• Hot issue

    As the world gets to grips with the consequences of climate change, Africa faces the increasingly tough task of counteracting the effects of global warming.

    Hot issue

    As world leaders gathered for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris last December, a year’s worth of weather reports demonstrated the extent of the global climate crisis.

    In the US, Washington’s Olympic National Park rainforest caught fire for the first time in living memory. In the UK, the Guardian had to suspend its live blog of the July heatwave because its computer server overheated. In Nigeria, the rainy season came late (or, in some parts of the country, not at all), while heatwaves in India and Pakistan killed more than 1 000 people. Meanwhile, the Philippines is still mopping up after 2013’s super typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7 350 people dead or missing.

    Speaking at COP21, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: ‘That’s the future, folks, unless we tame this monster that we have unleashed.’ For Mary Scholes, head of the South African Climate Leadership Programme, those headline stories of extreme weather aren’t the most frightening thing about climate change. ‘It’s not going to be like the “end of days”. The planet is not going away,’ she says.

    According to Scholes, the real horror story is what she calls the ‘insidious creep’ of climate change. ‘People won’t notice that anything is different until they do notice. Now that might sound a little bit stupid, but let’s say you drive past a maize field everyday. One day you’ll look out the window and there’ll be nothing there, or they’ll be growing lupins or grasses instead.

    ‘Unless you’re quite an observant person, you won’t notice that it’s gone from maize to sorghum, or maize to millet, or maize to potatoes. That’s not what the layperson usually thinks about. They’ll assume that everything is fine, until they go to the store and can’t find what they’re looking for.’

    As the Earth’s hottest and hungriest continent, Africa has a huge stake in the climate change debate. Speaking on the eve of COP21, World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim warned: ‘If things continue to worsen, some 40% of the land that’s currently growing maize in Africa will be barren by 2030. And any time there’s an extreme weather event, the amount of damage to low-income countries in Africa will be much greater than to the high-income countries in Europe and elsewhere.’

    Scholes’ husband, Bob Scholes of Wits University’s Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute, agrees with Kim’s assessment: ‘[COP21] is quite crucial,’ he says. ‘Any further delay and prevarication carries us into global warming territory, which will severely test African adaptation capacity.’

    At COP21, Africa’s leaders responded to the climate crisis by launching the African Renewable Energy Initiative, an ambitious US$5 billion plan to achieve universal access to energy on the continent via 10 GW of new and additional renewable energy capacity by 2020, and 300 GW by 2030.

    ‘Any further delay and prevarication carries us into global warming territory which will severely test African adaptation capacity’

    A separate project, the African Restoration Initiative (AFR100), was also launched by a coalition of African countries and donors to restore 100 million ha of degraded and deforested land by 2030.

    Of all Africa’s economic sectors, agriculture is the hardest hit by climate change. ‘It will impact those staple foods that the majority of our population are used to eating,’ says Mary Scholes. ‘So that’s maize, which is grown in summer rainfall areas and consumed as maize meal; and wheat, which is grown in winter rainfall areas and usually consumed as bread.

    ‘Maize and wheat production are almost certainly going to go down – in South Africa and regionally. While the winter rainfall areas won’t necessarily change in the amount that they grow in South Africa, the duration of the winter rainfall season is expected to change. If the rains come later or earlier, farmers would have to adjust exactly when to plant the varieties that we have.’

    She also points to data projections from the UN Environmental Programme consistent with her own findings, which predict a 50% reduction in the production of maize in summer growing areas by the year 2080. ‘That applies to maize, sorghum and millet,’ she says. ‘So the northern part of South Africa is really going to suffer.’

    It’s not an entirely hopeless situation for Africa’s farmers, though. Scholes suggests a few ways the continent’s agricultural sector could adjust to the changing reality. ‘For the past 10 to 20 years, plant breeding has focused on plants with a high tolerance to limited water,’ she says.

    ‘So if you know what you need, you can go to the various databases and pick a variety that suits the current climate and projected climate for your location. I might add here that you won’t be able to be wimpish about growing genetically modified [GM] crops. Many GM crops have greater tolerance to drought than non-GM crops, so people will have to start putting that argument to rest.

    ‘Another thing Africa’s farmers can do is to plant at a different time to when they used to plant. Farmers are usually very good at feeling if the rains are going to be early or late, but they don’t have to feel that any longer. There are good weather predictions, not necessarily on the absolute amount of rainfall but on when the rains are going to come.’

    For Bob Scholes, a large part of Africa’s solution to climate change lies in what he calls ‘decarbonising’.

    ‘By this I mean reducing the carbon dioxide emissions per unit of economic and human development,’ he says. ‘It can be done by moving towards fuels with a lower carbon content per unit energy, like gas in place of coal, and by increasing energy use efficiency, or energy used per unit of economic or development outcome.

    ‘Both are technically feasible and beneficial for climate and other reasons, such as economic competitiveness and human health.’ He adds that Africa’s energy choices and development pathways are still wide open. ‘We can choose the well-trodden 19th century industrial path, or a 21st century green path,’ he says. ‘The latter might initially be more expensive, but in the long term it is not a cul-de-sac.’

    Mike Muller, also from Wits, suggests another approach to coping with climate change. He chaired the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Water Security 2012-2014, and the UN World Water Assessment Programme Expert Group on Indicators, Monitoring and Databases.

    Muller believes the key issue is water security. ‘African countries already face many climate challenges,’ he says. ‘Rainfall and temperature are irregular and unpredictable, and communities can face drought and then flood in a matter of weeks.

    ‘If African countries can manage today’s climate challenges, they will be well placed to deal with the much slower, longer-term problem of climate change, which has had only marginal impacts in most of the continent. So the most important way for governments to mitigate effects of climate change is to build the capacity of their countries to manage today’s climate variability and related challenges.’

    Bob Scholes puts a different spin on water’s relationship to Africa’s economic future. ‘South Africa faces major water challenges even without climate change,’ he says. ‘But climate change exacerbates them. All human activities depend on water. It is fundamental.

    ‘Most sectors achieve greater value addition per cubic metre of water they consume than agriculture does, so the logical outcome of a water-short future is for agriculture to sacrifice a large part of its 65% share of South Africa’s water use to the services sector, the energy sector, the industrial sector and the mining sector, in approximately that order of precedence. Initially it can do so without loss of production, by improving water use efficiency from its current low levels – but eventually this cuts into food security and the agricultural job economy.’

    Whatever solutions Africa’s governments and businesses choose to pursue, the continent faces an increasingly uncertain future, with the spectre of climate change looking over its development hopes.

    ‘Africa is generally agreed to have the highest concentration of heavily impacted countries, because it is already hot and dry, and getting hotter and in some places drier,’ says Bob Scholes. ‘Secondly, countries have quite limited coping capacity.’

    However, while Africa as a whole will be hit the hardest, it won’t have to face the climate change crisis alone. ‘There are individual non-African countries that arguably would be more impacted,’ he says.

    ‘The Maldives and Bangladesh are basically disappear under rising sea levels.’ That’s hardly comforting.

    By Mark van Dijk
    Image: Gallo/GettyImages