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The “climate emergency” is without doubt a global concern and, moreover, the science supporting this claim seems reasonably well established.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that global average temperature may increase by 1.5 to 4.5°C (2.7 to 8.1°F) by the end of the 21st century if nothing is done to drastically reduce the trend and stop any irreversible changes to the earth’s climate systems. However, there is an argument to be made that the burden of addressing this crisis may not have been equitably distributed.

Under the Paris Agreement reached at COP21 in 2015, it was agreed by virtually all countries concerned that collective action must be taken to ensure that global temperature does not increase beyond 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

After agreeing to and formally approving the Paris Agreement, nearly all African countries have shown some level of commitment in tackling the crisis. But looking forensically, how much of the global burden of this crisis has Africa borne so far?

Africa’s share of the burden

Statistics seem to suggest that Africa (which harbours nearly a fifth of the global population), has contributed very little to global greenhouse gas emissions and yet it is very vulnerable to the effects of climate change. According to reports, Africa’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions is approximately 3.8 per cent. By comparison China’s share is 23 per cent, while the US accounts for 19 per cent, and the European Union 13 per cent.

Africa is uniquely susceptible to the effects of climate change because of its geographical sensitivity, a reality that has been confirmed by IPCC scientists. A significant number of African nations are located in regions with low elevation or in coastal areas that can be easily affected by climate-related dangers such as rising sea levels, storm surges, and other related hazards.

The continent’s susceptibility to the consequences of climate change can also be attributed to factors such as its natural resources as well as some distinct social and economic circumstances.

The year 2021 was categorised as either the third or fourth hottest year ever recorded in Africa. Studies suggest that the temperature in Africa will increase at a faster rate compared to the global projections for the 21st century.

It is expected that by 2069 or earlier, the near-surface air temperature in Africa will surpass the projections made for the 20th century. These temperature changes are likely to be unprecedented, especially in more susceptible regions such as West, Central, and East Africa. The projections indicate that the rise in temperature could occur 10-20 years before the anticipated time.

Fifty-three African Parties have recently submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in line with the requirements of the Paris Agreement. NDC refers to plans at the national level that outline various objectives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The NDCs indicate that droughts and floods are the primary types of hazards that African Parties are most concerned about. Yet the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reports that only four countries have the capability to offer end-to-end drought forecasting or warning services at a fully advanced level.

It is expected that by 2069 or earlier, the near-surface air temperature in Africa will surpass the projections made for the 20th century.

Although NDCs employ a “bottom-up” strategy as per IPCC guidelines for reducing emissions, there are still some gaps in this process, as highlighted in the UNEP 2021 report.

The lack of action or slow progress, by developed nations, in reducing their fair share of emissions raises questions regarding the actual burden of negative climate impacts on African countries.

The WMO’s “State of the Climate in Africa” series of reports seem to be the go-to information resource for the continent as they offer authoritative scientific information concerning climate patterns, severe weather events, and their effects on critical vulnerable sectors.

The current incarnation in the WMO series, the State of the climate in Africa 2021, has drawn attention to the most recent consequences of the changing climate on the continent.

Just like the two previous series (2019 and 2020), the aspects of climate change addressed in the report include an increase in temperature, surging sea levels and coastal erosion, severe occurrences, and food security, health, and economic implications. The complete report is anticipated to be released in early 2023.

Although proof of climate change in Africa is undeniable, recent reports by the IPCC indicate that there are still significant gaps in observing some variables in the region, such as precipitation, and some other fundamental ones described in the WMO’s Global Basic Observing Network (GBON).

There are also reports stating that nearly 60 per cent of the African population is not covered by early warning systems to cope with extreme weather events and climate change impacts. The issue of insufficient coverage is partly attributed to the lack of proper functioning of the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) in the continent. This seems very ironic because 92 per cent of the countries in Africa mention climate services in their NDCs.

NMHSs are a critical element of national infrastructure and play a significant role in supporting essential socioeconomic functions, including disaster reduction, water resources, agriculture and food security, health, transportation, and energy.

One of the key responsibilities of NMHSs is to carry out regular observations and data collection, which forms the basis for monitoring and forecasting weather, water, climate, and other related environmental conditions. Additionally, NMHSs also help in issuing warnings, alerts, and advice.

Reports suggest that there are several obstacles preventing NMHSs from adequately monitoring and reporting actual crises. These include insufficient human expertise, inadequate observation networks in many countries, poor telecommunication facilities for exchanging data and products, limited mechanisms for engaging with users, inadequate characterization of current and future weather, climate, and water outcomes and impacts, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on national economies.

Therefore, given that the current state of NMHSs in the continent cannot comprehensively account for a global concern like climate change, what credibility can one give to the accuracy of the measurements of actual emissions as required by the Paris Agreement through the African countries’ NDC climate action plan? As the common saying goes, that which cannot be measured is unlikely to be effectively controlled or improved.

On the other hand, research carried out by CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) in 2019 indicated that eight out of nine states and regions in Africa had been exposed to socio-economic risks due to the effects of climate change. It was also found that six states and regions had significant concerns about their water security in the near, mid-, or long-term due to the impact of climate change.

However, the data reported by CDP only covered 48 African cities which represents a total population of just a little over 150 million citizens. Moreover, the data invariably only covered approximately 31 per cent of the African population living in urban areas.

It was also found that six states and regions had significant concerns about their water security in the near, mid-, or long-term due to the impact of climate change.

From the foregoing it can be seen that, based on current data, the share of Africa’s climate burden is far greater than is presently reported or imagined. There are certainly several worldwide programmes promoting regional action. However, in order to achieve more sustainable outcomes at every scale, there is still a significant amount of work that is required to enhance disclosure at the sub-national level.

Proposed stopgap measure

Although advances in systematic investigations such as those adopted by the WMO, CDP and other related initiatives have provided important inputs in the climate change efforts in Africa, the risks are more severe than has been envisioned. However, these reports are still very crucial in informing significant actions on the way to achieving the goals of the Africa Agenda 2063.

But perhaps in the interim the limitations of climate monitoring techniques and lack of coverage can be mitigated by greater reliance on indigenous knowledge as well as the involvement of local regions and villages. A recent study has provided evidence of the remarkable value of Indigenous and Local Knowledge (ILK) in Africa.

The term “Indigenous and Local Knowledge (ILK)” refers to the knowledge, philosophies, practices, approaches, and skills developed and accumulated by local communities over time through their informal experimentation, experiences and their deep understanding of local contexts. ILK is mainly transmitted through oral and practiced traditions.

There are approximately 50 million indigenous people in Africa, most of whom are pastoralists, agro-pastoralists, farmers, and hunter-gatherers. The importance of further studying Indigenous and Local Knowledge (ILK) has been emphasised because it has been identified as crucial for adapting to climate change in Africa.

ILK has been utilised on a micro-scale to tackle human-induced, natural, and socio-economic risks, such as, hydro-metrological hazards (floods and droughts), and health issues. Given that modern forecasting systems have limitations, combining different types of forecast services could improve the accuracy of the information provided.

Benefits of tackling the crisis and needs assessment

Although African countries are considered as contributing less to global emissions, it is important to recognize the challenges that they face in addressing climate change. These include political instability, widespread poverty, and inadequate infrastructure, which can make it challenging to effectively implement climate change policies and adaptation measures. Moreover, Africa tends to possess the least developed land-based observation network when compared to other continents.

Given that modern forecasting systems have limitations, combining different types of forecast services could improve the accuracy of the information provided.

Despite the challenges faced by many African countries, some regions are taking steps to adapt to climate change while planning for a more resilient future using alternative means. The message of sustainability is also beginning to filter through to the populations in their daily activities, work and business.

However, there is a need for additional resources to support risk and vulnerability assessments, emissions inventories, adaptation planning, streamlined data collection processes and collaboration. It is possible to achieve significant outcomes through the technological and financial assistance of developed nations. This includes generation of employment opportunities, expansion of access to renewable energy, and enhancement of public healthcare services. To enhance its climate change adaptation measures, Africa requires about US$ 7-15 billion annually by 2030; the negative impacts of climate change could cost Africa approximately US$50 billion annually.