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The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report: What's in it for Africa?

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Key messages from the Fifth Assessment Report for Africa

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report offers the following key messages for Africa:

Africa’s climate is already changing and the impacts are already being felt

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finds, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Earth’s climate is warming. Since the 1950s, the rate of global warming has been unprecedented compared to previous decades and millennia. The IPCC finds with 95% certainty that human activity, by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

The Fifth Assessment Report presents strong evidence that warming over land across Africa has increased over the last 50–100 years. Surface temperatures have already increased by 0.5–2°C over the past hundred years. Data from 1950 onwards suggests that climate change has changed the magnitude and frequency of some extreme weather events in Africa already. The health, livelihoods and food security of people in Africa have been affected by climate change.

Further climate change is inevitable in the coming decades

Regardless of future emissions, the world is already committed to further warming, largely due to past emissions and inertia in the climate system. The IPCC warns that if global society continues to emit greenhouse gases at current rates, the average global temperature could rise by 2.6–4.8o C by 2100 (according to the IPCC’s highest emissions scenario).

During this century, temperatures in the African continent are likely to rise more quickly than in other land areas, particularly in more arid regions. Under a high-emissions scenario, average temperatures will rise more than 2°C, the threshold set in current international agreements, over most of the continent by the middle of the 21st century. Climate change poses challenges to growth and development in Africa Africa’s recent development gains have been in climate-sensitive sectors. Economically, many Africans depend for food, fibre and income on primary sectors such as agriculture and fisheries, sectors which are affected by rising temperatures, rising sea levels and erratic rainfall.

The IPCC highlights the key risks to Africa of climate change as being stress on water resources, reduced crop productivity, and changes in the incidence and geographic range of vector- and water-borne diseases. While some environmental, economic and cultural systems across Africa are already at risk from climate change, the severity of the consequences increases with rising temperatures. Climate change challenges fundamental social and economic policy goals such as growth, equity and sustainable development.

Adaptation will bring immediate benefits and reduce the impacts of climate change in Africa

To manage the inevitable impacts of climate change that cannot be reduced through mitigation, Africa needs to adapt. Adaptation brings benefits both today and in the future. The IPCC emphasises that adaptation and development approaches can go hand-in-hand, and can in fact reinforce each other.

Even after taking action on adaptation, African societies may still have to deal with some climate-related risks. The intensity and frequency of future climate risks largely depends on the level of ambition of global mitigation actions. For this reason, the IPCC stresses the importance of integrating adaptation and mitigation strategies into long-term development planning.

Adaptation is fundamentally about risk management

In Africa, the primary concern is adapting to the negative impacts of climate change. This means taking both short-and long-term approaches to managing climate risks. In the short term, integrating climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction will help withstand shocks to human security and economic development from which recovery can be costly. In the longer term, governments, businesses and communities need not only to prepare for the kinds of climate impacts experienced up to now but also for different and more intense climate impacts and extreme events.

Adaptation experience in Africa is growing

The IPCC’s findings accord with current directions in African development policy-making. Over the past decade, countries across Africa have adopted increasingly comprehensive development plans with ambitious social and economic development objectives. They have attempted to move beyond the narrow objective of poverty reduction to encompass wider objectives of accelerated growth, employment creation, and provision of water, sanitation, health and education needs within the framework of sustainable development. Further, several African governments, such as Ethiopia and Rwanda, have adopted national climate resilience strategies with a view to applying them across economic sectors. For the continent as a whole, development planning and practice must now reflect the reality of a changing climate, and ensure that investments take account of future climate conditions.

African governments can help to promote ambitious global action on climate change mitigation

Ambitious climate mitigation at the global level must start now in order to limit the magnitude of long-term climate change and reduce the risks. The world’s governments have pledged to limit warming to at least 2o C above pre-industrial levels. The need for deep cuts in emissions to limit warming to the 2o C threshold is a central theme of the section of the Fifth Assessment Report on climate mitigation.
The choices that global society makes today to curb greenhouse gas emissions will have a profound impact on the degree of warming during the second half of this century. It is widely recognised that urgent action is needed now to limit emissions at global level to mitigate the impacts of dangerous climate change in the longer term. Societies and ecosystems across the globe depend on such actions – and on their happening in a coordinated way.

Some low-carbon development options may be less costly in the long run and could offer new economic opportunities for Africa

The IPCC recognises that Africa (particularly sub-Saharan Africa but excluding South Africa) has low levels of emissions and that over time these emissions will increase moderately to meet pressing development needs. In expanding economically and meeting their development needs, African countries have abundant opportunities to adopt clean, efficient low-carbon technologies and practices. They can side step the inefficient, fossil fuel-dependent infrastructure that more developed countries are ‘locked into’. The Fifth Assessment Report identifies many low-carbon opportunities and co-benefits. Many of the measures to avoid greenhouse gas emissions provide generous gains in economic productivity, human development and quality of life. The adoption of a low-carbon pathway needs to fit into countries’ specific national circumstances, which means that the nature of these pathways will depend on resources, capacities and governance realities.

The world can afford ambitious mitigation action, provided there is sufficient political will and cooperation among countries on technology transfer and finance. Indeed, the IPCC makes clear that it is relatively less expensive to adopt low-carbon choices now rather than react later when extensive institutional and infrastructure lock-in has taken place. Annual global consumption growth is estimated at 1.6–3% per year, and so adopting ambitious climate mitigation measures would reduce this consumption growth by around 0.06 percentage points per year this century. Although Africa has contributed very little to historic greenhouse gas emissions, African countries stand to benefit from new, cleaner technologies, and these actions would enable African governments to play a proactive and leading role in promoting an ambitious global dialogue on climate change.

Africa stands to benefit from integrated climate adaptation, mitigation and development approaches

The IPCC points out that there are many complementarities among climate adaptation, mitigation and development.19 Many sustainable development pathways combine adaptation, mitigation and development approaches. The Fifth Assessment Report provides policy-makers with a wealth of evidence from climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts around the world on what works and what does not work. The IPCC also highlights some of the trade-offs.

Unless carefully considered, some mitigation activities bring the risk of adverse consequences. For example, the adoption of new technologies or crops to reduce or sequester carbon can undermine the development opportunities and climate resilience of vulnerable social groups. The IPCC provides examples and recommends robust decision-making processes to avert these risks.

International cooperation is vital to avert dangerous climate change and African governments can promote ambitious global action

The IPCC’s work shows that international cooperation is vital to avert dangerous climate change. Since the IPCC was formed in 1992, its work has given us a progressively improved understanding of climate science and provided a clearer picture of the range of vulnerabilities in different parts of the world. The Fifth Assessment Report provides the strongest warning yet.

In 2010, governmental Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Cancun pledged to reduce emissions to achieve the long-term goal of limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. The Fifth Assessment Report finds that the actual governmental pledges made at and since Cancun fall short of what is needed to achieve the long-term goal.

The Fifth Assessment Report recognises that climate change is a global commons problem – a problem that lies outside the political reach of any one nation state – and that it requires a collective, global response. For this reason, the IPCC’s findings on sources of global greenhouse gas emissions and their impacts on climate provide African governments with an important knowledge base for formulating their positions in international climate change negotiations.

Ensuring the right choices now requires every government to participate in the global effort on climate change and to work towards an ambitious collective solution. African leaders have an important part to play – with all other international leaders – in forging this commitment.