Guest Article #82

Climate Change and Sustainable Development in Africa: Seizing the Opportunity

The outcome document from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) emphasizes that adaptation to climate change is an immediate and urgent global priority. The impact of climate change poses eminent danger to human well-being and development pathways in Africa where the resources and capacity to respond are limited. This is going to get worse as warming in Africa is projected to be greater than the global annual mean, with an average increase of 3-4ºC over the next century.

This poses a serious challenge to social and economic development, particularly because the economies of most African countries depend on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, water, fisheries, energy and tourism. Furthermore, African countries lack the capacity and resources to address the multiple facets of the climate change challenge.

Bringing everyone on board a common framework to address certain climate change risks that threaten regional and national development is urgently needed. It will be imperative to speed up the integration of climate risk considerations into development policy, in order to ensure that development proceeds along pathways that are resilient to climate change. However, views diverge as to the type of action required, where such action should occur and by whom. The achievement of sustainable and long-term development will not only require leapfrogging polluting technologies, but also adopting targeted, flexible and timely actions that catalyze the delivery of climate change interventions.

Turning the Climate Crisis into a Development Opportunity in Africa

The current climate crisis plaguing Africa may offer a window of opportunity if rightful solutions are put in place with the ability of building both the social and physical resilience of societies. Lives and livelihoods can be preserved and improved if climate-smart policies are put in place. Climate change hinders growth and poverty reduction, but it also presents tremendous opportunities. There is a growing realization that the cost of building climate resilience into existing development programmes is far less than the cost of emergency relief, rehabilitation and recovery associated with disasters. While Africa accounts for only 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions, over 60% of the region's emissions are due to deforestation and land degradation. Therefore, with improved land, water and forest management practices, mitigation and adaptation go hand in hand for Africa. Africa could leapfrog outdated technologies and move forward with untapped wind, solar, hydropower and other sources of renewables. The continent has only utilized 8% of its hydroelectric power potential, compared, for example, to 30% in Latin America.

Putting Climate-Smart Solutions in the Vision of African Development

With a view to seizing the opportunity to make development more climate-resilient in Africa, the following are long-term solutions that go beyond mainstreaming into policy.

Protect ecosystems. The African continent supports important biodiversity, both terrestrial and aquatic. Forest, grassland, coastal, freshwater and agricultural ecosystems provide food and clean water, store atmospheric carbon, support biodiversity, and offer tourism opportunities. Climate change will weaken these ecosystems, already stressed by overfishing, creeping desertification, deforestation and destruction of coral reefs.

Make adaptation and climate risk management core development elements. While adapting to climate change and climate variability may push up the cost of development in the short term, for most African countries adaptation is fundamentally about sound, resilient development and ensuring economic gains over the long term. Key focus areas include: disaster risk reduction (DRR); sustainable land, water, and forest management; coastal and urban development; watershed management; increased agricultural productivity; health; and social issues. Building on small-scale solutions could unleash the adaptation potential as they can be rapidly implemented at the local level, are flexible and have the potential to initiate change on a larger scale with high multiplier and spill-over effects that can catalyze large-scale policy process at the national level.

Take advantage of mitigation opportunities. Most of Sub-Saharan Africa's mitigation opportunities are linked to more sustainable land and forest management, clean energy use and development (such as geothermal or hydropower), and the creation of sustainable urban transport systems. Some opportunities exist to access carbon finance by reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (REDD), and through renewable energy and energy efficiency. This will help African countries to commit to the mitigation agenda, putting pressure on large emitters in Asia, North America and Europe to do the same, while furthering development.

Focus on knowledge and capacity development. While there is unequivocal evidence that the climate is changing, much uncertainty remains regarding the pace and extent of change, as well as the impacts on different sub-regions and sectors. This uncertainty makes policy decisions more complex, and magnifies the need for Africa to build its knowledge and analytical base, as well as strengthen the capacity of country and regional institutions for weather forecasting, water resources monitoring, land use information, disaster preparedness, risk management, and planning and coordination.

Invest in information services. Reliable information is fundamental for good natural resource management. Africa is in dire need of better monitoring and forecasting systems. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Africa has only one weather station per 26,000 sq km — one eighth the recommended minimum (Science and Development Network, 2006).

Get more from agriculture. The region must adopt climate-resilient technologies and practices to increase its crop yields and protect its livestock. Countries need to accelerate research, extension services and market infrastructure, while helping farmers benefit from integrating biodiversity into the landscape, and reduce carbon emissions from soil and deforestation. They must also hedge against climate risk by diversifying income sources and genetic material in crops.

Manage water. Water resources can be managed better even in poor countries and among small farmers through a combination of new and existing technologies, good information and stronger policies. In Sub-Saharan Africa, measures should include scaling up of existing infrastructure and systems, and planning for storage and power transmission.

Build climate-smart cities. Sub-Saharan Africa's urban population is set to exceed the rural by 2030. Moreover, cities and towns face increasing risks from water scarcity and floods, while coastal areas are also threatened by sea level rise. Hazard risk management needs to be mainstreamed into land use planning.

Way forward

Seizing the climate change window of opportunity offers a cost-effective mechanism for coping with future environmental change and making development more climate-resilient in Africa. The successful execution of practical recommendations outlined above could play a crucial role in building capacity, and developing appropriate tools for up-scaling interventions to local, national and regional levels.