A climate for change in Africa


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Sub-Saharan African countries are bracing for dramatic impacts of climate change. As Andrew Simms of the UK-based New Economics Foundation has aptly put it, they are “caught between the devil of drought and the deep blue sea of floods.”

Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions have been minimal because of its low levels of industrial output. Yet African countries are likely to suffer disproportionately from global warming. They are therefore right to demand that international climate negotiations be based on principles of historical justice.

But behind this seemingly dismal outlook lies a unique opportunity for Africa to lead the way in adopting low-carbon growth strategies. The region is not too heavily committed to the same damaging industries that its industrial counterparts are having difficulties abandoning. African countries therefore need to complete their demand for historical justice with the design of climate-smart policies.

They can build climate-smart economies that take advantage of the vast amounts scientific and technological knowledge that is currently available. It is estimated that growth in such knowledge is doubling every 14 months.

Building climate-smart economies will involve taking deliberate steps in at least four key areas: infrastructure; technical education; business development; and international diplomacy.

Climate-smart infrastructure is essential for adapting to climate change. Take energy, for example. Eastern Africa can generate over 2,500 MW of electricity from geothermal energy using existing technologies, compared to the current world output of 8,100 MW. 

Similar adjustments will need to be made in agriculture. Conventional crops will need to be complemented by switching to more resilient food sources such as tree crops. Breadfruit (Artocarpus alitis) which has for centuries been a staple in isolated Pacific islands is a prime candidate for adoption in diverse African regions.

Creating climate-smart infrastructure will require greater investment in higher technical training. Countries can build on current efforts to create telecommunications universities under line ministries, as has been done in Egypt, Ghana and Kenya. Ministries dealing with issues such as agriculture, environment, water, energy and transportation could play key roles in training local experts in the design of climate-smart infrastructure.

   Photo © World Bank

Similarly, African countries will need to invest in fostering “green jobs”. Existing universities and research institutes could help foster the incubation of enterprises that promote sustainability. The newly-created Victoria Institute of Science and Technology (VIST) in western Kenya, for example, seeks to advance the use of “green technologies” in economic renewal.

 Finally, advancing climate-smart growth strategies will demand new diplomatic leadership. African ministries of foreign affairs will need to strengthen their capacity to engage in science and technology diplomacy. The choice, location and staffing of their missions will need to reflect the urgency to identify and negotiate more technology-based agreements with other countries.

Africa will need to respond regionally through a broad range of measures aimed at sustaining human health, agriculture, energy, water supply, tourism and many other vital sectors.

A look into the future of climate change reveals disruptions that will take on wartime proportions. Responses must therefore match the challenges. Declaring a state of ecological emergency in vulnerable regions of Africa will focus local and international attention on sustainable development in general and climate change in particular. The time to do it is now.

Calestous Juma teaches at Harvard Kennedy School and is a Trustee of the Victoria Institute of Science and Technology.


Calestous Juma

Professor, Harvard Kennedy School

Join the Conversation

October 28, 2009

I liked this article. I am interested in rural development efforts, the innovations and the challenges we are facing. The climate changes, have great effects, and the poverty issues resulting!

September 16, 2009

Thanks you Professor Juma for this great post. Thank you for the effort you are putting into VIST. I truly believe VIST will become an African leading technology institute in the near future.

Climate-smart infrastructure will seek smart implementation and smart allocation of scarce resources Africa possess. If the Inga power complex in DR Congo can generate about 100.000 MW of hydropower, which is renewable and sustainable energy and capable to supply energy for as many as 500 million households across Africa, then all the African countries along with the World Bank and other stakeholders should focus their maximum effort in getting this smart-infrastructure done and move on other development priorities. But smart-infrastructure alone won't be enough.

How green does Africa needs to be green. The entire continent with more than 14% of the world population emits only about 3% of CO2. Libya, South Africa and Seychelles, all upper-middle income countries, are on the top of the list of the African polluters. Forest degradation in the Congo Basin is now major source of CO2 emissions. The primary actors of this deforestation are logging industries from industrialized countries that obviously have money to acquire adequate infrastructure. Yet, a couple of months before the COP15 and the intense REDD discussions, millions acres of DRC's rainforest have been allocated to the same major logging industries.

Land grab is now a new phenomenon in many African countries today. These large-scale acquisitions of farmland in Africa happen to be seen by some people as a neo-colonialism, with poor states producing food for the rich at the expense of their own hungry people. In some countries the deals have created civil conflict and huge political instability. Many other of course are seeing this as a new development opportunity.

Africa's development opportunities will occur only when governments will start placing sustainable development at the centre of its decision-making. Weather in logging industry (seen by many as evil), large-scale land acquisition (seen as a neo-colonialism), or in climate-smart economies (even if we are climatically the smartest until now with only 3% of the global emissions), the leitmotiv should place the well-being of the population at the highest priority. Governments must be able to negotiate for the benefit of the population and mostly the poorest communities and the indigenous people who totally depend on land and forest. How do they achieve that? By investing first in their own capacity to negotiate first.

Africa’s economic performance has been poor since independence. Many empirical studies, including Harvard Prof. Nunn, have found evidence explaining this poor performance in Africa’s history including slave trade and colonial rule. Whether we support such evidence or not, in the scope of completing our demand for historical justice, African continent needs to rethink not only the design of climate-smart policies but also a government-smart leaders.

Ely Katembo

Promila Kapoor-Vijay
April 29, 2010

Professor Juma has made very important observation that Africa needs to be concerned with the well being of its people. I believe policies developed by Governments cannot afford to neglect the food, nutrition, energy, and water needs of poorest and those who constitute local culture and preserve it - the local communities living in - unique ecosystems. The people living as part of unique ecosystems depend upon indigenous plant, animal resources for their survival and continuation, which includes habitats and landscapes. Local species used by indigenous and traditional people are the life support species unique in their genetic hardware and ecological adaptations to extremes of temperatures, arid and saline soils, or in tropical forests such as mangroves, rain forests. Genomic advances are moving at a speed and have placed new value on genes of such species and others not yet fully valued. These species are part of biodiversity of plants, animals and microorganisms, and have been preserved and maintained in nature by in situ methods of conservation by local people and cultures due to their specialised traditional knowledge and cultures for times immemorial. International Year of biodiversity 2010 gives us new courage to rethink and ensure that economic changes linked with climate change brings an era of climate of change and justice in revaluing local biological resources and ecosystem services in Africa and other regions of the world so that benefits reach the poorest, and those living in marginal environments in Africa and elsewhere.P.Kapoor-Vijay