Climate Change and Sustainable Economic Growth in Africa

Residents of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, queue to fetch water. Credit: Bloomberg

The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 marked the cradle of the international community’s response to climate change – with the objective of addressing challenges associated with environmental protection and socio-economic development on a global echelon. The Earth Summit that was held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, brought together more than one hundred heads of states and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was developed as the concerted effort to combat climate change.

Although the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1992, the international environmental treaty was enforced in 1994 after an appreciable number of countries had ratified it. With near-universal membership today, the ultimate aim of the UNFCCC is to prevent perilous human activities from interfering with the climate system – climate change has become a defining issue as the change in weather patterns has adverse effect on the production of agricultural products, food and availability of water.

Concurrently, reduced quantity of water, deforestation, melting ice caps and the rising sea levels, increases the risk of cataclysmic floods – with an impact that is global in scope and unprecedented in scale, if corrective measures are not implemented to address climate change, it will be excessively onerous and extortionate to adapt to the slippery slope in the future. The complexity of climate-economy relationship is evident in extant research on climate change and economic growth – the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published a study in 2008 that revealed that there was a large negative effect of higher temperatures on economic growth in poor countries. The research shows that in poor countries, a 1°C increase in temperature in a given year reduces economic growth by 1.1 percentage points within the period, ceteris paribus.

Conversely in rich countries, there is no discernable effect on economic growth as the temperature increases. Additionally changes in precipitation had no weighty effect on both developed economies and less developed economies within the same period. In another study that was published by the United Nations University in 2014, it was established that a significant increase in temperature reduces the economic performance of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by 0.13%, all other factors held constant. This is mainly as a result of countries in Africa inordinately relying on agricultural products and other climate-sensitive sectors such as forestry, energy, tourism, coastal and water resources – on the African continent, there is a limited capacity for responding to shocks related to climate change, as a result of vagaries of extreme weather conditions.

As indicated in the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change – a 700-page report that was published in 2006, by Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. The report shows the potential impact of climate change on food production, water resources, health and the environment – according to the review, if appropriate measures are not implemented to address climate change, the world economy will lose 5% to 20% or even more of global gross domestic product every year.

On the African continent, the concomitant effect of climate change continues to increase as habitats and ecosystems are threatened by deforestation, land degradation and heavy dependence on biomass for energy – the Millennium Development Goals Report, that was published by the United Nations in 2007 shows that more than 80% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa depend on traditional biomass for cooking. The agricultural sector plays an important role in contributing to food security in African countries, contributing an average of 15% of GDP, which ranges from 3% in Botswana and South Africa, to more than 50% in the Republic of Chad.

According to the International Jobs Report of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2012, the agricultural sector employs more than half of the total work force in Africa. This indicates the indispensable role the agricultural sector plays in African economies. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations identified agriculture, food and water as some of the key vulnerable sectors to climate change. Sub-Saharan Africa will suffer the most, mainly because of reduced agricultural productivity, increased water insecurity, increased exposure to coastal flooding, extreme climatic events and increased risk to human health.

The impact of climate change on African countries is more severe than that of countries in other parts of the world, as the geographical location of most African countries on the lower latitude, positions the continent at a disadvantage where an estimated 80% of climate change damages are concentrated.

The vulnerability of countries in Africa to climate change is exacerbated by non-climatic factors such as widespread poverty, civil wars, prevalence of diseases, hunger, low levels of development and a limited adaptive capacity. Climate change is a particular threat to sustainable economic growth and to livelihoods of vulnerable populations. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, by 2020, between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa will be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change.

Yields from rain-fed agriculture can be reduced to more than 50% – in Africa, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa, irrigation is not widespread as only 7% of the total cultivated area of 183 million hectares use irrigation on farmlands. Making Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the lowest proportion of irrigation in the world – this is partly because smallholder farms constitute about 80% of the total number of farms in Sub-Saharan African, according to Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2014. As the second most populous continent with a population of 1.2 billion in 2016, according to the World Bank, more than half of Africa’s population is at risk of undernourishment as global warming reaches 2˚C.

The United Nations Environmental Programme projects that, climate change will account for an equivalent of 2% to 4% annual loss in GDP in Africa by 2040. In the case where a concerted effort from the international community is able to keep global warming below 2˚C, the African continent will face a climate change adaptation cost of $50 billion annually by 2050.

This is an enormous cost for a continent that contributes an infinitesmal percentage to the global greenhouse gas emissions – according to the United Nations Facts Sheet on Climate Change in 2006, Africa is not considered to be a significant source for greenhouse gas emissions as the continent accounts for 2% to 3% of the World’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industrial sources. In 2017, Africa’s contribution to global greenhouse emissions was about 4% according to a publication by Our World in Data.

Africa’s per capita emission of carbon dioxide in the year 2000 was 0.8 metric tons per person, which was far lesser than the global figure of 3.9 tons per person as reported by the World Resources Institute.

With the essential role the agricultural sector plays in the economic growth of African countries, there should be more than a passable amount of investment in research and development for the most pertinent adaptation intervention – developing drought resistant crops and building water resource management infrastructure such as dams for irrigation. In a paper that was published in the Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research (Taylor & Francis) in 2008 by Professor Robert O. Mendelsohn, of the Department of Economics at Yale University, irrigation appears to restrain the deleterious effect of drying or warming.

In the research, the incomes of irrigated farms were generally less vulnerable to warming than rain-fed farms. African countries can adopt irrigation farming as a measure to address climate change. However it is noteworthy that the successful usage of irrigational facilities is dependent on the availability of water, so encouraging watershed management is epoch-making that will ensure the sustainable usage of water resources in Africa.

Although most countries in Africa have membership status in international climate agreements such as the 2016 Paris climate accord that spells out a commitment from developed countries to allocate $100 billion for climate change adaptation and the mitigation needs of developing countries, it is peremptory for Governments in Africa to integrate climate change adaptation strategies in their respective national development agenda which should reflect in national budgets.

The impact of climate change is not the same for all African countries so it is important for policymakers to address the peculiar challenges that will provide a long-term relief for their countries.

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