HUSSAIN: Climate change is a real threat to our growth agenda and must be defeated

Thursday December 19 2019

Farmer Future Nyamukondiwa inspects a stunted cob in her dry maize field on March 13, 2019, in the Mutoko rural area of Zimbabwe. Climate change has worsened sub-Saharan Africa’s food and nutrition challenges. PHOTO | AFP


Africa south of the Sahara is surging, lifted by renewed economic optimism, business-friendly reforms, greater trade, and improved regional integration.

At a time when uncertainty is exacting a toll on the global economy, the World Bank has projected overall growth in sub-Saharan Africa to rise to 2.6 per cent in 2019, up from 2.5 per cent in 2018.

African governments are enthusiastically embracing business-friendly reforms. In the 2020 global rankings, countries large and small – Nigeria, which has the distinction of being Africa’s largest economy, and Togo – topped the ease of doing business index. Regionally, Mauritius, Rwanda, and Kenya emerged as the top three African economies that pursued pro-business reforms.

In May 2019, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) came into effect, creating the world’s largest free trade area and marking the single largest push to accelerate trade-led growth for regional integration and greater prosperity, although this barely made headlines.

The continent is looking to the future with greater confidence and a renewed sense of purpose.

At the continental level, the African Union’s Agenda 2063 serves as a blueprint for transforming Africa into a global powerhouse of the future. More importantly, it signals the political will for a pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, and collective prosperity.


Rwanda, gracious host of the Kusi Ideas Festival, has developed Rwanda Vision 2050, a bold plan to advance economic and social development and reach upper-middle-income status by 2035, and high-income status by 2050.

So, what could stand in the way of achieving this aspirational African renaissance? Two words: climate change.

Climate change poses an existential threat to the global sustainable development agenda. Nowhere are the threats posed by climate change more pervasive, more pernicious, and more urgent than in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that contributes the least but stands to lose the most as greenhouse gas emissions accelerate.

Absent forward-looking climate action, it is becoming increasingly clear that Africa’s growth agenda and drive to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2030 will be in serious jeopardy.

This week the United Nations Climate Change Conference opened in Madrid, Spain. The meeting comes at a time when the numbers paint a compelling and alarming story.

For starters, the past five years have been the hottest on record. The latest UN Environment Emissions Gap Report shows that greenhouse gas emissions have risen 1.5 per cent a year over the past decade. Global average levels of carbon dioxide reached 407.8 parts per million in 2018, setting another new record.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, UN Secretary-General António Guterres made an impassioned plea to the delegates, challenging them to “stop the war on nature” and warning that humanity stands at a “critical juncture in our collective efforts to limit dangerous global heating”. Sub-Saharan Africa needs to fight climate change on a war footing.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s ability to meet poverty reduction targets, feed a growing population that is expected to top 2 billion by 2050, tackle climate change, and secure long-term environmental sustainability depends on a vibrant agriculture and food sector.

Most of the African continent’s poor people live in rural areas, 70 per cent and more. The Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition report says of the 257 million hungry people in Africa, 237 million are in sub-Saharan Africa and only 20 million in northern Africa.

Paradoxically, rural areas are where food is grown and yet they are the epicentres of hunger and poverty.

Climate change is already exacerbating sub-Saharan Africa’s food and nutrition security challenges, reducing both the quantity and quality of food. Studies by the World Bank and others show that without adaptation, Africa will suffer particularly severe yield declines by 2030, including in important maize growing areas such as southern Africa.

On the nutritional front, the effects of climate change make for sober reading. Cutting-edge research is showing the effects of rising atmospheric carbon concentrations and their link to human nutrition through a reduction in the quality of plants. For example, rice, which is a primary source of food for millions of Africans, suffered declines in zinc and iron content, vital dietary nutrients needed to keep people healthy. All this at a time when one in five Africans is undernourished.

It is a little-known fact that agriculture and land use changes contribute up to 25 per cent of greenhouse gases. Discussions about the causes of climate change have tended to focus on the energy and transport sectors. With better soil management techniques and a greater push to minimise soil degradation and desertification, sub-Saharan Africa, with its 200 million hectares of usable but uncultivated land, has the potential to become the world’s laboratory for soil-based carbon management and sequestration techniques.

Even from this brief snapshot, it is clear that the negative effects of climate change will have economy-wide impacts and affect all strata of society. The battle against climate change will increasingly have to be fought and won in rural areas.

To secure the triple win of higher agricultural productivity, increased resilience to climate change, and lower greenhouse gas emissions, climate-smart agriculture is needed.

The action agenda is broad and requires interventions on multiple fronts and at multiple levels. A judicious mix of mitigation and adaptation interventions is needed, and the measures should be focused on building resilience, boosting food security, and piloting and mainstreaming adaptation. Agriculture and food researchers will need to focus on combating the range of diseases and pests that are crimping food production and supply. Tackling the challenge of food waste must also become a priority.

Mass media play a critical role in information dissemination and influencing public policy-making. The power of mass media’s agenda-setting function must be marshalled to accelerate and win the fight against climate change. Here, a new generation of reporters and citizen journalists can help change the narrative and create content that sparks climate action.

The challenge of communicating climate change – and seeking to bridge the ever-widening world of climate deniers, sceptics, and activists – is fraught, but if journalism is to serve a higher purpose and help protect the common good, a new resolve is needed, both among current and aspiring journalists.

Young people such as Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and Cameroon’s peace activist Divina Maloum have shown how public opinion can be changed. May the Kusi Ideas Festival serve as a springboard for concerted actions that help win the fight against climate change, hunger, and environmental degradation. With the United States pulling out of the Paris climate accords, the time for action is now. Is anybody listening?

Sarwat Hussain is senior adviser, African Media Initiative