Even before the U.S. left the Paris Agreement, Africa stepped up to the plate on climate change

Though the United States will no longer be leading the fight against climate change, Africa has already been stepping up to the plate. At the moment, Africa currently accounts for the smallest share of global greenhouse gas emissions (3.8 percent compared to China’s 23 percent, the U.S.’s 19 percent, and the European Union’s 13 percent). Because Africa is likely to contribute more as it industrializes and urbanizes, it is working to balance poverty reduction, economic development, and energy access with low-carbon growth. More information on the increasing risk African countries face when it comes to climate change and their strategies to fight it can be found in this year’s Foresight Africa. 

Unprecedented African leadership

The African Union has coordinated African support for the Paris Agreement, bringing the continent together as one voice to speak on climate change. For example, in his essay, “Financing adaptation and mitigation in the world’s most vulnerable region,” Nonresident Senior Fellow Amadou Sy notes that the Common African Position (developed by the African Group of Negotiators and endorsed by the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment) underscores African countries’ commitment to the problem.

Similarly, in Chapter 4 of Foresight Africa 2017, “Confronting climate change: Africa’s leadership on an increasingly urgent issue,” Russell Bishop notes that individual African countries are leading the way in climate change mitigation and adaptation policies: For example, Ghana, Morocco, Kenya, and South Africa in particular have long integrated climate change issues into their national development planning and implementation across multiple sectors. Ethiopia has developed a Climate Resilient Green Economy Strategy and a climate finance fund within its ministry of finance for climate compatible investment.

Already, African countries are implementing small-scale interventions. In his Foresight Africa 2017 viewpoint, Director of Country Programming at the Green Climate Fund Ousseynou Nakoulima describes small-scale, high-impact policies and programs that Africa can and is pursuing, including distributed solar generation, integrated approaches to combine agriculture and the conservation of forests, and various roles for regulators and banking associations (such as green credit policies and favorable terms for small-scale green investments). 

Africa will bear the brunt of climate change

Africa has taken the lead on this issue largely because of the disproportionate way the continent will be affected, exacerbating the already tough challenges the countries face. In Foresight Africa, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative outlines several different ways climate change will affect Africa, including:

  • Water access: Scientists predict that between 90 million to 220 million people will experience increased water stress due to climate change by the year 2020.
  • Food security: Crop yields from agriculture that is rain fed could decrease by up to 50 percent by 2020, with 94 percent of the continent’s agriculture being rain-dependent. With about 30-40 percent of Africa’s GDP and about three-quarters of Africans relying on agriculture, shocks to agricultural production will severely impede human development.
  • Health: Climate change is also predicted to change infectious disease occurrence, with Africa seeing increased rates of malaria and the spread of malaria to areas where it previously was not endemic.
  • Rising sea levels: Projections for rising sea levels vary globally, but as Africa is within a predominantly tropical area, it’s expected to have higher than average levels of sea rise. In West Africa, 56 percent of GDP is generated near the coast. In addition, there are at least three cities with populations over 8 million located in coastal areas of Africa.
  • Extreme weather events: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that extreme weather events, like floods and droughts, will be more frequent and intense in Africa due to climate change. According to the World Bank, Africa has experienced more than 2,000 natural disasters since 1970, with almost half taking place in the last decade. From 1995 to 2015, there were many extreme weather events on the continent, specifically 136 episodes of drought—77 in East Africa alone. That’s not to mention the current famines in South Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia.

This list is not exhaustive, given the debate around the intersection of violent conflict and climate change.

Unsurprisingly, then, as seen in Figure 5.3 (from Foresight Africa), African economic development overall is likely to be hit hard. Foresight Africa F 5.3

So far, the continent’s proactive approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation conveys hope for the future of the planet. Given the continent’s size and rapid growth, its recognition of the importance to balance economic growth with low-carbon efforts might help ensure—even without the U.S.—that the goals of the Paris Agreement can be achieved.