Africa: make climate change history

Camilla Toulmin
16 May 2005

Climate change in Africa is likely to compound an already fragile condition, says Camilla Toulmin; the future demands that economic development and environmental security walk together.

Africa has experienced huge shifts in climate over past millennia, but the likely changes in the next few decades may present some of the greatest challenges this troubled continent has seen.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the interior of the vast African continent will suffer greater increases in temperature than the average warming elsewhere. And while some of Africa’s drylands may get higher rainfall, such increases are likely to come in heavier torrential downpours, which risk carrying away soils and vegetation. Higher temperatures will also increase evaporation of whatever moisture is left in the soil. Sea-level rise threatens many coastal cities with flooding, while changes to rainfall and temperature will shift disease patterns, wildlife habitat, and river flows.

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Agriculture and natural resources provide livelihoods for some 70-80% of people in sub-Saharan Africa, 30% of GDP, and 40% of export revenue. African countries are already reckoned as being substantially off-track in terms of meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Yet many of these goals will become yet more distant dreams as climate change bites.

People often talk of “environment” as an optional extra once economic growth has been achieved. As John Ashton and Tom Burke rightly note, environmental concerns tend to be hived off to be dealt with by a minister for the environment, usually a lowly post with few resources and little political weight. Yet for climate change in Africa, the dichotomy between environment and economic development is particularly false. There is and will be no durable economic development unless it is based on sustainable management of Africa’s land, soils, forests and water.

The report of the Commission for Africa disappoints in this respect. In a text of some 400 pages, “environment” gets slightly less than one page and climate change a mere paragraph. Written by and for the economics profession, it blurs the central challenges.

Adapting to climate change

The west African Sahel, a belt of semi-arid land lying along the southern edge of the Sahara desert, shows what “adaptation” means in practice. Since the late 1960s, the Sahel has experienced a 25% fall in rainfall by comparison with the previous period, combined with several harsh drought years.

In response, farmers have shifted to shorter cycle varieties of millet and maize, and abandoned crops like groundnuts that need higher rainfall. Livestock have been herded further south, away from the desert margins and into settled, cultivated areas, where a new accommodation between animals and crops must be sought. Wells have been dug and small dams built to provide for gardens of onions, tomatoes and mangoes for sale. Many farmers have also moved southward, seeking land in better-watered areas. Since the late 1960s, 5 million people from Burkina Faso and Mali have migrated south to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. Much of the civil strife there today stems from the uneasy relations between incomers and local people, and the growing shortage of land in a region where it had formerly been considered in endless supply.

The experience of the Sahel shows that people adapt to changes in climate, but the process is not cost-free. Governments can help or hinder such adaptation. In theory, they can enable movement across national frontiers. They can strengthen local institutions. They can install more transparent systems for outsiders to gain access to land. They can encourage technical and financial support for small-scale irrigation activity. They can provide reliable channels for migrants’ remittances, which have become key to the livelihoods of many families.

But overall in the Sahel, in practice, governments have played little role in making adaptation possible – rather it was people, their families, communities and local institutions, that allowed for innovative ways of dealing with difficult times.

The G8 agenda and beyond

The second half of 2005 provides the UK government with an unrivalled opportunity to lever major change, from the G8 summit in Gleneagles from 6-8 July to the climate change conference in Montreal in November-December. Here are seven recommendations for action.

First, those of us in Britain and other wealthy countries must recognise our responsibility for climate change. We must help address problems of adaptation, particularly for African nations. Africa is likely to suffer some of the greatest impacts of climate change despite its people having contributed among the least to the human impact on climate.

Admitting our responsibility for global warming means we can no longer adopt the “lady bountiful” approach of charitable gesture towards those suffering from global warming. Instead, there are strong grounds for payment of reparations.

Giving small amounts of aid is the preferred course for most rich country governments – allowing them a warm glow of self-righteousness, while avoiding the much more difficult task of undertaking domestic measures which could lose votes, or damage the interests of powerful groups. As for trade and agricultural policy, so also for climate change – our governments provide fine words but little action, preferring to wait, establish a new commission to prepare a report, or set a deadline ten years hence.

Second, we need to learn more about what “adaptation” means, and how to strengthen local capacity to cope in ways which brings positive rewards to local people. It is vital to recognise much of what is already being done by local people and organisations, rather than thinking that government should make such changes happen. NGOs and other civil society groups can play a major role to support local action.

Third, climate change resilience needs to be built systematically into new projects and policies. To date, climate change is almost never used as the template within which to make choices between options. Yet, whether it is design of river basin management, new irrigation systems, or urban planning, impacts and implications for climate change need to be at the forefront.

Fourth, strengthening local land rights and encouraging investment in sustainable management will help farmers adapt to change. In many cases, this means improving local technologies for soils management, like the extraordinary spread of simple terracing methods which have transformed the central plateau of Burkina Faso. Governments also need to provide incentives for collective management of common resources – water, grazing, woodlands – through joint management, legislation and local by-laws.

Fifth, much is to be gained from monitoring and lesson-learning across the continent, seeing how local experience with adaptation can benefit those elsewhere. The Kyoto protocol offers one very powerful opportunity for combining climate mitigation measures with socially beneficial outcomes, to get a “development dividend” on activities funded through the clean development mechanism (CDM). Help to encourage south-south learning on resilience and adaptation has much to offer.

Sixth, invest in design of new and better energy systems in Africa, through decentralised power generation, use of biofuels, and improvements in solar technology. Support for such technical innovation needs to be seen as a high priority challenge, rather than orphan topic.

Seventh, the rapid growth in urban centres across Africa needs clever thinking to provide institutional and technical innovations for better energy, shelter and transport systems. Twinning of G8 and African mega-cities offers mutual gains in learning how to cope. The great cities in the G8 – London, Moscow, Los Angeles, Tokyo – face enormous challenges in becoming more climate-friendly, requiring a systems shift in thinking. Lets see how – together with Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Accra – we can get smart ideas into urban design to make our cities liveable for the future.

Seize the day

The UK government has an unrivalled opportunity to take the lead on climate change and Africa. But this great chance demands more than fine words. Visionary language needs to be backed up by actions.

Can Tony Blair, the British prime minister, do the job? Given the scale of the challenge and foot-dragging by the current United States administration, Europe must take the lead. Why then has this government not yet contributed to the least-developed countries (LDC) fund for adaptation to climate change? And why is the UK government arguing about the levels set by the European Commission for its participation in the Emissions Trading Scheme? Tony Blair tells us that only those nations with the most innovative, carbon-friendly industries will be the leaders of the future. So let us set ourselves a high standard and reap the longer-term benefits.

A window of opportunity opens at Gleneagles. We should throw it open wide and let in a rush of new thinking and energy to drive forward to Montreal’s COP11 , and the tricky challenge of designing for post-Kyoto.

Large-scale, disruptive climate change threatens to be the ultimate weapon of mass destruction (WMD) for us all. There is serious evidence for it, collected by inspectors over more than a decade. We have a common interest in climate stability, and a common responsibility for making progress . Let us not miss this chance.

This article appears as part of openDemocracy‘s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative – a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

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