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Africa has been cropped out of the climate change debate

Climate change

Africa has been cropped out of the climate change debate

The world needs clearer thinking about how poor countries can adapt to a low-carbon era

An irrigation canal runs through an otherwise dry area in Kenya. Changing rainfall patterns are particularly grave in sub-Saharan Africa, where 95 per cent of farmers have no irrigation © Luis Tato/AFP/Getty

When the young Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate went to Davos last year, she found herself cropped out of a news photograph of four other climate campaigners, including Greta Thunberg. “They hadn’t just cropped me out,” she wrote about the snub. “They’d cropped out a whole continent.”

Africa’s 54 countries have contributed almost nothing to climate change. Today, they account for about 2-3 per cent of global carbon emissions and 1 per cent of cumulative emissions. There is no great urgency to cut Africa’s carbon output. Even if it fell to zero tomorrow, the world would hardly notice.

Yet, because most African nations lack the financial clout to deal with the fallout of climate change, Africans will be among the world’s most affected people. Just as Covid-19 has left the continent reeling from a pandemic that started elsewhere, so African countries are among the most threatened from shifts in weather patterns they played no part in triggering.

Five of the countries most affected by extreme weather events in 2019 were African, according to the Global Climate Risk Index produced by Germanwatch, a Bonn-based organisation. Longer-term evidence also points to dramatically shifting weather conditions. Farmers up and down the continent report baffling seasonal fluctuations. Changing rainfall patterns are particularly grave in sub-Saharan Africa, where 95 per cent of farmers have no irrigation.

In west Africa, the southward march of the Sahara is pushing nomads and herders into conflict with farmers in countries from Mali and Burkina Faso to Nigeria. In east Africa, deforestation has radically altered the landscape and countries including Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are prone to more droughts and inundations.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies potential risks including reduced crop productivity, adverse effects on livestock, an increase in vector and waterborne diseases and migration. “Poor countries have much less economic resilience to deal with storms, droughts, wildfires and pests,” says Guy Turner, founder of Trove Research, a consultancy.

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Though the problem is not of their making, African governments will have to build resilience. That will mean, among much else, encouraging what is known as “climate-smart agriculture” by better managing cropland, livestock, forests and fisheries. As the continent urbanises and as the population expands, raising farming productivity will be existential. Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum told the Financial Times recently that bringing down high birth rates, principally by ensuring girls stayed in school longer, was also vital.

If Africa is to adapt, the world will have to help pay for it. The omens are not good. Even when it was in rich countries’ self-interest to ensure Africans were vaccinated against Covid-19, they failed. What hope then of them transferring sufficient funds to countries now paying the price?

Tanguy Gahouma-Bekale, chair of the African Group of Negotiators at November’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, says rich countries have long been promising an annual fund of $100bn to help poor countries adapt. “But we don’t see the money,” he says, adding that the COP26 agenda must urgently address the issue of adaptation and how to pay for it.

The final piece of the puzzle is what is expected of African countries in terms of moderating their future carbon emissions. Many African governments are crying hypocrisy. Didn’t western countries get rich precisely by going through a dirty industrial phase before cleaning up later as they got richer?

Nigeria’s vice-president Yemi Osinbajo calls the term energy “transition” — which to most means urgent and deep decarbonisation — “a curious term” when applied universally. In Nigeria, roughly half the population has no access to electricity. “Despite the urgent need for energy in countries like Nigeria, we are already seeing wealthier nations issue blanket bans against public investment in fossil fuels, including natural gas,” he complains.

There may be alternative routes to development that involve leapfrogging the dirty phase of the industrial revolution. Nigeria was among the first countries to go straight to mobile telephony without going through the fixed-line stage. Maybe the same can be done with solar and wind, but it is not proven.

This is an urgent question about which there seems to be little coherent thinking. Yet one thing is clear. If the expectation is that African countries must stay poor for the good of the planet, then quite rightly they will say No.

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