COP22, Climate Change, and Africa’s Future

On Monday, November 7, the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will convene in Marrakech. The meeting’s venue in the fabled Moroccan caravan town—long a cultural, religious, and trading hub between the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa—will focus attention on the irony that while among the regions of the world Africa may be the least responsible for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions which overwhelming body of scientific opinion holds responsible for global warming, the continent nonetheless stands to be the most severely impacted by the phenomenon.

The most recent assessment report on impacts, adaption, and vulnerability by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscored that Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change and climate variability, a situation aggravated by the conjunction of multiple stresses. The report’s authors paint a grim picture, concluding with varying degrees of confidence that the consequences would include:

  • compounded stress on water resources facing significant strain from overexploitation and degradation at present and increased demand in the future, with drought stress exacerbated in drought-prone regions of Africa;
  • reduced crop productivity associated with heat and drought stress, with strong adverse effects on regional, national, and household livelihood and food security, and given increased pest and disease damage and flood impacts on food system infrastructure;
  • changes in the incidence and geographic range of vector- and water-borne diseases due to changes in the mean and variability of temperature and precipitation, particularly along the edges of their distribution.

Nowhere are the changes and their impact likely to be more dramatic than in rainfall patterns—annual precipitation is expected to decrease throughout Africa with the possible exception of the eastern part of the continent—and the resulting immediate consequence to the agricultural sector. The models in some studies have predicted mean annual rainfall to decrease by 20 percent along the Mediterranean coast, while winter rains in southern Africa will also decrease, by perhaps as much as 40 percent. Less precipitation will have a serious impact on agriculture, most of which is dependent upon on rainfall. The social, economic, and political fallout from such a decline cannot be underestimated, with some scientists warning of dramatic declines in crop yields and, consequently, net agricultural revenues, with small-scale farmers being the most vulnerable.

Broadly speaking, the challenges arising from access to water will only proliferate, with complex, but clear, linkages between environmental stress and ongoing conflicts. From the Nigeria’s Middle Belt and the Lake Chad Basin across the continent to the Horn of Africa, climate change, land degradation, and increased competition over scarcer resources among both the root causes of as well as the consequences of violence.

Nor are all of these potential conflicts will be relatively contained internal disputes involving various groups within a given country in the timeless struggle between sedentary farmers and nomadic pastoralists over limited arable land and declining water resources. Access by the countries of the Nile basin, for example, to the great river’s water—which is itself highly dependent on precipitation levels in the Great Lakes region as well as the highlands of Ethiopia—has long been contentious, with Egypt making greater use of the waters than all the other riparian states combined. How long the current state of affairs, whereby Egypt and Sudan have claimed the use of the bulk of the river’s waters, can last is anyone’s guess. However, with more than 90 million people to feed, Ethiopia, where Blue Nile rises from Lake Tana and which contributes nearly 90 percent of the water and over 95 percent of the sediment carried by the Nile proper, will likely be making increasingly assertive claims of its own right to the water resources. On the other hand, Egypt’s successive rulers have never made a secret of their own willingness to defend their claims. While the “declaration of principles” signed in early 2015 by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia, and President Umar al-Bashir of Sudan, has the potential to transform the longstanding dispute over the Nile into an opportunity for collaboration and development in a corner of the continent much in need of both, flashpoints remain.

Alongside water scarcity, encroaching deserts present another challenge, not just in terms of the impact on local communities and broader food security, but in terms of mass migrations which have the effect of redrawing the demographic maps of entire countries or regions and putting previously discrete populations in direct competition for the same resources which are possibly even scarcer now thanks to climate change. Even without the threat of Boko Haram, the drying up of Lake Chad, which straddles the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, has caused large-scale displacements of the population as the once-large body of freshwater has shrunken to one-twentieth of its original size in the last fifty years, causing local lack of water, crop failures, livestock deaths, collapsed fisheries, soil salinity, and increasing poverty throughout the region.

While lack of water presents one set of problems, an excess of it lead to another. A rise in the sea-level poses significant risks to both populations and economies along Africa’s littorals. Highly productive ecosystems located in the coastal zone, including mangroves, estuaries, and deltas which form the basis for important economic activities such as tourism and fisheries come under threat from the rising oceans.

In short, climate change has the potential to impact virtually all aspects of development in Africa. Although it has contributed the least to climate change, Africa will be hardest hit by these effects. Not only will the scarcity of water resources and increased intensity and volatility of rainfall worsen livelihoods, these will increase the costs of providing basic infrastructure such as roads and sanitation. Climate change will also compromise the productivity of low-technology agriculture, on which the livelihoods of the majority of Africans, especially women, depend. The cost of doing business will similarly increase, further constraining much-needed growth.

Fortunately, there are two factors mitigating this otherwise alarming picture.

First, the recognition of Africa’s growing strategic importance on the global stage for a number of geopolitical and economic reasons has led other nations to appreciate that it is in their own self-interest to help African countries achieve stability and security for themselves and their peoples, an objective that cannot be divorced from efforts to help them cope with the effects of climate change. United States President Barack Obama, for example, used his final address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016, to not only warn of the consequences of failure to act on climate change, speaking direly of “mass migrations, and cities submerged and nations displaced, and food supplies decimated, and conflicts born of despair,” but also to call upon wealthy countries to “invest in research and provide market incentives to develop new technologies, and then make these technologies accessible and affordable for poorer countries.”

Second, and even more importantly, African countries are increasingly discovering within themselves a number of innovative solutions to the challenges they face. It is no accident that Morocco is hosting the COP22 summit. The kingdom, which is on track to meet more than 40 percent of its needs through renewable energy, primarily solar and wind, by 2020—an extraordinary turnaround given that just a few years ago the country was, according to the World Bank, the Middle East’s largest energy importer, depending on fossil fuels for over 97 percent of its energy. In fact, literally just down the N9 highway from the COP22 meetings in Marrakech, on the other side of the High Atlas is Ouarzazate, where earlier this year King Mohammed VI inaugurated the Noor complex that will be the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant. According to Climate Investment Funds, which has invested in the project along with the African Development Bank and others, the plant will produce enough energy to power over one million homes by 2018, reducing carbon emissions by an estimated 760,000 tons per year. Thus, Morocco’s extraordinary commitment to clean power—underscored by members of the COP22 Steering Committee who briefed an Atlantic Council audience recently—shows that a green agenda not only is the right thing to do in the face of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, but can also pay handsome budgetary and diplomatic dividends.

A similar story can be told about South-South cooperation to promote agricultural development which, in many respects, is at the heart of both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. As host of COP22, Morocco has been championing an Initiative for the Adaption of Agriculture in Africa to Climate Change (AAA), AAA is built around two pillars, advocacy to secure project financing and promoting innovative solutions, to facilitate projects to improve soil husbandry, agricultural-water control, climate-risk management, and financial-capacity building as a way to meet the challenges of climate change and food insecurity.

While Africans’ disproportionately modest carbon footprint places them among the least responsible for the massive negative impacts that their continent is experiencing because of climate change, there is no reason why the governments and people of Africa should not be taking an active role in positively shaping their own future—and that of the planet as a whole.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Follow the Africa Center on Twitter @ACAfricaCenter.

Image: Ain Beni Mathar Integrated Thermo Solar Combined Cycle Power Plant in Morocco (Photo credit: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection)