Climate Change in Africa

Climate Change in Africa

by Camilla Toulmin


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Climate Change in Africa by Camilla Toulmin

This book outlines current thinking and evidence on climate change and the impacts such change will have on Africa. Global warming above the level of two degrees Celsius would be enormously damaging for poorer parts of the world, leading to crises with crops, livestock, water supplies and coastal areas. Within Africa, it's likely to be the continent's poorest people who are hit hardest. In this accessible and authoritative introduction to an often-overlooked aspect of the environment, Camilla Toulmin uses case studies to look at issues ranging from natural disasters to biofuels, and from conflict to the oil industry. Finally, the book addresses what future there might be for Africa in a carbon-constrained world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848130159
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 12/08/2009
Series: African Arguments Series
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

CAMILLA TOULMIN is Director of the International Institute for Environment & Development.

Read an Excerpt

Climate Change in Africa

By Camilla Toulmin

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Camilla Toulmin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-015-9



The world's wealthiest countries have emitted more than their fair share of greenhouse gases. Resultant floods, droughts and other climate change impacts continue to fall disproportionately on the world's poorest people and countries, many of which are in Africa. (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

Africa is the continent that will be hit hardest by climate change. Unpredictable rains and floods, prolonged droughts, subsequent crop failures and rapid desertification, among other signs of global warming, have in fact already begun to change the face of Africa. (Dr Wangari Muta Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner)

So finally today, there is an understanding that climate change is very real, it is happening and it is happening now. We can no longer consider it a threat that is yet to hit us; all over the world we see its impact. (Kofi Annan, opening address at the Global Humanitarian Forum, 2007)

Since 2006, climate change has become a major public issue. Everyone is talking about global warming, how to measure their carbon footprint, and whether it is still ethical to fly around the world. But what will climate change mean for different parts of the world – will some be winners and others losers? How will it affect the continent of Africa, and its many people who depend on farming or who have moved into its rapidly growing cities to find work, or whose incomes stem from the tourist economy? Will it hit rich and poor alike? And what kind of investment would help people and nations 'adapt' to climate change? Amid a rather sombre assessment of adverse impacts from global warming in many parts of the world, are there any opportunities that could bring better prospects for some peoples, such as the growth in financial markets for carbon? And if so, how might African people gain access to such markets?

We live in a world in which our global interconnectedness has become ever more evident, as shown by the extraordinary and unexpected hike in food and commodity prices from late 2006 to mid-2008. Biofuel targets set by the European Union (EU), the USA and China, among others, are part of the reason for the doubling or tripling of prices. Some observers have portrayed this as the rich world choosing to channel limited food supplies into generating fuel for gas-guzzling cars, rather than nourishing the world's poor. While there may be some truth in this, there are many other forces at work, such as the drought in Australia, growing demand for food from nations such as China and India, speculation in commodities, and the imposition of food export bans by a large number of countries, leading to further hoarding and price increases.

Like global warming, the global 'food crisis' demonstrates yet again that we live on a single planet where our decisions impact, whether we like it or not, on people often in distant parts of the world. In 1972, Barbara Ward, philosopher and writer, who founded IIED, the organization for which I work, wrote a prophetic book, Only One Earth, which laid out only too clearly the choices open to us then. These choices are even more pressing now. Thirty-seven years ago, she argued that we faced the real possibility, for the first time, of making the planet unfit for human life, and she took, as an example, the oceans, into which people tip a cocktail of wastes, as though they had boundless capacity to absorb whatever we empty into them. Second, she pointed to the impossibility of everyone on the planet living with the consumption levels of the rich world. But this then poses a difficult question: 'What is to be reduced, the luxuries of the rich or the necessities of the poor?' Third, she noted that there are many issues of huge planetary importance which cannot be solved by nations acting alone. 'The relentless pursuit of separate national interests by rich and poor alike can, in a totally interdependent biosphere, produce global disasters of irreversible environmental damage.'

Only One Earth was published half a lifetime ago, but the message is only too pertinent to our position today. The way we structure ourselves into families, neighbourhoods and nations may help us to mobilize energy and action to defend ourselves or pursue some great ambition, such as space travel. But in the face of global warming, regardless of which part of the world we inhabit, these tribal affiliations make no difference to our ability to protect ourselves and those we love. All will be affected in differing ways. This fundamental mismatch between the global span of the climate system and the social and political constructions within which we plan, make decisions and allocate resources presents a great challenge for our political leaders and the people they are meant to represent. The shortness of the electoral cycle, fear of telling the electorate that we have been living beyond our means, and the need to weigh our wants against the needs of both poor nations today and the rights of future generations tomorrow, together make for a complex manifesto for any political party. It is much easier to focus on tax cuts today and increased spending on health next week. Currently, our politicians are only tinkering at the margins, with a yawning gap between their proud claims to be addressing climate change on the one hand and the timid budgetary allocations that are dwarfed by more immediate political priorities. As Tom Burke reminds us, 'The problem is neither the economics nor the technology: it's the politics.' The credit crunch and the economic downturn offer a much-needed breathing space in which to rethink patterns of growth, ways of measuring progress and the means to build more resilient systems at global and local levels.

The Stern report, Review of the Economics of Climate Change (2006), commissioned by the UK government, showed that early action to cut emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) makes much more sense than waiting for another decade or two and then trying to adapt to the consequences. This is partly because there are time lags in the global climate system, which mean that, even were we to be successful in cutting emissions to zero today, another twenty to thirty years of warming are inevitable. The rising concentration of GHG in the atmosphere will bring ever rising global temperatures, as described in more detail in Chapter 2. The longer we leave the cutbacks in GHG, the bigger the rise in temperature, the larger the adverse impacts and the more costly it will be to bring down emissions. Stern argues we should start now to make the necessary investments over a period of time which will lead us to a low-carbon economy at a manageable pace. We cannot afford to wait and risk the uncertain and potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change (Stern 2009).

Scientists can only give us a range of predictions on how different GHG concentrations will feed into higher temperatures, because of the difficulty of modelling the complex systems that make up the different levels of the atmosphere and its interlinkages with land and sea. There are also some concerns that global warming may feed back into further accelerating the rise in GHG and temperatures. These include the possibility of the methane currently trapped in the frozen Siberian tundra being released as northern Russia starts to warm up. This tundra is estimated to contain 70 billion tons of methane. If even a small fraction of this escapes, it will eclipse the estimated 600 million metric tons of methane that are emitted each year, from natural and human sources, and cause a dramatic acceleration in global warming. Equally, as the world warms, there will be limits to how much CO can be absorbed by the soils and oceans. Normally, land and water act as a 'sink' by absorbing CO from the atmosphere but, with rising temperature, these sinks may start to act as 'sources', releasing rather than absorbing GHG.

This book outlines what research tells us about the likely impacts of global warming on the African continent. Written for a mainstream audience, it tries to avoid technical language and argument, while recognizing the uncertainties inherent in modelling global climate systems and predicting how they play out on the ground. It starts from a recognition that, while no body of science can provide all the answers, the college of scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change constitutes the best foundation for understanding what is happening to the world's climate. Set up in 1988, the IPCC prepares an assessment of knowledge about climate change every four to five years, drawing on existing peer-reviewed literature. The fourth and latest IPCC assessment report dates from 2007 and concludes for the first time that the evidence of man-made global warming, linked to emissions of GHG, is now incontrovertible. Because the IPCC works on the published literature, it is inevitably working with material that is two to three years old. Scientific evidence emerging over the last two years indicates that the process of global warming is happening faster than the IPCC report suggests, and global emissions of GHG are even higher than the most pessimistic of the scenarios outlined in the report. While one or two climate sceptics describe the IPCC as alarmist, much well-informed opinion worries that – in their attempt to be cautious in their interpretation of the evidence – the IPCC's fourth and latest assessment report underestimates the risks of runaway global climate change we now face.

The year 2009 is a critical period for making progress in addressing climate change, with the hope that agreement will be reached on a new global treaty at the Copenhagen climate conference in December. As a successor to the current Kyoto protocol, which runs out in 2012, this treaty will need to establish new and more binding targets for cutbacks to GHG among rich countries. It will need to offer a variety of options for helping other countries, such as India, China and Brazil, move to a pattern of economic growth that minimizes their GHG emissions in future. Science tells us that global emissions of GHG need to fall by at least 50 per cent by 2050, in comparison with 1990 levels, if we are to limit the risk of dangerous climate change. Developed countries will need to commit to cutting emissions by 80-90 per cent by 2050 in comparison with the 1990 baseline. Developing countries with major emissions, such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil, will need to set targets in advance of 2020, if global emissions are to peak and then fall in time. Such long-term targets and credible interim goals will help firm up the price to be paid for carbon reductions, which will act as a strong, positive incentive for a wide range of new technologies. Stern (2009) outlines a number of other elements that would need to form part of the deal, which include developed countries demonstrating that they can achieve low-carbon growth and provide resources and technologies to developing countries to help them follow suit, offering a cost-effective means of reducing deforestation, and supporting vulnerable countries in adapting to the impacts of climate change.

It is hoped that the Copenhagen summit will produce a text along these lines, but most observers recognize that we are currently a long way from reaching an agreement of this sort. The election of Barack Obama as US president offers much greater hope of progress in reaching a climate agreement, given his statements and the appointment of serious scientific advisers in his administration. The high price for oil and gas up to mid-2008 brought about a significant cutback in demand for big cars and made renewable energy sources much more competitive. These trends have now been reversed, however, given the collapse in oil prices and financial difficulties facing investors. The growth in carbon markets has established a mechanism for seeking out carbon emission reductions in different sectors, and different regions of the world. This has generated a new constituency of interests in obtaining a successful post-Kyoto treaty, which can start to provide a counterweight to the very powerful set of vested interests linked to the fossil fuel economy.

On the other side of the coin is the lack of ambition from politicians and governments. European governments, which see themselves as at the progressive end of the climate change negotiations, are still far behind what many businesses and citizen groups would like to see achieved in terms of emission cuts. The global credit crunch and economic slowdown in North America and Europe have increased budget deficits, and have made people feel poorer and more vulnerable, while the breakdown of the WTO negotiations has sent out a signal that many governments are more interested in narrow domestic interests than gaining an equitable global agreement. Climate sceptics have been sowing the seeds of doubt, pandering to the self-interest of those who want no change in current arrangements. Globally, our economies remain firmly wedded to oil and gas as the fuels that keep our economies working and growing, with all the associated infrastructure of refineries, pipelines and road systems. The big oil and gas giants, eight of which are among the top twenty publicly quoted companies, are powerful actors able to lobby for their interests at national and global levels. Oil-producing countries and companies have a very strong interest in maintaining the status quo of the fossil fuel economy, and ensuring a return on their continuing investment in the steel and concrete needed to service the extraction, processing and distribution of oil.

Where does the African continent sit in relation to these global trends and debates? In some ways, the diversity to be found within Africa's landmass and its enormous size make generalizations impossible. With a surface area of 30 million square kilometres, Africa is seven times larger than the current EU and three times the size of China. But despite this evident diversity in people and place, there are some important common features, including continued heavy reliance on natural resources and agriculture, low levels of income per head, and consequent marginalization in global political affairs. With high levels of inequality, and limited government capacity to deliver services to the majority of people, many states serve the interests of an elite, especially where mineral or oil wealth generates significant riches. Apart from the North African region and South Africa, there has been limited industrialization, and even this is threatened by the huge strength of the Chinese manufacturing sector, with its capacity to produce enormous volumes of low-price goods. Hence, in terms of the world economy, African countries remain largely a source of raw materials and agricultural commodities.

As regards climate change, Africa also stands out as the continent that has contributed the least amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in terms of current flows and existing stocks. For example, for 2007, which is the most recent year for which full data are available, per-head emissions of CO2 for all of Africa stood at 1 tCO2 (tonnes of CO2), in comparison with a world average of 4.3 tCO2, a US figure of 19.9 tCO2, the EU15 (the fifteen countries in the EU at the start of 2004) with 6.9 tCO2 and China with 3.2 tCO2. South Africa is the one exception, with an average of 7.9 tCO2/person in 2004 (UNDP 2007/08), a level very similar to that of high-income countries. This is due to the very high reliance on coal for electricity generation.

In terms of the historic responsibility for GHG in the atmosphere, Africa is even more starkly at odds with the rest of the world, having contributed 2.3 per cent of CO2 emissions by 2004 in comparison with 11 per cent for the EU15, 20.9 per cent for the USA and 17.3 per cent for China. In a fair world, in which all people have equal rights to the atmosphere, this should mean that Africa has considerable rights to emit, which have not yet been exercised. But one of the perversities of the climate change negotiations is that it is the big emitters who exercise power – the USA, the EU, China, India and Brazil. It is they who can hold the rest of the world to ransom, by quibbling over 5 or 10 per cent targets, or by trying to shift the calculation of target reductions from a 1990 baseline to one more accommodating of their interests, such as 2008.

Those people who are most likely to be hardest hit by global warming have little or no voice, since they have nothing to trade. In the past, African countries have been forced to 'take' whatever agreements and rules are established by world leaders, rather than having a seat at the table at which the rules are made. The Copenhagen talks are likely to be no different. Africa's weak economic position is one reason, and its diversity is another. With a rising number of oil- and gas-producing nations, as well as some of the poorest countries, their interests are too divergent for them to speak with a common voice. And within many countries, inequalities in political power and economic interests between the rich elite and the poor majority mean that the needs and perspectives of millions of small-scale producers are not well represented by governments when it comes to negotiations. In more extreme cases, the rich have bank accounts offshore and family members elsewhere in the global diaspora, allowing them an alternative future when things get bad at home. The poor have few if any options, except risking the sea crossing in a leaky fishing boat from Senegal, Libya or Morocco, in the hope of a landfall in Europe. While the Kyoto protocol, agreed in 1997, has established a range of new financial opportunities to sell carbon emission reductions, through the EU's Emission Trading System and the Clean Development Mechanism, African nations have had only a very small slice of the pie. Those seeking to buy such carbon reductions find it much easier going to major polluters, such as India, China and Brazil, where they can do deals with a few large industrial enterprises, rather than many small-scale producers, given the costs of pooling a large number of small transactions. Equally, buyers of carbon feel more secure in their purchases where there is greater certainty about contracts, and land and property rights.


Excerpted from Climate Change in Africa by Camilla Toulmin. Copyright © 2009 Camilla Toulmin. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Tables, figures and boxes, viii,
Acknowledgements, x,
Abbreviations, xii,
1 Introduction, 1,
2 Global climate change and Africa, 15,
3 Water, 32,
4 Food, 50,
5 Forests, 70,
6 Cities, 87,
7 Climate change and conflict, 109,
8 Africa and the low-carbon economy, 127,
9 Looking forward, 145,
Notes, 153,
Bibliography, 157,
Index, 168,

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