Climate Change: Africa urged to ratchet up action


As negotiators look to next year’s UN climate conference in Paris, climate experts say there is need to consistently remind African leaders about the gravity of climate change to spur action to drive national mitigation and adaptation plans.

Prof Bob Scholes, a systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa says there is need to repeat “uncomfortable truths” about the frightening effects of global warming on animals, humans, agriculture and the environment.

“One of the biggest issues facing us right now is global warming. Its effects on animals and on agriculture are indeed frightening, and the effects on the human population are even scarier,” he said at the just-ended Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC) outreach event which was held in Pretoria, South Africa.

“Uncomfortable truths need to be repeated even if they go unheeded. We have to keep telling the story until action is taken.”

Prof Scholes says climate change experts must provide detailed evidence about the gravity of the climate change situation and present it to world leaders and the general public despite the resistance and criticism they may face.

The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (CoP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is expected to take place in December 2015, in Paris, France.

“CoP 21 is just a year away and we have to get the evidence on the table,” says Prof Scholes. “The window of opportunity is closing and we have to provide more and more evidence on the table.

“Climate change evidence is unequivocal. It is very clear and we have to keep the momentum until action is taken to address this problem.

Facts about climate change have been debated extensively in politics and the media.

Adds Prof Bruce Hewitson, a principal climatologist at the University of Cape Town: “Even if we disagree about the causes, global warming effects are real, global, and measurable. The causes are mainly from us, the human race, and the effects on us will be severe.

“The choices we make now are going to determine our future. Scientists use exact words cautiously and journalists have a responsibility to communicate climate change issues carefully to sensitise world leaders and people about the reality of climate change.”

He says the response to climate change at local and national levels was complicated and mired in confusion.

“The choices we make now are going to determine our future. The reality is that we are not changing our consumption habits, we are polluting more and more,” Prof Hewitson says.

“Responding to climate change is complicated at the local and national levels, there is more confusion.”

He says there is a multiplicity of indicators of climate change showing the likely severe impact of climate change in the world.

The study by the IPCC one of the most comprehensive to look at the links between climate change and food security.

The 5th Assessment Report presents a long list of evidence and changes that scientists have observed in Africa and around the world.

Zimbabwe and South Africa could see large drops on crop yields of up to 30 percent or more by 2050 if climate change is left unchecked, Penny Urquhart, a climate change expert and Africa lead author for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.

She says that reduced crop productivity associated with heat and drought stress could have adverse effects on regional, national and household livelihood and food security.

“Severe climate impacts on agriculture changes in composition of farming systems, some studies show maize yields in South Africa and Zimbabwe could drop by 30 percent or more by 2050,” she says.

Suitable agro-climatic zones for growing economically important perennial crops, Urquhart says, are estimated to significantly diminish largely due to the effects of rising temperatures.

Under high emissions scenarios, much of Africa could exceed 2° C by mid-century, and reach between 3 and 6° C by 2100, a situation which will have substantial impact on African ecosystems.

“We need to repeat these uncomfortable messages on the risks of climate change,” Urquhart says. “We need to build our governance systems for adaptability and resilience. We are picking change and we can project that future changes will be substantial.”

She says all aspects of food security will be affected by climate change including food access, utilisation and price stability.

Adds Prof Hewitson: “There is uncertainty of the scale of risk. In the worst case scenario of a 6 degree celsius increase in temperature could have major consequences on human livelihoods in southern Africa.

“We are very vulnerable. We expect increased intensity of rains and temperatures and everything is pointing to our vulnerability. 

We have to take action to enhance our response strategies.”

The Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC presents strong evidence that warming over land across Africa has increased over the last 50 to 100 years.

This warming is likely to continue at a time when surface temperatures have increased by 0.5-2 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years even though the IPCC acknowledges the absence of data for most African countries.

The impacts from recent weather-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires, the IPCC reports, all reveal the exposure and vulnerability of African people and economies to climate.

Climate experts all agree that the risks are real and increasing, that the impacts are progressive and will have a damaging effect on human livelihood.

Says Prof Hewitson: “Our choices will determine to what to degree we follow a pathway to resilience. Our choices will manifest in the future. Some responses may require significant transformation in terms of our lifestyles.”

“The problem is ethical and epistemic (How do you know, you know what we know).”

Concern was also raised about Africa’s reliance on foreign aid to drive climate change responses.

“African countries need to internalise and develop their own adaptation strategies,” says Prof Hewitson. “There is no free lunch. 

We have to internalise climate change and understand it as indigenous localised systems.”

Says Jonathan Lynn, IPCC head of communication: “We have to start changing now to mitigate the severe impact in future. We need to underline – the sense of urgency that we have to act now to avert disaster in future.”

African climate response strategies still face a suite of overlapping barriers.

Zimbabwe and most other African countries have drawn up climate change national action plans and strategies, but climate experts say these governance systems for adaptation are yet to effectively co-ordinate adaptation initiatives.

They say climate change threatens to overwhelm the ability of people to cope and adapt, especially if the root causes of poverty and vulnerability are not addressed.

All countries within the Zambezi River Basin could contend with increasing water shortages while non-climate drivers such as population and economic growth, expansion of irrigated agriculture will complicate the situation.

Few small-scale farmers across Africa are able to adapt to climatic changes, while others are restricted by a suite of overlapping barriers such as poverty and a lack of cash or credit, limited access to water and land, poor soil quality, land fragmentation, poor roads, and pests and diseases.

Lack of access to inputs, shortage of labour, poor quality of seed and inputs attributed to a lack of quality controls by government and corrupt business practices by traders, insecure tenure, and poor market access were some of the barriers.

Others included lack of information on agroforestry/afforestation, different crop varieties, climate change predictions and weather, and adaptation strategies.

“If we sit on a 4 degrees temperature rise trajectory, we see very limited capacity to respond to the risks,” Urquhart said. “Most adaptation in Africa and most other developing countries remains autonomous, reactive, unsupported and not on a scale.”

December 2014
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