Africa is Warming Fast, and the Most Vulnerable Are Being Hit Hardest

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“We know that climate change impacts we suffer today are consequences of development choices that countries, mainly developed, adopted over the years,” said Vera Songwe, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. “Africa is more vulnerable than most and, even if it is the least responsible, it also has the most viable solutions.”

The continent has already seen an increase in heatwaves, hot days and erratic rainfall patterns. Heat and drought are impacting agriculture production, increasing pest damage and disease. Climate change and climate variability, together with conflicts, instability and economic crises, are listed as key drivers of a recent increase in hunger in Africa.

African nations are already spending between 2% and 9% of their gross domestic product in climate adaptation and mitigation measures, Songwe said during the presentation of the report on Monday. Tropical cyclone Idai, which hit Mozambique in March 2019, slashed the country’s GDP growth that year to 2.3%, compared to the 6.6% forecast before the storm.

Extreme heat, drought and changes in precipitation are trends set to continue over the next few decades as the continent —and the planet— warms. Under the worst-case climate scenario, in which the world warms by 4ºC by the end of the century, African GDP will decline between 7.04% and 12.12%, according to the report. Middle-warming scenarios see GDP falling between 3.3% and 8.28%.

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The changing climate is already impacting agriculture production, the backbone of Africa’s economy. In drought-prone sub-Saharan countries, the number of undernourished people has increased by 45.6% since 2012, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Changes in rainfall patterns will also increase the presence of biting insects in new areas, and the transmission of diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever.

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Under the worst case climate change scenario, crop mean yields would decline 13% in West and Central Africa, 11% in North Africa, and 8% in East and Southern Africa by 2050. Millet and sorghum would be among the most resilient crops, while rice and wheat are expected to be among the most impacted.

The report highlighted that the lack of data is a challenge when it comes to forecasting climate change impacts and designing measures to counter them. The lack of weather stations means heatwaves are barely being recorded in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a report published in Nature Climate Change in July. Only two heatwaves in sub-Saharan Africa were recorded by the Emergency Events Database in the past 120 years, the study found. That compared to 83 European heatwaves recorded in the past four decades.

Reporting of droughts and floods in Africa has improved over the past few decades, partly because not-for-profit organizations doing relief work on the ground are gathering the data, said Friederike Otto, report author and acting director of the the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. By comparison, heatwave data is much more sparse at a time when they’re becoming more frequent, more intense and more deadly.

“In poorly-governed countries where you have regime changes and suddenly weather stations are not manned anymore, you have gaps in the records,” Otto said. “That’s a problem because it makes it much harder to quantify and identify changes.”

The early warning systems that are working well to alert people of droughts and floods could be applied to heatwaves, she said.

“The great impact that climate change is posing around the world is that it exacerbates inequality,” Otto said. “It exacerbates the divide between developed and developing nations, but also within a society. The people that die from heat are not those who have air conditioning.”