes in all sub-Saharan regions.

West and Central Africa will see particularly large increases in the number of hot days at both 1.5° C and 2° C. Over Southern Africa, temperatures are expected to rise faster at 2° C, and areas of the southwestern region, especially in South Africa and parts of Namibia and Botswana, are expected to experience the greatest increases in temperature.

Perhaps no region in the world has been affected as much as the Sahel, which is experiencing rapid population growth, estimated at 2.8 percent per year, in an environment of shrinking natural resources, including land and water resources.

Inga Rhonda King, President of the UN Economic and Social Council, a UN principal organ that coordinates the economic and social work of UN agencies, told a special meeting at the UN that the region is also one of the most environmentally degraded in the world, with temperature increases projected to be 1.5 times higher than in the rest of the world.

Largely dependent on rain-fed agriculture, the Sahel is regularly hit by droughts and floods, with enormous consequences to people’s food security. As a result of armed conflict, violence and military operations, some 4.9 million people have been displaced this year, a threefold increase in less than three years, while 24 million people require humanitarian assistance throughout the region.

Climate change is already considered a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing problems, including conflicts. Ibrahim Thiaw, special adviser of the UN Secretary-General for the Sahel, says the Sahel region is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with 300 million people affected.

Drought, desertification and scarcity of resources have led to heightened conflicts between crop farmers and cattle herders, and weak governance has led to social breakdowns, says Mr. Thiaw. The shrinking of Lake Chad is leading to economic marginalization and providing a breeding ground for recruitment by terrorist groups as social values and moral authority evaporate.

Deforestation in Africa

Africa’s forests are part of the solution. Forests cover nearly 20 percent of the African continent, including the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, the Congo Basin forest, which is known as the lungs of Africa.

Since forests absorb and sequester tons of carbon dioxide, which would otherwise trap heat in the atmosphere, they are one of the primary tools for climate change mitigation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that by 2050, forest cover must increase by more than 10 million sq. kilometers to stabilize global temperatures. The UN has recommended reforesting the Kilimanjaro ecosystem. Sacred Seedlings and its partners in Kenya and Tanzania have plans to tackle the job.

deforestation and global warming

But Africa’s forests are under threat. Huge tracts of the continent’s rich forests and grasslands are destroyed for industrial and infrastructural development. Rural communities are also clearing land for settlement and subsistence farming rapidly. This shift in land-use fragments wildlife habitats and restricts the movement of certain species.

For rural small-scale farmers, this involves learning new sustainable farming techniques that ensure higher crop yields, promote soil health, retain water and ultimately increase incomes.

We train and organize groups to develop alternative livelihoods from non-timber forest products, including beekeeping. By providing alternatives to communities reliant on forests, we help to protect key forest resources while providing benefits to communities.

By 2030 water scarcity will impact as much as two-thirds of Africa. Reforestation initiatives can help recover Africa’s lost forests.

In southern Tanzania, organizations such as African Wildlife Federation have supported water user associations with training to manage their water resources, restore riverine forest areas, demarcate riverine boundaries, and assess the quality and flow of their rivers with affordable tools that involve all members of the community. This is just one component of the watershed management plans that are designed with the input of multiple local stakeholders in line with national policies and natural resource management goals.

AWF also equips Maasai households in northern Tanzania’s Manyara Ranch with tools to harvest rainfall — instead of digging shallow wells or scooping riverbeds — transforming how communities access water in semi-arid landscapes. In some cases, solutions are simple. In many cases, they aren’t.

Climate justice and basic human solidarity demand international cooperation to contain these risks.

Climate change provides African governments with an added incentive to put in place policies that are long overdue – and to demonstrate leadership on the international stage. This is already happening: countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda have already developed climate-resilient strategies to reduce poverty, raise productivity and cut emissions.

Climate change demands that we rethink the relationship between energy and development. This is crucial in sub-Saharan Africa, where 621 million people lack access to electricity. The carbon-intensive energy systems that drive our economies have set us on a collision course with our planetary boundaries. Now we have an opportunity in Africa to avoid that collision. The Africa Progress Report, 2015, Power, People, Planet: Seizing Africa’s Energy and Climate Opportunities, identifies a range of practical measures for supporting low-carbon development while expanding power generation and accelerating progress towards universal access to energy. It also sets out an agenda for the Paris climate summit, linking international action to African strategies for climate-resilient development.

Five key steps for achieving climate justice for Africa:

Phase out fossil fuel subsidies: Many rich countries say they want a climate deal. But at the same time they spend billions of dollars of taxpayers’ moneysubsidising the discovery of new coal, oil and gas reserves. These governments should be pricing carbon out of the market through taxation, not subsiding a climate catastrophe. G20 countries should set a timetable for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, with a ban on exploration and production subsidies by 2018.

Clean up climate finance: Africa is poorly served by a climate finance system with as many as 50 funds operating under a fragmented patchwork of mechanisms that does little to bring in private investment. Funding for adaptation must be increased and consolidated. Facilities for financing mitigation and supporting low-carbon development – notably the Clean Technology Fund and the Scaling Up Renewable Energy in Low Income Countries Programme – should be restructured to be more responsive to Africa’s needs and opportunities.

Drive Africa’s low-carbon energy transition: African governments, investors, and international financial institutions must significantly scale up investment in energy – especially renewable energy – to unlock Africa’s potential as a global low-carbon superpower. A ten-fold increase in power generation is required to provide all Africans with access to electricity by 2030. This would reduce poverty and inequality, boost growth, and provide the climate leadership that is sorely missing at the international level. Africa’s innovative ‘energy entrepreneurs’ are already seizing the investment opportunities across the continent.

Leave No One Behind: Africa’s energy systems are inefficient and unjust. They provide subsidized electricity for the wealthy, unreliable power supplies for firms and very little for the poor. Governments should act to achieve universal access to energy by 2030, which means providing access for an additional 645 million people through connections to the grid or decentralized mini-grid or off-grid provision. Every government should map the populations that lack access and identify the most effective routes for delivery. Better and more accessible energy can also power up Africa’s agriculture. Governments should work with the private sector to develop the innovative business models needed to deliver affordable energy to people who live on incomes of less than $2.50 a day – a market opportunity worth $10 billion a year.

Adopt new models of planned urbanization: As the world’s most rapidly urbanizing region, Africa has opportunities to develop more compact, less polluted cities, alongside safer and more efficient public transport. Economies of scale and rising urban incomes have the potential to expand opportunities for providing renewable energy and achieving universal access to basic services. Linking African cities to the growing range of global city networks, including the “C40” group of cities, could unlock new opportunities for exchanging knowledge, building capacity and providing finance. Governments, multilateral agencies and aid donors should work together to strengthen the creditworthiness of cities, while developing innovative partnerships for clean energy.

Increasing peak temperatures and heat waves will reduce the habitability of some cities, causing outright migration to other urban centers as discussed above, though likely slowing the ongoing rate of in-migration as well. Because Africa’s physical geography tends not to encourage large coastal populations, sea level rise is not likely to be as significant a force in migration as expected in some other regions, though local exceptions may exist including in Egypt and Ghana.

More significant climate related population shifts can be expected from rural to urban areas. We know already that significant rural-to-urban migration in Africa can occur in response to low rainfall, for example as occurred during the Sahelian drought of the 1970s when farmers moved southwards to urban centers. The potential for future movement is substantial, since more than half of Africa’s population is still engaged directly in agriculture and more than 60 percent of the people still reside in rural areas.

However, the propensity to migrate from rural to urban areas is a function of multiple variables including but not limited to socio-economic status, group affiliation, and urban opportunity. In some cases, only the financially well off may be able to use migration as an adaptive response to worsening environmental conditions, because migration is costly. In other cases, women and men with high social capital may pool their household resources to create financial buffers significant enough to mitigate the impact of environmental changes that might otherwise have pushed them to migration.

A key question is whether the increased competition for resources and new patterns of interaction caused by these changes will lead to increased levels of conflict. If history is our guide, increased conflict is unavoidable.

As Kofi Annan, chair of the Africa Progress Panel states, “Countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa are emerging as front-runners in the global transition to low carbon energy. Africa is well positioned to expand the power generation needed to drive growth, deliver energy for all and play a leadership role in the crucial climate change negotiations.”

It’s time to raise the global ambition, setting a course that avoids climate disaster and showcasing Africa’s pathway for a future powered by an inclusive low-carbon energy. We have stakeholders across Africa who are ready to start tomorrow.

deforestation and global warming

Sacred Seedlings is a global initiative to support forest conservation, reforestation, urban forestry, carbon capture, sustainable agriculture and wildlife conservation. Sustainable land management is critical to the survival of entire ecosystems.