14 Climate Change, Energy
In this theme we present the Current Path forecast for the world and Africa on carbon emissions and energy, making a distinction, in the latter dimension, between oil, gas, coal, hydro, nuclear and other renewables. Because of the inertia in climate change and energy systems, the first two sections take a longer forecast horizon (to 2063) and hence the results should be interpreted with care. Any number of developments could disrupt these forecasts, particularly the impact of technology, a global catastrophe such as a deadly global pandemic, accelerated human action or the lack thereof. We then compare the impact of 11 thematic scenarios modelled with the Current Path of carbon emissions.
- The fossil-fuel-driven model of human development is now eroding the ecological basis of humanity, introducing the so-called Anthropocene epoch in which human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
- Scientific consensus is that human activity, primarily the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, has caused all global warming since 1970, with a Current Path forecast of 3 °C above 1990 levels by 2100.
- To date, the contribution of carbon emissions from Africa to the global total has been small, but levels are set to increase as Africa’s population grows and living standards improve, especially given the relationship between carbon emissions and energy use.
- Africa is currently a net exporter of energy, but can play a strategic role in the future through an early transition to renewable energy and global reserves of critical and rare earth minerals.
- Africa has experienced close to 1 500 severe natural disasters over the past 30 years, with far-reaching impacts on communities. Africa’s large semi-arid regions in North and West Africa will be particularly hard hit.
- Africa’s carbon emissions are set to increase in all scenarios modelled in this project, except for the Demographic scenario, with the largest increase seen in the Free Trade scenario. The Leapfrogging scenario is most efficient when considering growth versus carbon emissions.
- Africa has some ability to mitigate climate change, such through as a direct transition to renewables, but needs to direct significant effort at adaptation. With a large, vulnerable population, Africa has more to lose than almost any other world region and needs to embark on an environmentally sustainable development pathway.
Climate change is no longer a distant threat. It is here, now, in heatwaves and flash floods, among other disasters. It is the single most important challenge facing humanity, with many scientists believing that the world is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction event, known as the Anthropocene – an unpredictable and dangerous geological age during which human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
The epoch of the Anthropocene stands in contrast to the Holocene – the past 12 000 years of relative climatic stability. It reflects an approaching environmental tipping point beyond which conditions on Earth change fundamentally and irreversibly as a result of human impact. It is an era in which the boundaries between humanity and its environment, between domestic and international concerns, and between different academic or theoretical areas of investigation become increasingly illusory. It is ‘a fragile and interconnected universe that now binds human and non-human worlds together in complex and unpredictable ways.’
Human activity may not be causing the extinction but humanity has clearly accelerated the onset. The scientific consensus is that human activity, primarily the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, has caused all global warming since 1970. At the root of climate change lies the resource requirements associated with global population growth, particularly those of energy and food production.
The fossil-fuel-driven model of human development that has provided unprecedented levels of wealth and comfort to millions of people is now eroding the ecological basis of humanity, with a statement in 2017 by several thousand scientists, from 184 countries, warning that ‘we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century.’
Similarly, dire findings and associated outlooks have emerged from other authoritative reports, which point to humanity being at the precipice of a climate change disaster:
- The average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20% or more over the last century and many species are being pushed closer to extinction.[ ]
- The number of disasters caused by extreme weather is reported to have nearly doubled from 1980 to 1999, mostly worsening floods and storms.[ ]
- An increase of 1.5 °C in global temperature seems inevitable and may be reached as early as 2030, with previous risk assessments likely understating the risks of a 1.5–2 °C temperature increase.[ ] Limiting warming to 1.5 °C, as reflected in the Paris Agreement, would require the entire world to cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly half of 2010 levels by 2030 and make an aggressive push to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Net-zero means that any additional carbon emissions are offset by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.
- Extreme weather events and increased threats to biodiversity will become more acute and pervasive with warmer temperatures.[ ] In the short term, these impacts pose grave threats to ‘health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth.’[ ]
- Global temperature is already at 1.2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Further, at the current rate of emissions increases, we will temporarily breach 5 °C at least in one year between 2022 and 2026[ ] and consistently before 2040.[ ]
- In sub-Saharan Africa, over the medium term, annual per capita economic growth is expected to decline an additional one percentage point with each drought. The impact is eight times worse than for an emerging market or developing economy in other parts of the world.[ ]
- Africa’s three remaining eastern glaciers (Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro, Kenya’s Mount Kenya, and Uganda’s Rwenzoris) will vanish within the next two decades.[ ]
- An estimated 118 million poor people face drought, floods or extreme heat, and 2020 was Africa’s third warmest year on record, 0.86°C above the average in the three decades leading to 2010.[ ]
- Climate change could shrink Africa’s economy by 3% by mid century. Sub-Saharan Africa would need to spend 2%–3% of GDP each year on adaptation to avert even worse consequences from drought, floods and extreme heat.[ ]
The impact is individual, communal, national, regional and global:
- In the past 20 years, heat-related mortality in the over-60 age group has increased by 50%. Higher average temperatures mean an increased dehydration risk, which can be fatal for the most vulnerable. Dermatological malignancies and other skin conditions are increasing. Higher temperatures also increase pregnancy complications, higher incidence of allergies and increased cardiovascular and pulmonary disease risk. Tropical infections such as malaria and dengue become more prevalent as more parts of the world become a better habitat for vectors.
- Extreme weather events, in particular droughts and floods, have created a new class of African refugees – climate change refugees – as many farmers abandon the agricultural enterprise to seek livelihoods in the already crowded, poorly serviced peri-urban fringe of Africa cities. In 2021, the World Bank warned that sub-Saharan Africa could make up 86 million of the world’s 216 million climate migrants by 2050, with North Africa making up the largest share of internal climate migrants to total population. Without immediate and concerted action, ‘hotspots’ of internal climate migration could emerge as early as 2030 and continue to spread and intensify by 2050.[ ]
- Biodiversity loss has further exacerbated this challenge as the options for food security and options to stave off hunger becomes more limited. Low levels of storage and limited infrastructure means water vulnerability increases exponentially. Water availability for basic needs and as an important building block for any economy becomes scarcer both in terms of quantity and quality. These challenges lay fertile ground for potential conflict and insecurity.
Chart 1 presents an estimate of the amount of carbon released in the atmosphere since the end of the Industrial Revolution (1840) and includes a forecast for 2063.
The Current Path forecast is that annual global emissions of carbon (not CO2 equivalent) will:
- increase from 9.6 billion tons in 2019 to 10.3 billion in 2031,
- then start to decline, to amount to 9.8 billion tons in 2043, 7.9 billion tons by 2063 and eventually reach 4.3 billion tons by 2100.
Although developed countries are weaning themselves off fossil fuels and moving towards renewable energy (albeit with varying degrees of urgency), the stock of carbon in the atmosphere will inevitably increase, with the digital world requiring increased amounts of electricity to power its electric cars, artificial intelligence and higher levels of automation.
The IFs forecast is that at peak emissions in 2031, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will already have increased to 454 parts per million and will continue to rise, getting to 550 parts per million in 2063 and 597 parts per million by the end of the century. This translates to an average global temperature 3 °C above 1990 levels by 2100.
In IFs, the Current Path forecast emissions from Africa follow a very different trajectory. Emissions only start to plateau in 2080 and peak in 2090 at 1.7 billion tons per year before starting to decline. Africa will, on average, be 2.4 °C warmer by 2063 than in 1990. At that point, the increase in the global average temperature will be 1.4 °C above 1990 levels, reflecting the extent to which Africa is at greater risk than most other regions.
Climate change might be happening at a slow pace, but it has lots of momentum. The dominant view is that if we were able to cease adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere today, the climate would still warm for a few hundred years before slowly returning to pre-industrial levels of atmospheric carbon concentrations. That is because the amount of greenhouse gases that human activities have already released into the atmosphere has locked the world into a temperature increase of at least 1.2 °C above pre-industrial levels.[ ]
To date, the contribution of carbon emissions from Africa to the global total has been miniscule (with the noted exception of South Africa, which is the 14th largest emitter globally). However, emissions are set to increase as Africa’s population grows and living standards improve, compounded by higher energy intensity of growth than in the developed world.
Chart 2 shows that Africa’s contribution to global carbon emissions in the Current Path forecast is set to increase steadily (representing less than 5% in 2019 to 10% in 2043 and 18% in 2063), in part because emissions in the rest of the world start to decline. Although carbon emissions in Africa come off a low base, the level is set to increase steadily.
A rise of 1.5 °C in average global temperature will see average temperatures in Africa increase by a much larger margin with serious consequences, as the state of the natural environment and resources upon which all life depends will become highly unpredictable and severely degraded. Extended droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather events will become more frequent and intense, which will put food production at risk; the sea will continue to rise and acidify, killing off vast swathes of marine species; coastal cities will be threatened by flooding; biodiversity will be threatened to the point of extinction; and water scarcity will be an increasing reality.
Large portions of the Sahel and West Africa are likely to become unsuitable for human habitation and much of Africa could eventually consist of desert. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that the ‘current cropping areas of crops such as maize, millet and sorghum across Africa could become unviable.’
Rising temperatures are also of particular concern for large cities across Africa as the urban heat island will amplify these projected temperatures in urban spaces. Higher temperatures will expose many urban dwellers to unprecedented heat and result in heat stress and heat-related mortality. People living in informal dwellings, buildings without proper isolation and older population groups will be very vulnerable to heatstroke, heat exhaustion and death.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinvigorated the quest for global leadership on climate change among the main polluters – China, the US and the European Union (EU) – and the climate summit held in April 2021 by 40 world leaders has renewed hopes that we will not see the worst-case scenario play out. However, by 2030 India will likely have emerged as the second largest emissions country after China. What is alarming in this forecast is that the African trajectory on emissions overtakes that of the EU in 2030, that of the US in 2042, India in 2058 and, by 2063, will be approaching China’s annual emissions (Chart 3).
An important marker in this process is the 2020 commitment by China to improve on its climate pledge for 2030 – its nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement – to also achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.
The US, the second largest greenhouse gas emitter globally after China and now again a member of the Paris Agreement, has sought to reassert a degree of leadership and committed to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. However, the US target is to compare its progress to 2005 emission levels when its greenhouse gas emissions peaked above 6 gigatons, using that anomoly to compare its progress. The commitments by the Biden administration are also largely premised on yet-to-be-developed technological advances in areas such as green hydrogen power, batteries, and carbon capture and storage. It complements a US$391 billion infrastructure plan (the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022) that includes efforts to ramp up clean energy and electric vehicles and facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels.
Compared with China and the US, the EU has the most comprehensive approach, which includes efforts to spur the consumer changes needed to drastically cut emissions. These efforts will set car emission targets, requirements for building renovations and embrace carbon pricing through the expansion of its market-driven emissions trading scheme that sits at the heart of Europe’s decarbonisation plan. The result, the European Green Deal, embeds emission targets within the EU27 industrial policy. In the process, the EU has now legally enshrined its commitment to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030 when compared to 1990 levels and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.[ ] Among other measures the EU will phase in a carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) in 2023, essentially a tax on imports based on the carbon emissions used in the production process compared to its own carbon price.
A more appropriate measure than carbon emissions per country is to calculate carbon emissions per person, which is summarised for the US, China, the EU27, India and Africa in Chart 4. It indicates the very rapid reductions in carbon emissions in the IFs Current Path expected in the US and the EU, and to a lesser extent in China, and the expected increases in India before reductions peak and start to decline. From a very low base, average carbon emissions per person in Africa are lower in 2043 and 2063 than in 2019 and remain below the averages in the US, China and India in 2063, but steadily increasing over the forecast horizon.
Most emissions are essentially locked into expensive energy infrastructure. The energy sector (for electricity, heat production and other energy use) is responsible for just more than a third of global emissions, followed by the agriculture, land and forestry sector that is responsible for about a quarter of global emissions. Industry is responsible for about 20% and the remainder is from transport and buildings.
The challenge is that a warming globe demands more electricity use, particularly for cooling. China’s installed base of more than 1 000 GW of coal-fired generating capacity is responsible for 70% of the country’s total emissions and far and away the largest of any country, more than four times the installed capacity in the US and India, which have the second and third largest installed capacity. Most of China’s plants are quite new with decades left of their operational life, similar to the situation in India. Coal-fired power plants in the US and Europe, meanwhile, are roughly 40 years old, on average. To that end, Chinese President Xi Jinping has committed his country to strictly limit the increase in coal consumption for power generation over the next five years (2021–2025) and phase it down further in the following five-year period (2026–2030). China has also committed not to fund the building of additional coal-fired electricity plans. India, too, would have to be willing to prematurely decommission a large number of recently built coal plants for the world to make progress towards global sustainability.
Even then all regions, including Africa, will have to contribute to the necessary shift towards renewable energy, although the largest contributions inevitably have to come from the biggest polluters.
Chart 5 presents Africa’s major carbon emitters in 2019 and the Current Path forecast in 2043:
- South Africa will lose its current ranking as the largest carbon emitter (dropping to third spot by 2043) and will be overtaken by Nigeria and Egypt. This is not surprising, as these countries’ economies will be substantially larger than South Africa’s by then and South Africa is likely to see a significant reduction in emissions as the portion of its electricity produced from coal declines.
- In 2018, the flaring of gas accounted for nearly a quarter of Nigeria’s total carbon emissions, although it is only the seventh largest flaring nation and emissions have come down substantially over time. Nigeria’s increasing emissions forecast to 2043 are set to continue and expected to peak in 2090, when the country is forecast to have a population of close to 750 million people and will be responsible for 43% of Africa’s carbon emissions.
- Approximately 40% of CO2 emissions in Egypt originate from the electricity generation sector, which is predominantly dependent on oil and gas (90%).
- Tunisia and Sudan, currently the eighth and ninth largest emitters, are not among the top ten by 2043, and instead replaced by Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), who will both experience rapid growth in the size of their economies due to their expanding populations.
Energy and land use produce three-quarters of global emissions. Without an energy transition, the global goal of keeping warming to well below 2 °C will not be possible.
Chart 6 presents the IFs Current Path forecast on global energy production in billion barrels of oil equivalent. It does not fully reflect the most recent announcements by the US, China and others to get to carbon neutrality by mid century with the attendant implications.
In the forecast, the production of coal oil and gas dominates out to 2050, although renewables start growing strongly beyond 2030. The forecast is that the contribution made by renewables will be larger than that from coal in 2038, bigger than that from oil in 2040 and will surpass natural gas in 2046.[ ] Given the contribution of carbon emissions from fossil-fuel-driven energy production, this Current Path forecast will not get us near the target of keeping global warming to 1.5–2 °C by the end of the century.
Things may eventually change, but for the foreseeable future, an expanding global economy requires more energy every year, even as economic growth becomes less energy intensive over time. The source of that energy is steadily shifting away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, but in the IFs Current Path forecast renewable energy production only surpasses energy production from fossil fuels beyond mid century – globally and in Africa. All of this will have to change if the world is to avoid a climate change catastrophe.
Like fossil fuels shaped the geopolitical map over the last two centuries, so ‘the energy transformation will alter the global distribution of power, relations between states, the risk of conflict, and the social, economic and environmental drivers of geopolitical instability.’
Whereas fossil fuels are concentrated in specific geographic locations and vulnerable to disruption, renewable energy resources are distributed in one form or another in most countries. This means that renewables are better suited to decentralised forms of energy production and consumption and that the influence (and wealth) of oil and gas producers will steadily decline. The possible exception to this broad statement is nuclear energy production, as the potential development of small-scale nuclear plants, so-called small modular reactors (SMRs) with 100 MW capacity, has the potential to be ratcheted up or down to help balance the grid alongside surging renewable output in a decade or so. Larger units providing 1 GW would provide substantial additional base-load capacity. Different to the manifold challenges that have faced large nuclear power stations, particularly cost overruns, SMRs could be produced in a factory assembly line, in theory making them more reliable and with predictable construction and maintenance costs.  The impact will be to provide sustained base-load capacity, particularly for large energy users such as smelters – one of the key areas where current energy storage and renewable energy production cannot yet compete with fossil fuel production. Countries such as Ghana and Egypt are among those that both have long considered nuclear with construction of the El Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant norwest of Cairo, by Rosatom of Russia, starting in 2022.[ ]
The US is already close to being self-sufficient in terms of energy, largely owing to the shale oil and gas revolution. In fact, America’s oil output has more than doubled over the past decade and its gas production has increased by more than 50%. It is now the world’s top gas and oil producer – as well as being a country with very high carbon emissions. However, the energy transition in the US is gaining significant momentum. In September 2020, California, the state with the largest economy in the US and where two million new cars are sold annually and which accounts for almost 10% of US oil demand, announced that it would ban the sale of fossil-fuel-powered cars from 2035. The decision has implications far beyond California’s borders, including for US automakers who are being pushed to convert away from conventional combustion engines.
The US’s energy self-sufficiency is accelerating its international withdrawal and isolation, while China’s determined investment in connecting Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative, its leadership in research and development, high dependence on fossil fuels, and investments in renewables are likely to improve its geopolitical standing. China’s demand for oil imports, already the largest in the world, continues to grow. Militarily it has invested in securing its supply by safeguarding chokepoints such as the straits of Hormuz and Malacca and by diversifying its sources of supply including from Africa to now include Russia and others. In a world of fossil fuel abundance, power has shifted away from producers such as the Organization of Petroleum Export Countries (OPEC) to large consumers such as China.
Africa is a net exporter of energy, generally exporting unprocessed oil and natural gas and then importing refined products. However, looking to the future, the next big thing will not be in these traditional energy sources, where Africa is an important but relatively minor player. Rather, Africa is set to play a strategic role in the energy transition, as countries such as the DR Congo have much of the global reserves of critical and rare earth minerals such as copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium, which will be required to integrate greater amounts of wind and solar into electricity supplies, and to make the batteries that can store that energy. That is an important reason for China’s interest in the DR Congo, where it has invested in all 12 of its cobalt mines (the DR Congo is home to around 60% of the world’s cobalt). In January 2021, the Chinese Ministry of Industry also published proposals intended to tighten export controls on rare earth minerals, essential to the manufacture of electronics. China is already the globally dominant producer and controls 60% of the global market.
Once the energy storage problem is resolved and with the various technological shifts that allow much wider distributed production of electricity considered, the world will enter into a period of energy abundance – although it will take time to realise. In its 2020 World Energy Outlook, the energy company BP argues that demand for oil may already have peaked and that it could go into a steep decline. In such a world, influence may shift in favour of countries that control materials that allow the production of renewable energy (through wind, solar and other means) and the means to build storage capacity (battery and related requirements).
The IFs Current Path forecast for energy production by type for Africa is presented in Chart 7. The data is presented in billion barrels of oil equivalent.
Oil is currently the largest source of energy produced in Africa and is likely to remain central to the economies of Nigeria, Angola, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, the Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Chad, Ghana and Cameroon. Most of that oil is exported rather than refined, and then the refined product is imported again. Libya and Nigeria have significant proven oil reserves. In general, Africa remains quite unexplored, compared with most other regions, and the potential for additional oil and gas finds is therefore large but may eventually not be exploited.
Although gas features prominently in Chart 7, it is important to note that this is a graph of production by type, often for export. Nigeria, Algeria, Mozambique, Egypt, Tanzania and Libya have big proven natural gas reserves, but there is very little installed gas infrastructure that would allow for domestic use. Instead, since the demand for gas is expanding particularly rapidly in Asia, it is likely that the vast majority of Africa’s natural gas production (like its oil) will end up as exports to feed demand in China, India and elsewhere, whereas renewables are more likely to be used to improve household electricity access (see the theme on leapfrogging ).
Countries and populations across Africa will benefit greatly from the dispersed nature of renewables, particularly through reduced fossil fuel imports and the absence of expensive national distribution networks. Actually, most African countries have an opportunity to leapfrog some stages of the fossil-fuel-centred development model and move directly to renewables. Some, such as Libya, the Republic of the Congo, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, South Sudan and Gabon will suffer, as they are extraordinarily dependent on the foreign exchange earnings from their fossil fuel exports. Others with large fossil fuel import bills, such as Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Senegal, will benefit.
High energy bills transfer large amounts of wealth abroad and make countries vulnerable to price swings. Renewables have none of these risks. Some countries, such as Ethiopia and Lesotho, could obtain all or most of their electricity from hydropower. Others, such as Kenya, can achieve similar results using a mix of renewables such as hydro, geothermal, wind, biomass and solar power.
Africa is well positioned for a much earlier transition to renewables than other regions, but its leaders would need to take conscious decisions to pursue such a growth pathway and to benefit from some of the most valuable solar, geothermal, hydro and wind real estate on the planet. Wind and solar are both becoming increasingly price-competitive and electricity storage and efficiency are also improving.
The 2018 water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa is a textbook example of the dangerous confluence of long-term anthropogenic climate change, natural variation in weather patterns and poor planning. Cape Town has long been a water-stressed area but has been able to cope – until temperatures rose, El Niño got a little worse and the government failed to upgrade and maintain the necessary water infrastructure and invest in alternative water purifying and treatment systems.
A three-year drought started in the Cape metropole in 2015 and peaked in mid-2017 to mid-2018, when dam levels hovered between 15%–30% of total capacity. By late 2017, authorities were talking about ‘Day Zero’, when municipal water supplies would largely be switched off and residents would have to queue for a daily ration of water, much of it having to be trucked in. The City of Cape Town was able to implement significant water restrictions and eventually, after good rains in June 2018, water restrictions were eased.
The line between barely getting by and a national emergency can be very thin indeed. Cape Town managed to forestall a water crisis by the skin of its teeth, but going forward this ‘new normal’ will leave the city and surrounding area increasingly vulnerable, particularly because it serves as a destination for many poor South Africans who migrate there from the Eastern Cape and because it is a global tourist destination. The result is extremely rapid urbanisation and intense pressure on infrastructure.
Droughts and floods are likely to become more frequent and more difficult to predict and could exacerbate food security issues and migratory push factors.
In 2006, three major flood events (normally occurring once every 10 or 20 years) occurred in the space of two months in East Africa, displacing almost 200 000 people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya and destroying thousands of hectares of cropland.
Maize and wheat production have already been affected in many countries, including fisheries in the Great Lakes Region and fruit trees in the Sahel.
In March 2019, Cyclone Idai smashed into Mozambique, unleashing hurricane-force winds and rain that flooded swathes of the country before battering eastern Zimbabwe. More than 700 people died, leaving some 1.85 million people in need of assistance in a catastrophe that United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said rang ‘yet another alarm bell about the dangers of climate change’. As if to emphasise the point, Cyclone Kenneth arrived a few days later, first smashing its way across the Comoros islands before making landfall in northern Mozambique. Kenneth was reportedly the strongest cyclone ever to hit Africa.
West Africa has recently also been exposed to massive flooding and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are mounting. In 2017, weeks of heavy rain led to catastrophic mudslides in Sierra Leone, killing more than 600 people outside Freetown. In 2018, extreme flooding in Niger killed more than 80 people, displaced 50 000 more and wiped out 400 hectares of farmland and 26 000 head of livestock. That same year, in Nigeria, nearly 200 people lost their lives and more than 150 000 were displaced in floods, which also led to a spike in cholera cases.[ ] These countries have some of the fastest-growing populations in the world and very low levels of basic infrastructure, making their populations very vulnerable to the effects of storms, floods and drought.[ ]
Africa is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate variability, in part because of the increased intensity and frequency of weather-related disasters, the high socio-economic vulnerability of communities, growing urban and rural populations, and a high dependency on natural resources and limited infrastructure.
Africa has experienced just under 1 500 weather-related disasters between 1990 and 2020, with a clear increase in the frequency recorded of these hazards. These events impact countries’ economies, erode developmental gains and weaken and reduce livelihoods. The high social vulnerability and high exposure to natural hazards have affected an estimated 448 million people.
Africa has already experienced some of the most severe effects of climate change to date. Owing to the hot and dry climate in the Sahel and West Africa, high rates of poverty and profound dependence on rain-fed agriculture, the IPCC has identified these regions as climate change ‘hot spots’ that are projected to experience unprecedented effects of climate change before other parts of the world. The IPCC notes that in the 1970s and 1980s, the Sahel region ‘experienced the most substantial and sustained decline in rainfall recorded anywhere in the world within the period of instrumental measurements.’
It was initially thought that this drought was caused mainly by human modification of the surrounding landscape, i.e. desertification. However, it has subsequently become clear that rising ocean temperatures were the primary driver, reflecting the extent to which climate change is a truly global problem.
Although vulnerable populations are the most susceptible to the direct effects of climate change such as flooding and drought, there are also other impacts, including the incidence and distribution of infectious diseases such as malaria. Higher temperatures will allow malaria to develop in regions where it was previously absent, such as in the African highlands of Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya. Heavy rainfall in parts of Central Africa, particularly in areas with limited access to improved sanitation and proper waste management, are again likely to drive an increase in the transmission of water- and vector-borne diseases.[ ]
The increased desiccation of arid climates such as the Sahel and parts of Southern Africa will also affect groundwater recharge rates. Combined with cyclical weather phenomena like droughts or El Niño, it will further exacerbate water security issues. In more affluent communities, this could mean higher prices or even restrictions on the use of basic services, but in poor communities it could lead to an inability to access these fundamental rights, with dire consequences. These trends threaten to negate the progress Africa has made on reducing the burden of communicable diseases and the associated maladies of undernutrition and chronic hunger.
Climate change makes things worse in areas that are already struggling with high levels of poverty and poor governance. In the first half of 2018 in Nigeria, the farmer–herder conflict resulted in more than six times as many fatalities as have been attributed to the terrorist group Boko Haram. With climate changes, grazing lands have shifted, which has forced herders to move southward. This has led to competition and violence between farmers and herders. In Mali, the situation has escalated to the point where, ‘[m]ass repression based on faulty generalisations, and ethnic tensions between farmers and pastoralists are at the core of the ongoing insecurity.’ [ ]
Western Africa is home to diverse climates, which range from rainforests to hyper-arid deserts and is, in a sense, a microcosm of the continent. Its arid regions are likely to get significantly warmer and drier, with droughts becoming more severe and frequent. This will harm agricultural production and could, in turn, drive large internal and international displacement.
Rising temperatures are likely to have the greatest negative effect on agricultural production, with many crops already at their tolerance limits. This problem will be exacerbated by the increasing variability of rainfall that is expected to be most pronounced in East and Southern Africa. These regions experience year-to-year variations exceeding 30% around the mean, a rate much greater than the temperate climates in Europe and North America. High seasonal variability compounds these effects, causing droughts and floods. High inter- and intra-annual rainfall variability explains the unpredictable and relatively low, seasonal and annual flows in many African rivers.
The IFs forecasts on changes to rainfall and temperature initialise from data generated by the IPCC and others and need to be treated with care as our knowledge on the impact of climate change continues to evolve. That caveat aside, the IFs forecast is for Kenya as the country most likely to experience the largest increase in average rainfall (by 11% in 2043 compared with 1990 averages), one of 31 African countries to experience an increase. The remaining 23 countries will, according to IFs, experience precipitation declines, of which the 17% in Morocco (followed by Egypt) is the most severe. Needless to say, these arid countries already come off a very low base.
The IPCC expects that agricultural production could decline by more than 20% across sub-Saharan Africa by 2050, with South Africa and Zimbabwe experiencing reductions of around 30% or more.
As discussed in the theme on agriculture , agricultural yields in Africa are low by comparative regional standards. However, production can be improved considerably by increasing the amount of land under irrigation, using more (and predominantly organic) fertilisers and genetically modified seeds and improving farming practices. Climate change will constrain the scope of improvements, particularly in North and West Africa, as higher temperatures and shifting rainfall take their toll.
Among the products affected will be coffee. About 10 million farmers plant coffee across 25 African nations. Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya together produce 80% of Africa’s total coffee exports. But without appropriate measures, climate change will reduce coffee-growing areas by about 50% worldwide by 2050, across emission scenarios. Impacts are highest at low latitudes and low altitudes. The world’s dominant production regions in Brazil and Vietnam may experience substantial reductions in the area available for coffee. Some regions in East Africa and Asia may become more suitable, but these are partially in forested areas, which could pose a challenge to mitigation efforts.
Regardless of which analysis ends up being more accurate, the negative effects of climate change are likely to be most severe in semi-arid regions, many of which are in North and West Africa. In the Current Path forecast, all African countries will suffer negative yield changes by 2043, ranging from Lesotho (least affected, with a 2.5% reduction in yields compared with 2015 levels) to Mauritania (9% reduction). Other African countries with more than 7% loss in agricultural yields relative to 2015 are Egypt, Djibouti, Burkina Faso, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea and Mali.
In this section, we compare the results of carbon emissions on the Current Path with each of the 11 scenarios modelled in the earlier themes.
Chart 8 presents the difference in carbon emissions for Africa ranked by scenario. Just as development elsewhere in the world has increased carbon emissions, Africa, with its burgeoning population and huge demands for improved livelihoods, will also increase its carbon contribution. Initially, the increase will be small compared with other regions but the continent’s contribution increases rapidly over time even as emissions in the rest of the world start to decline from 2030.
Even the Current Path forecast of solid but unspectacular economic growth would see Africa’s annual carbon emissions increase from the 2019 level of roughly 422 million tons per year (4.4% of global total) to 939 million by 2043 (10.2% of global total). Generally, one would expect that carbon emissions would follow improvements in GDP per capita, i.e. that the scenario where GDP per capita is highest would also have the largest emissions. However, Africa’s carbon emissions actually decline in the Demographic scenario and are highest in the Free Trade scenario as the size of the African economy is largest with the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area.
The reason for lower emissions in the Demographic scenario in 2043 compared with the Current Path forecast for that year (by about 15 million tons) is that Africa will have 93 million fewer people in the Demographic scenario than in the Current Path. Africa has roughly the same population size in 2043 (at about 2.24 billion people) in all the other scenarios.
Yet, because of the relative growth in the size of the working-age population to dependants in the Demographic scenario, GDP per capita increases by US$227 compared with levels in the Current Path forecast for 2043. From a climate change and economic productivity point of view, the Demographic scenario results in the lowest increase in carbon emissions and largest increase in GDP per capita, followed by the Leapfrogging and Education scenarios.
Next to the Demographic scenario, the Leapfrogging scenario provides the most carbon-efficient growth path. In the Leapfrogging scenario, growth rates increase but because of the impact of digitisation (which is less resource intensive) and the more rapid transition to renewable energy, increases in carbon emissions are modest while GDP per capita improves by a substantive margin.
The Free Trade , Manufacturing and Agriculture scenarios have the largest growth effect but are all associated with more carbon emissions. In effect, they are less efficient from a carbon emissions perspective, particularly when compared to the Demographic and Leapfrogging scenarios. The carbon contribution from the Agriculture scenario is particularly large over the next two decades. That increase occurs particularly in low-income countries that experience the most rapid economic growth in this scenario.
Thus the development trajectory that has brought prosperity to regions such as Europe, North America and Southeast Asia – an agricultural revolution followed by industrialisation – may not be open to a continent that is concerned about the real challenge for arrested development by mid century as the impact of climate change hits home. Whichever decisions its leadership takes, carbon emissions from Africa will increase for several decades on the back of the continent’s rapidly growing population and improvements in standards of living. At the same time, Africa will need to make a maximum effort to reduce its carbon emissions.
In responding to the huge challenge of the Anthropocene, all countries need to adapt to mitigate the effects. Mitigative efforts focus on reducing emissions and stabilising the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Mitigation is therefore a long-term climate change response, as its benefits will only emerge during the second half of the century. In addition to mitigation, Africa has to massively invest in adaptation.
The Paris Agreement represents the best global effort to mitigate the future impacts of climate change to date by trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now. Already, under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which came into force in January 2019, all countries will gradually phase down production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons and replace it with more environmentally friendly alternatives. Indeed, the global regime to protect the ozone layer remains one of the most successful coordinated international environmental efforts to date.
It is unlikely that Africa will be able to fully protect itself against the impact of a changing climate. In fact, associated efforts are costly and literally akin to trying to dam the sea. Yet that is what we have to do. For example, in June 2018 Tanzania completed 2.4 km of sea walls at a cost of US$8.34 million to protect Dar es Salaam and surrounding areas from rising sea levels. According to USAID, the country is estimated to suffer about US$200 million per year in lost land and infrastructure damage due to rising sea levels.
On the other side of the continent, Lagos is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the world, but much of the city is less than one metre above sea level. Lagos is actually expanding into the Atlantic through expensive developments on newly reclaimed land on the one hand and pressure from overpopulation in slum settlements on the other. With many of its slum communities literally at sea level, vulnerable communities in Lagos are already highly exposed to rising sea levels and more severe storm activity caused by climate change. In fact, 70% of Lagos’ population (estimated at 24 million people) live in slums, with a population density ten times that of New York City. A powerful storm would affect millions. Furthermore, average sea-level rise is projected to reach approximately 30 cm by 2050 and between 30 cm and 1.8 m by 2100 (then rising an additional 30 cm or more after each decade).[ ] Already much of the Makoko slum neighbourhood is not built on land, but rather sits on stilts above the waterline and is navigated by canoe. It has little access to electricity or clean sanitation.
Against this backdrop, the ‘Great Wall of Lagos’ promises to offer protection from climate change, but only for those Nigerians who can afford to live in Eko Atlantic – a massive Dubai-style city under construction. The 8.4 km seawall made up of 100 000 concrete blocks, each weighing 5 tons, will protect the shoreline of Victoria Island, the financial heart of Lagos and historically one of the city’s more affluent areas, and early phases of Lekki (a city on a peninsula to the east of Lagos) from coastal erosion. What will happen to the people of Makoko and other slum areas is, of course, an entirely different matter. In the meanwhile, the Lagos city authority is combining technology with water transport (using Uber Boat) as one way to escape from the city’s notoriously congested traffic.
And then there is the Great Green Wall. For more than a decade, affected countries in the Sahel and others have advanced and promoted the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative (Grande Muraille Verte pour le Sahara et le Sahel), which aims to halt the southward spread of the Sahara Desert and to constrain the impact of climate change. The original concept, which dates from colonial times, is for a front line of trees 50 km deep (now reduced to 15 km).
The project has subsequently evolved into an integrated rural development effort to respond to the detrimental social, economic and environmental impacts of land degradation and desertification straddling 11 countries and 8 000 km, from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. In 2017, it was adopted as a flagship project by the UN Conference on Sustainable Development and 20 countries have pledged their support. However, according to the UN, the initiative has only reached 15% of its targets over a decade.
Progress may now speed up, for the Green Climate Fund and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have set up the Great Green Wall Umbrella Programme, which collectively aims to leverage up to US$1 billion in multipartner resources for the Wall in 2021 and 2022.
Africa’s forests could make a large contribution in terms of tackling climate change. In fact, the continent needs to halt the current rate of deforestation and each country needs to commit to a legally binding carbon sink target, as the EU is doing. Approximately 2.6 billion tons of CO2, one-third of the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels, is absorbed by forests each year.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature ‘halting the loss and degradation of forest ecosystems and promoting their restoration have the potential to contribute over one-third of the total climate change required by 2030 to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement.’ According to Global Forest Watch, tree-cover loss peaked in 2016 but the overall trend is still negative, particularly in Africa.[ ]
The Congo Basin, which extends from the DR Congo to Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, contains the world’s second largest primary rainforest (at 314 million hectares) and it is crucial for regulating the global climate as it soaks up some 1.2 billion tons of CO2 each year. However, it is steadily losing its ability to absorb carbon as growth is being stifled by extreme weather.
The DR Congo is home to the largest part of the Basin and according to Global Forest Watch, it lost 590 000 hectares of forest in 2019 alone, mostly owing to small-scale charcoal production and slash-and-burn agriculture. Other countries, such as Madagascar, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire also evidenced amongst the highest rise in percentage terms in losses of primary forest, typically driven by expanding palm oil plantations, logging and mining. In Ghana, losses are likely to be due to small-scale gold mining. Although an expansion of cocoa farming has also led to some forest loss, it is mainly due to population growth and the impact of small-scale subsistence agriculture across the continent.
Eventually, large-scale forest restoration is needed as the most effective nature-based solution to climate change and Africa, in its own interests, needs to play a key role. Community forestry, where people effectively manage the forests as their own, is emerging as a large contributor to sustainability. The DR Congo published its National Strategy for Community Forestry in June 2018, setting out future guiding principles. In addition to a legally binding target on protecting carbon sinks, countries must also commit to better protection of forests and wildlands, which have shrunk because of logging, demand for biomass energy and threats worsened by climate change such as wildfires and pests.
Africa does have some ability to mitigate climate change – massive tree planting initiatives and protection of its carbon sink are just two examples – but needs to direct significant effort at adaptation. The African Union has acknowledged as much in the Agenda 2063 planning document, which states that ‘Africa shall address the global challenge of climate change by prioritising adaptation in all our actions … for the survival of the most vulnerable populations … and for sustainable development and shared prosperity.’ Also, in 2015, ten African countries signed the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, which calls for the restoration of 100 million hectares of land by 2030.
The limited monies that have started to flow after the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, where developed countries agreed to a US$100 billion fund, is for mitigation such as for renewable energy projects, that reduce emissions. The Agreement establishes a global goal on adaptation for enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening reslience and to reduce vulnerability to climate change, placing the emphasis on countries to formulate and implement National Adaptation Plans.
To cope with changes in climate, Africa urgently needs to invest in adaptation infrastructure which ranges from piped water and sanitation to flood prevention systems, including support from the industrialized countries who are largely responsible for the buildup of greenhouse gases. Some of the associated deficits in this regard are set out in the theme on health and WaSH.
On its current development trajectory, the world is headed for serious climate change trouble. Increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere are driving more intense weather patterns, which lead to more and greater threats from famines, droughts and plagues. More carbon emissions will affect all of humanity and with its low adaptation capacity, arid climates and rainfall-dependent agriculture, Africa is particularly at risk. Disruptive climate and weather conditions will change migration patterns, possibly with significant impacts.
Africa needs faster demographic change, higher productivity but at lower levels of emissions, better education, a functioning health system, investment in basic infrastructure such as the provision of potable water, extended agricultural land under irrigation, and good governance to drive development and to provide improved living conditions and security.
However, these development gains will need to be weighed against the long-term goal of mitigating and adapting to climate change. Good governance and long-term planning in Africa are now more important than ever. Mitigation and adaptation to climate change should be an intrinsic part of the African development agenda, such as the purposeful choice to transition to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels.
Africa’s development trajectory will be severely affected by climate change and, as a minimum, the continent should commit to achieving net-zero by 2050. The Agriculture scenario is forecast to be the largest contributor to carbon emissions over the next decade. Agricultural expansion is also the main driver of deforestation and forest fragmentation, and the associated loss of forest biodiversity. Most of that, UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization find, is from large-scale commercial agriculture (40% of tropical deforestation) and local subsistence agriculture (33%).
Much more is required, such as improving efficiency by using less energy to produce a given output; using less land, organic fertilisers and other inputs for food production; reducing food waste, and shifting to renewables and nuclear for energy, and substituting carbon-intensive products (such as meat) for those with a lower carbon footprint. Africa needs a decisive low-carbon transmission that includes the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, the introduction of a sufficiently high carbon price and to cease the construction of fossil-fuel-driven power systems even as China and the West continue to pursue oil and gas projects within their own borders. The irony, in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine is stark: whereas, at the 2021 United Nations Climate Summit, COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Western governments and mulitateral lenders pledged to stop all funding for overseas fossil fuel projects, in the wake of the Ukraine war there is a resurgence of interest in Africa's gas, but only if it can be extracted and exported to Europe.
The following year the COP27 meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, made little progress in expanding the Glasgow outcomes. Instead, the final COP27 text, titled the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, reused language from COP26’s climate pact which called on Parties to accelerate 'efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies'. The Plan does include a commitment to set up a fund for climate change 'loss and damage' to compensate vulnerable countries for the consequences of climate-related diasters and includes a vague reference to reform of multilateral development banks such as the World Bank. At the same time the introduction of measures such as EU's carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM), presents Africa with a number of challenges. Once introduced, CBAM will effectively tax imports based on the additional carbon involved in production compared to EU standards, effectively penalising African (and other) manufacturing and agriculture. The effect is likely to be particularly hard felt by countries without the ability to measure emissions and could contribute to shifting trade patterns to between countries that struggle to meet EU standards. As a minimum the revenues from the CBAM needs to provide climate finance to countries outside the bloc and provide incentives, support and technologies to assist in a green transition elsewhere.[ ]
Africa is a small player in this unfolding drama. In fact, 60% of Africa does not have access to early warning systems. yet can have an important role in combating deforestation, in forest degradation and generally embarking on a low-carbon development trajectory. The inclusion of language around nature-based solutions in the COP27 outcomes document is a small step in that direction.
The impact of climate change on the continent will be huge and its leaders should therefore seize every opportunity to prepare and to make their voice heard. With a large, vulnerable population, Africa has more to lose than almost any other world region.
Climate change is also a potential long-term accelerator of violent resource competition. Shifts in rainfall patterns are likely to have negative impacts on regions that are already water stressed. Together with a growing population, this is becoming a lethal combination. Decreases in agricultural yields may impact on both human development and governmental legitimacy.
Africa’s leadership is fully aware of the challenges that the continent faces in respect of climate change but action is limited. A purposeful response is required if Africa is to embark on a sustainable development pathway. This includes insisting that its development projects and those of its partners – China in particular – are based on the requirements of an environmentally sustainable development pathway.
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Jakkie Cilliers (2023) Climate Change, Energy. Published online at futures.issafrica.org. Retrieved from https://futures.issafrica.org/thematic/14-climate-change/ [Online Resource] Updated 27 October 2023.