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

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