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Why Climate Change in Africa Deserves More Attention

 5 min read / 

The Kenya headquartered United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) posits that no continent will be struck as severely by the impact of climate change as Africa. The cruel irony is that the continent of 1.2bn, the majority of whom are youth, contributes least to greenhouse gas emissions.

UNEP, like many other environmental and development organisations with a presence in Africa, decries the glaring mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change in the continent. This situation exacerbates inequality and serves as a sharp reminder that one cannot hold a meaningful debate about climate change without necessarily putting Africa at the centre of discourse.

Unfortunately, the impact of climate change in Africa features less prominently in multilateral platforms and other alternative mechanisms for solving global challenges such as the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Though climate change featured prominently at WEF 2018, there was limited deliberation about its impact on Africa.

This year, the suited global elites who routinely attend WEF at Davos during the chilly January Winter spent most of their time discussing the leader of the free world, President Donald Trump, who was the first U.S. President to attend WEF since Bill Clinton in 2000.

When they were not discussing Trump, specifically his speech on tax cuts and record low unemployment levels among minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics, they were harping on about the risks cryptocurrencies posed to the global financial system.

Consequently, Trump and cryptocurrencies dominated WEF-related headlines, while the impact of climate change on Africa barely made it to the editor’s desk.

Going forward, global decision-makers need to give this issue more importance; as do the media, who are the gatekeepers of information and the foremost agenda setters in a world grappling with information overload.

Hopefully, African leaders will lead the charge in drawing global attention to the devastating impact of climate change in Africa. The urgency with which society must act has never been greater.

Taps are drying in Cape Town, South Africa. In Kenya, erratic rainfalls and shrinking forest cover have prompted many leaders, including prominent bank executives, to push for nationwide tree planting campaigns.


John Gachora, the Group Managing Director of NIC Bank Group, has emerged as a strong private sector voice advocating for tree planting in Kenya.

More fundamentally, agriculture, which is the sector that employs the highest number of people in Africa, is facing an existential threat due to climate change. By 2020, which is less than 24 months away, African countries’ yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by as much as 50% because of climate change, according to UNEP.

Poor Bear the Brunt

As agricultural yields across Africa decline because of climate change, poor farmers will be the first segment of the population to feel the heat. This could deepen poverty levels among the approximately 800m smallholder farmers who produce 80% of the food consumed on the continent.

Poverty, and the inequality it occasions, typically sets the stage for conflict, which drastically limits investment activity as well as the skills, knowledge and technology transfer that comes with it.

A poorly performing agricultural sector will also discourage African youth from going to the farms. The average age of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa is 60, despite the fact that over 60 percent of Africa’s population is under 24 years of age. In an op-ed published in 2017 in the New African magazine, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo argues that getting African youth to embrace agriculture will significantly catalyse growth in the sector.

If African youth – the most dynamic and educated demographic in the continent’s history – do not get into agriculture, who will bring in the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit needed to mechanise and de-risk African agriculture?

These concerns should prompt an adequate policy response to climate change in Africa, which will cripple agriculture if unaddressed.

Top-Down Approach

Addressing climate change will require a top-down approach, as very often it is the elite who have a greater control on policy and industry. It is also they who have larger carbon footprints owing to their jet-set lifestyles.

The richest 10% of people in the world are responsible for around 50% of global emissions, according to global charity Oxfam. In contrast, the average emissions of someone in the poorest 10% of the world population is 60 times less than that of someone in the richest 10%.

Source: Oxfam

The rich should proactively engage policy makers across Africa with a view to incentivising industrial behaviour that mitigates the impact of climate change. This proactive engagement will kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, they will be able to get climate-friendly policies that grow their businesses, such as tax cuts and subsidies predicated on the use or deployment of renewable energy. On the other, they will be able to address the impact of climate change while contributing to the economic growth of the continent through industrialisation.

Failure by the rich to proactively engage policymakers may lead to unforeseen risks, as policymakers in the continent may take the Robin Hood route—imposing hefty taxes on industries in order to implement cash transfer programs for poor farmers affected by climate change.

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1 Comment

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  1. Felicia

    March 15, 2018 at 3:38 PM

    Well Researched / written article on climate change. Congratulations!

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