Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Impact of Climate Change on Africa’s Economies
The Impact of Climate Change on Africa’s Economies

The Impact of Climate Change on Africa’s Economies

Despite contributing only a minute amount of global greenhouse gas emissions, the African continent suffers the deleterious effects of climate change to a disproportionate degree. The heavy carbon emitters, like China and the United States, have a moral obligation to help the nations of Africa, particularly the rural areas of these countries, mitigate the impact of climate change, not just to help Africa, but to help the rest of the world.

The data tells a chilling story that should make everyone—including the leaders of the major polluting nations and donor countries, as well as the leaders of African nations—commit to implementing policies, allocating resources, and taking the necessary actions to address the situation. Increased temperatures cause deadly heat waves. Varying rainfall leads to flooding in some areas and droughts in others, both of which reduce agricultural production, increase food insecurity and food prices, and cause dislocation of poverty-stricken rural populations to already overcrowded urban areas that are ill-equipped to accept them, or to other nations, including those outside Africa, that are wrestling with their own climate-related problems. The ongoing United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) should specifically address the climate change impact on Africa or failing that the African Union (AU) should call for an Africa-specific conference to address this issue.

Climate Change Hits Africa Hard—Rural Areas Hardest of All

Climate change threatens the lives and livelihoods of over 100 million in extreme poverty. Global warming is expected to melt Africa’s remaining glaciers in the next few decades, and the reduction in water essential to agricultural production will create food insecurity, poverty, and population displacement. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the gross domestic product (GDP) could be reduced by up to three percent by 2050. Even without the deleterious impact of climate change, global poverty is one of the world’s worst problems. It is estimated that one in three Africans, or over 400 million people, live below the global poverty line, which is defined as less than $1.90 per day. The world’s poorest people are often hungry, have less access to education, have no light at night, and suffer from poor health.

Agriculture is critical to Africa’s economic growth. Climate change could destabilize local markets, increase food insecurity, limit economic growth, and increase risk for agriculture sector investors. African agriculture is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because it is heavily dependent on rainfall, and climate change has seriously affected rainfall throughout the continent. The Sahel, for instance, is largely dependent on rain-fed agriculture, and it is already hit regularly by droughts and floods, both of which kill crops and reduce yield. With temperatures expected to increase 1.5 times higher than the rest of the world by the end of the 21st century, African countries will see shorter wet spells (leading to droughts) or heavier rains (causing floods), leading to reduced food production because they lack the infrastructure and support systems present in wealthier nations. By 2030, crop yields across the continent are projected to decrease by varying amounts depending upon the region. Southern Africa, for example, is expected to experience a 20 percent decrease in rainfall.

When Rural Areas Catch Colds, Cities Sneeze

Rural areas in Africa, while suffering the most from climate change, are not alone. Crises in rural areas often lead to dislocation of rural populations to urban areas. According to a 2017 report by the United Nations, more than half the global population lives in urban areas. The African continent has the world’s fastest rate of urbanization. In 1960, only 20 percent of the populations lived in cities. The current rate is over 40 percent, and, by 2050, the number is projected to be 60 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa is regarded as the world’s fastest urbanizing region, with an urban population fo 472 million in 2018, which is expected to double by 2043. Climate issues will only exacerbate urbanization and associated crises. In developing countries, relocation from rural to urban areas often leads to an improvement in living standards. This is seldom the case in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While urbanization has historically increased prosperity, in Africa, most weather-related relocations involve moving from rural privation to urban poverty. Up to 70 percent of Africa’s urban population lives in slums. Living conditions in these urban areas are poor due to relative wealth levels, lack of economic development in cities to match the rate of urbanization, unemployment, poor access to services, and resentment that occasionally erupts in xenophobic violence.

However, people fleeing from climate-affected rural areas will not be safe from climate change in urban areas because these urban areas are environmentally vulnerable to flooding. Some areas are affected by poor land use and choice of building materials, which trap heat and contribute to the urban heat island effect, leading to extreme heat waves with their attendant health risks.

Mitigating the Impact

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), by 2050, climate change will lead to higher temperatures and mixed rainfall, leading to changes in crop yields and growth of the agricultural sector, higher food prices, less availability of food, and increased child malnutrition. Warming in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to be higher than the global average, and many regions of the continent will get less rainfall. Reduced rainfall will be particularly devastating in those countries that are heavily dependent on rain for agricultural production. With Africa’s rate of population growth, food supply will be hard-pressed to keep up with demand.

Failure to reduce global warming hurts all countries on the globe, but African countries, because they are most vulnerable, will be hurt most. High levels of poverty, dependence on rainfall for agricultural production, weak or missing infrastructure, and lack of social safety nets combine to exacerbate an already dire situation. While some of the responsibility to address these problems rests with African governments, climate justice demands that there be international cooperation to tackle this existential threat. African governments, in partnership with the international community, should commit to sustained action to mitigate the impact of climate change, in particular the effects on the most vulnerable within their countries.

Climate Change Mitigation Action Plan

This article offers some priority action items that should be taken up immediately, either at COP26 or an AU-sponsored conference. This is not an all inclusive list, but implementation of these actions would move the ball forward significantly.

  1. Factor weather-driven migration into the design and construction of urban areas.
  2. Promote sustainable growth, especially in rural communities.
  3. Promote climate-friendly agriculture, such as, efficient, clean energy and micro-irrigation.
  4. Provide easy access to weather and climate information, especially to women who make up a large percentage of the agricultural workforce and are the most vulnerable.
  5. Substantially increase investment in agricultural research. Africa currently has 17 percent of the world’s population and is heavily dependent on agriculture, but only receives four percent of investment in agricultural research from all sources, including donors or internal government budgets. An increased investment in research will provide a better understanding of Africa’s climate and the impact of climate change. The bulk of this research, though it might be primarily internationally funded, should be done by Africans.
  6. Provide broad and sustained support for food security and expanded access to health care, with emphasis on the most vulnerable.
  7. Increase intra-African cooperation to manage conflict and provide disaster relief.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.