Africa: Climate change and sustainable development must be a two-way street

Oluwaseun Oguntuase
By Oluwaseun Oguntuase

Centre for Environmental Studies and Sustainable Development, Lagos State University, Nigeria

Posted on Thursday, 10 December 2020 13:58
Africa 2020
Widespread destruction caused by Cyclone Kenneth, which arrived just six weeks after Cyclone Idai, is seen from the air after it struck Ibo island north of Pemba city in Mozambique in 2019. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Fossil resources have enabled a revolutionary wave of innovation in our societies since the start of the 20th century, but there are hidden costs in fossil resources to society.

Since the Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, established and quantified the contribution of carbon dioxide (CO2) to planetary warming in 1896, CO2 emissions, created primarily from burning fossil fuels, have warmed the earth-atmosphere system 1°C above pre-industrial levels, changing the climatic conditions necessary for survival on planet Earth.

‘Long-term change’

Climate change is a long-term change in the statistical properties of the weather patterns that define the earth’s local, regional and global climates. As heat trapping CO2 builds up in the atmosphere, it leads to a warming of the climate, provoking changes around the world in the atmosphere, land, and oceans.

An IPCC Special Report defines climate risk as the likelihood of unfavourable impacts occurring as a result of severe climate events interacting with vulnerable environmental, social, economic, political or cultural conditions. This category of risks continues to dominate World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Perception Survey.

They relate to extreme values of climate variables such as storm, snow, flood, drought, wildfire, sea level rise, landslides, hurricanes, etc.

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The current trends of CO2 emissions are on track to lead to systemic disruptions to ecosystems, societies and economies. These disruptions, according to more than 11,000 scientists, may be catastrophic and irreversible for human populations. The Paris Agreement warned about the importance of keeping global temperature rise this century well below 2°C, above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 °C.

Climate change exacerbates existing risks and creates new ones for natural and human systems. Climate change–related risks increase as a function of both the rising number and intensity of environmental hazards and levels of socioeconomic vulnerability and exposure.

Africa hit hard, though least to contribute to the problem

Even though Africa, home to the majority of least developed countries (LDCs), contributes so little to planetary warming, the continent is disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The State of the Climate in Africa 2019 report depicts a continuum of rapidly rising extreme weather and climate events, and longer-term climate-related risks associated with global warming. These risks include:

  • Increasing temperature
  • Changing precipitation patterns
  • Rising sea levels
  • Frequent extreme weather and climate events

Vulnerability to these risks is exacerbated through the interaction of multiple biophysical, political, and socioeconomic stress factors that also constrain Africa’s adaptive capacity.

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Adaptive capacity is the ability to design and implement effective adaptation strategies, or to react to evolving hazards and stresses so as to reduce the likelihood of the occurrence and/or the magnitude of harmful outcomes resulting from climate-related hazards.

Incompatible with sustainable development

As noted earlier, the driving forces behind CO2 emissions are linked to the underlying carbon-fuelled development path. Climate change alone challenges the very foundations of the fossil fuel-based economic growth that is incompatible with the idea of sustainable development.

The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report addressed this relationship between climate change and sustainable development. It noted that on the one hand, climate change influences key natural and human living conditions and thereby the basis for social and economic development. While on the other hand, society’s priorities on sustainable development influence both the CO2 emissions that are causing climate change and vulnerability.

‘Two-way street’

Across Africa, the link between climate change and sustainable development is a two-way street. Climate change by its nature poses economic, social, and political predicaments that retard efforts towards sustainable development – which in turn limits the continent’s abilities and opportunities to adapt to climate change.

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Climate change is also a challenge to the successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, popularly called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the Agenda 2063. Both Agendas 2030 and 2063 recognise climate change as a major challenge to sustainable development.

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), climate change is negatively affecting the ability of many African countries to achieve the SDGs and Agenda 2063 by impacting their GDPs, national budgets, livelihoods and communities, infrastructure, finance and costs of adaptation.

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The challenge for African leaders and policymakers is to design and implement policies that mutually reinforce climate action, and sustainable development should be Africa’s priority.

Going forward, debate around the current climate change crisis plaguing Africa should be framed as a sustainable development problem rather than only as climate action so that implementation of climate change adaptation strategies will be at the heart of pursuing sustainable development on the continent.

Developmental policies should be shaped to jointly address and create synergies between climate action and sustainable development.

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