UNDERSTANDING THE FORECAST:
AFRICAN CLIMATE CHANGE
Apart from a few die-hard conspiracy theorists, there is worldwide acceptance that climate change is happening,
and that it is caused by greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) mainly from fossil fuel burning, but also cement
production, deforestation and agriculture.
To make a ‘climate forecast’ of the future, we need to know two key things: firstly, what will future emissions be,
and secondly, how will global and regional climate systems respond to these emissions? Both are impossible
to forecast precisely (or even close to precisely). But we can – and should – estimate likely possible futures and
use these to plan responses.
THE GLOBAL FORECAST
The climate response to GHG emissions is uncertain because
science has not yet managed to pin down some key feedbacks
and related processes in the climate system.
Most of these feedbacks are positive – that is, as the climate
warms, they respond to make the climate even warmer. For
example, as the atmosphere warms, it evaporates and retains
more water vapour, which is itself a powerful natural GHG.
This leads to more warming, and then more evaporation, and so on. Other positive feedbacks include the effects of melting
snow and ice in the polar regions and probably natural CO2
storage on land and in the oceans. Science has managed to
scope the range of responses from the feedbacks, but this is
still quite large. For example, for a doubling of CO2, the likely
global temperature change is in the range of 1.5-4.5 degrees
The extent of future emissions depends on the global political
economy, and the way it responds to the threat of climate
change. The worst case scenario is that of ‘business as usual’,
where there is minimal action taken to reduce humanity’s
impact on the climate, with GHG emissions rising at the same
compound rate as they have in the past, out to 2100, until
all the easily mineable coal, oil and gas have been used or
become too expensive. If this pans out, we are looking at
a global temperature change of 3.5°C - 6.0°C over preindustrial
Thankfully, most organisations and people who are tracking
action on climate change think this is unlikely. This is firstly
because alternatives to fossil fuels are becoming cheaper. Solar
electricity is already cheaper than coal-fired energy, and other
renewables are approaching parity. Simple economics means
that an increasing proportion of new electricity generation will
be low carbon. It is likely that transport energy will also at
some time in the future be fossil-fuel free, but this may only
realistically occur at scale in the second half of this century.
There is certainly unprecedented investment in alternative
energy research, and at least some of the possibilities under
investigation are likely to come good.
Also, political will seems at last to be shifting. The promises by
governments at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference,
if implemented, are on track to keep global temperatures in the
range 2.2°C - 3.4°C, with a best estimate of 2.7°C. If one
looks only at the policies that have actually been implemented,
then this range creeps up to 2.6°C - 4.9°C, with a best
estimate of 3.6°C. However, even the most optimistic analysts
think it is unlikely that emissions will decline steeply enough to
keep temperatures below the 2°C target, let alone the 1.5°C
ambition agreed at Paris; so significant levels of warming are
definitely on the cards.
THE AFRICA FORECAST
Climate change over Africa depends on how the global
warming signal is propagated through regional climate
processes to the different parts of the continent. Africa is likely
to warm at one-and-a-half to two times the average global
warming rate, because land areas warm faster than the
oceans, and over land drier areas warm faster than wetter
areas. Unfortunately, most of Africa outside of the tropics is
pretty dry already. So, for example, the global warming of
2.9°C that might arise from the pledges of the Paris agreement
would result in a warming of 4.3°C-5.8°C over the interior of
Changes in rainfall are harder to forecast, because rainfall
is a function of many more interacting atmospheric factors
than temperature. Nonetheless, there is a fairly consistent
picture that across Africa, the sub-tropics will get drier and the
tropics wetter. The Mediterranean climates at the northern and
southern edges of the continent – watch out Cape Town – are
also likely to become drier.
Sea level rise – expected to be between 20cm-40cm by
2050, and double that by the end of the century – poses
severe risks to coastal settlements, with increased coastal
erosion, inundation and salt water intrusion.
Weather extremes are likely to become more severe; climate
scientists have already been able to show a human ‘signature’
in the changed risk of heat stress in heatwaves, and in some
drought events. A remaining uncertainty is how El Nino and
other natural drivers of year-to-year variations in weather and
climate will change as the planet warms. However, they are
unlikely to disappear, and so will continue to impose themselves
on a warming background state of the climate. For example,
the recent El Nino, superimposed on the underlying global
warming trend, has made the 11 months up to June 2016 the
hottest on record globally. Over southern Africa, four of the last
six months are also the warmest on record.
INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES AND RISKS
Low carbon energy is an absolute no-brainer for Africa, and so
is an immediate investment opportunity. As African economies
develop, they are going to need energy, and lots of it.
Currently, the whole of Africa generates less electricity than
Spain, and half of that is produced and used in South Africa.
Only one third of homes in Africa have an electricity supply.
This new energy will increasingly be low carbon, firstly
because of the national policies and cost issues discussed
above, but also because international climate funds will be
preferentially investing in low-carbon energy and because
renewable energy really is the best option for many areas
of Africa where there are no electricity grids – why build an
expensive national grid when local generation and micro-grids
are the cheaper option?
While baseload supply at night when the sun isn’t shining has
often been cited as a need for continued reliance on coal, this
is no longer strictly true. Baseload can be provided by other
renewables, such as large hydropower and wind, coupled
with new developments in night-time storage. Similarly, battery
storage is becoming very competitive for micro-grids. For cities,
grid-based electricity supply is probably still the best option, but this can also be supplied by renewable sources. Imagine the
South African Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer
Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) scaled across all of Africa!
If one looks beyond energy at the wider economy, there
are many climate-sensitive sectors and businesses that may
be at risk from global warming, but that can be made more
resilient and productive by incorporating climate risks into their
Agriculture, food and fibre will be one of the main sectors most
affected by climate, as productivity is closely tied to climate via
heat and water availability. More widely, any activity that is
dependent on water, for example mining, urban development,
energy, beverages, or horticulture, may be impacted by climate
change through changes in the reliability of water supply.
Climate change becomes particularly important for long-term
investment decisions. On shorter timescales, less than 10
years, perhaps even 20, climate change will be a gradually
emerging factor, superimposed on pre-existing climate risks.
Apple farmers will still be able to grow apples in the Western
Cape, and coffee producers will still be able to grow coffee
in Kenya. But what about a coffee farm in 25 years’ time?
Climatic suitability might well have shifted, so existing areas
will be less productive, and investments should target coffee
production in new areas that will be suitable in the future rather
than now. In 40 years’ time sea levels might have risen by
one third of a meter, coastal erosion might be accelerating, so
where should new settlements in the coastal zone be located?
Screening long-term investment opportunities for climate risks,
and thinking how climate change might alter the risk-return
landscape is simply good practice. Many companies and
investment agencies do this as a matter of routine already: the
World Bank, the African Development Bank, SAB-Miller are all
doing it; why not you?
FURTHER READING CDKN (2015). The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report: What’s in
it for Africa?
Africa Progress Panel (2015). Power, People, Planet: Seizing
Africa’s Energy and Climate Opportunities. Africa Progress
National Business Initiative (2015). Climate change, Water
and the Green Economy.
SABMiller and WWF (2014). The water-food-energy nexus: Insights into resilient development. [http://goo.gl/yc44K7]
REMEMBER COPE 21
The 22nd session of the United Nations Conference of
the Parties (COP 22) will be held on 7-18 November
2016 in Marrakech, Morocco. In anticipation of this
meeting, we recap on last year’s session in Paris.
For the first time, a global climate deal was reached - the
world is united to cut the carbon pollution that’s driving
climate change by moving beyond the dirty fossil fuels
of the past to the cleaner, smarter energy options that
can power our future without imperiling the planet.
This sends a clear message to markets: we’re moving to
a low-carbon global economy where the future belongs
to those who invest in ways to make our homes, cars
and workplaces more efficient and to get more clean
power from renewable sources like the wind and sun.
Source: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,