Because the real drivers of Africa’s vulnerability to climate change extend far beyond physical factors alone…

By Bryan P Galligan

7th April 2022

“We used to know what to grow here, and we could predict the rains. Now, the rains are unpredictable, and we need to find new ways to survive.”

– A farmer receiving food assistance in Kilifi County, Kenya, in March 2022

Hope and despair in the vagaries of climate change. March 2022: A cassava field in Kilifi County, Kenya, prepared for an erstwhile predictable rainy season that is yet to arrive. (Photo: BP Galligan/JENA)

It’s bleak. Millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia are on the brink following three consecutive failed rainy seasons, and still waiting for a well overdue fourth. Crop production has dropped by around two-thirds, livestock have died in heart-breaking numbers, and food prices have skyrocketed. The last drought of this magnitude was more than three decades ago in 1981.

Drought in the eastern Horn of Africa is but one stark example of the horrific impacts of climate change on people’s lives and livelihoods around the continent, sometimes with deadly results.

Two recent reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—one on impacts and adaptation and the other on mitigation—provide a much wider picture of this challenging context. The reports also tell a tragic tale of opportunities missed, pledges ignored and a rapidly shrinking margin for error.

According to the IPCC, Africa’s vulnerability to climate change is partially a result of physical factors: “…most African countries will enter unprecedented high temperature climates earlier…than generally wealthier, higher latitude countries.”

The real drivers of vulnerability, however, extend far beyond physical factors alone. In Africa, climate-related hazards are playing out against a crippling backdrop of strained national budgets, a heavy reliance on rain-fed agriculture, and the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This multidimensional vulnerability also highlighted by the IPCC is no coincidence.

Take the current drought in the eastern Horn of Africa. Historically, farmers and pastoralists in this region had systems of preparing for, and coping with, variable rainfall patterns. But French and British colonial regimes introduced policies that undermined this robust and age-old resilience. The French and British, though, are far from the only ones to blame. In general, the countries most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions are also responsible for policies and business practices that have undermined Africa’s resilience from colonial times to the present.

Across the continent, the glaring effects of climate change are there for all to see. According to one estimate, Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was 13.6% lower between 1991 and 2010 as a result of climate change. Since 1961, agricultural productivity growth has likewise shrunk by 34%. And under the current emissions trajectory—a projected 3.2 °C of warming by 2100 based on policies implemented by the end of 2020—these losses will be much worse..

The harsh reality is that it is already too late to achieve a truly equitable outcome. Climate warming will likely exceed 1.5 °C by 2040, and even today’s warming of approximately 1.1 °C has caused immense loss and damage for many, especially in the Global South. But past mistakes are no excuse for inaction. Rather, they should motivate decision-makers in the Global North to act. This week’s IPCC report makes it clear that we have the tools we need to transition to green energy right now. Locking in 1.5 °C of warming is far from inevitable. Those who would choose to lock in such catastrophic warming by failing to act often cite economic arguments as their justification. Here, too, the IPCC unmasks the outright insanity of their position. Mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects are both much less expensive if undertaken sooner rather than later.

In addition to immediate and deep emission cuts at home, countries in the Global North also have an ethical imperative to support low- and middle-income countries, including those in Sub-Saharan Africa, as they seek to develop along low-carbon, climate-resilient pathways. This means meeting and exceeding the still-unmet 2020 goal of USD 100 billion per year in climate finance for developing countries. Today, there remains a significant ‘adaptation gap’, with most climate finance going to mitigation rather than adaptation, and with the vast majority of the money being spent in wealthier countries. Even the financing that is available to developing countries is often overreported and provided in the form of loans rather than grants. In Africa, more systemic challenges also mean that less than half of climate finance is ever disbursed.

Financial resources must be mobilised urgently to respond to this need. One place this mobilisation can start is at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings scheduled for later this month. In August 2021, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IMF made a historic allocation of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), a currency-like monetary instrument designed to mitigate member states’ fiscal distress. Unfortunately, most of this allocation went to wealthy countries where it was not needed. This month, however, the IMF and its member states have an opportunity for redress by rechannelling these SDRs to developing countries in great need of climate finance, through either bilateral agreements or through a proposed Resilience and Sustainability Trust.

Rechannelling SDRs to the countries that need them is just one opportunity for mobilising climate finance. On its own, it will not be sufficient. Still, it would be an important first step if the North is to change course on climate change and finally begin treating it like the emergency it is.

The IPCC reports lay bare what is at stake and prescribes what actions are needed. It is now time to act.