Tens of millions of people across Africa face the risk of famine, drought, disease and displacement within decades, according to a landmark United Nations climate report released Monday that forecasts a dire future for the continent least responsible for global warming.
The findings are one part of a wide-reaching report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a community made up of hundreds of scientists and thousands of contributors from 195 countries and territories.
The panel is split up into three working groups, the second of which studied dangers of climate change and how societies adapt to them. It found that rising temperatures will affect the entire globe, but it concedes that repercussions are disproportionately likely to hit African countries, many of which are already approaching the limits of coping with climate-related problems.
“Multiple African countries are projected to face compounding risks from: reduced food production across crops, livestock and fisheries; increasing heat-related mortality; heat-related loss of labor productivity; and flooding from sea level rise,” the working group wrote as part of its 4,000-page report.
It says that while Africa has “contributed among the least to historical greenhouse gas emissions” that are driving human-made warming, the continent — which is projected to be home to 2.5 billion people by 2050 — “has already experienced widespread impacts.” These include malnutrition linked to crop failures and falling nutrient value of staple food, forced displacement due to drought and flooding, and exposure to deadly heat waves.
“Africa is one of the most — if not the most — vulnerable continent to climate change in the world,” said Chukwumerije Okereke, a professor in environment and development at Reading University in the United Kingdom, who has contributed to past assessments by the panel.
He said Monday’s report “raises a fundamental question about differences in contributions to climate change versus the huge disparity in terms of impacts and the negative consequences of climate change.”
Recent years of climate diplomacy, including the U.N. climate summit in November, have focused on how richer nations can support vulnerable countries in adapting to future rising temperatures and ever increasing extreme weather events. Beyond adaptation, at-risk nations are also calling for dedicated funds to compensate them for the loss and damage they have already suffered.
The U.N. assessment quotes one estimate showing that gross domestic product per capita for 1991-2010 in Africa was on average 13.6 percent lower compared to what it would have been if climate change had not occurred. “Impacts manifest largely through losses in agriculture, as well as tourism, manufacturing, and infrastructure,” the report stated.
Climate change has already increased heat waves and drought, and has doubled the probability of marine heat waves around most of Africa, the panel found. The report stated that 2.6 million people were displaced in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 due to extreme weather. In 2019, 3.4 million people were displaced.
“For the global north, climate is a matter of 20 years, 30 years into the future,” Hamira Kobusingye, a youth activist from Uganda, said. “But for us in Africa, it is a today problem. We are already losing lives due to climate change and we already have refugees and people forced from their homes due to climate change.”
And the continent’s immediate future looks even bleaker.
Even at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of global heating — the safer end of the Paris Agreement temperature goals and which the panel says will be breached within decades ‚ a child born in Africa in 2020 will be exposed to up to eight times as many heat waves as one born in 1960. In a world just 1.6 Celsius (2.9 Fahrenheit) hotter than pre-industrial levels, West Africa will see as many as 150 potentially deadly extreme heat days every year, the assessment shows. Tens of millions of more people will be threatened with vector borne diseases such as dengue fever even at minimal warming levels.
In a world 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter, Africa’s marine and freshwater fisheries, which provide the main source of protein for nearly a third of the population, could come under “significant threat,” with catch potentials falling as much as 41 percent.
At 1.7 degrees Celsius, the assessment warns that reduced fish harvests could leave up to 70 million people vulnerable to iron deficiency, and up to 285 million malnourished by the middle of the century.
With increasingly large numbers of people moving to coastal cities, around 110 million people will be exposed to sea level rise by 2030, and up to 245 million by 2060, the report stated.
And, depending on how rapidly the global economy decarbonizes, between 17.4 million and 85 million people in sub-Saharan Africa could be forced to flee their homes due to water stress, crop failures and rising seas, with as many as 50 million in West Africa alone.
Mohamed Adow, director of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa, said Monday’s assessment showed how richer nations “continue to treat displacement as a security threat when it’s actually an adaptation measure by people forced from their homes due to climate consequences.”
Monday’s assessment offers a sweeping review of the choices facing communities struggling to keep pace with climate change. It shows how simple interventions such as drought-resistant farming measures and better irrigation can help withstand some of the more immediate impacts.
But the report finds that funding for adaptation in Africa is “billions” of dollars less than needed and that around half of the financial commitments to Africa reported by developed countries remain undisbursed.
“Climate impacts in Africa are getting more severe,” Adow said. “They are putting millions of lives at risk, and these people are not getting support from the international community, including the historic polluters.”
He said that rather than providing aid each time a natural disaster strikes, rich countries have a responsibility in “addressing the root cause and supporting these communities to adapt and help with the irreversible loss and damage of climate change.”
Monday’s assessment also identifies a dearth of research funding and academic output from within Africa. It says that “climate-related research in Africa faces severe data constraints” with many countries lacking regularly reporting weather stations, leading to gaps in crucial data.
From 1990-2019, just 3.8 percent of climate research funding was allocated to Africa, and that the number of publications with locally based authors was “among the lowest globally.”
Okereke of Reading University said that research gaps were preventing African researchers “from telling our own story.”
“When you have someone else telling your story, you can imagine how incomplete that story is, no matter how well-intentioned,” he said.
“It is a fundamental reason why the West isn’t putting forth the necessary resources because they don’t fully understand the challenges. It’s also an indictment on how much of a failure previous decades of capacity building in Africa have been.”