Climate change poses an existential threat to life on earth. Hotter temperatures, persistent droughts, historic floods, and failed crops are happening with greater frequency. More than 3 billion people are highly vulnerable to climate change.
Africa has contributed the least to historic carbon emissions, yet is the most climate-vulnerable region. African countries don’t solely control their climate destinies. Rich countries must do more to mitigate their climate impacts and to support African countries’ efforts to prepare for a changed climate.
But with the right support, investments, and policies, Africa could become a driver of climate solutions not just for itself but for the whole world. Given its significant reserves of critical minerals used to produce renewable energy, significant solar generation potential, and ecosystems capable of sequestering significant amounts of carbon, the African continent could become a green energy powerhouse.
This data dive tells the story of Africa’s climate risks and opportunities.
Many warnings have been issued about the impacts of rising temperatures of 1.5°C – 4°C. Those temperature increases may appear benign, so let’s unpack what they’ll mean.
The average global temperature is currently over 1.1°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. Most of that warming has occurred since 1975. A central aim of the Paris Agreement is to pursue efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. The chances that we exceed 1.5°C by 2026 are now basically a coin flip. It’s almost a certainty by the early 2030s.
Here is what different temperature increases will mean:
However, the rise in temperature doesn’t account for the effects of humidity. The wet-bulb temperature is a measure of the combined effects of heat and humidity. The human body cools by sweating. As wet-bulb temperatures rise, sweating becomes more difficult, limiting the body’s ability to cool. A wet-bulb temperature of 35°C (95°F) is regarded as the limit of what humans can endure. Even healthy people with unlimited shade and water will die within a few hours.
Serious health and productivity impacts are often experienced at lower wet-bulb temperatures. At wet-bulb 32°C, walking or working outside becomes dangerous. For the elderly or people with medical conditions, the threshold is lower.
Two heatwaves in India and Pakistan in 2015, in which wet-bulb highs briefly reached 30°C, killed over 4,000 people. In a 2022 heatwave in India in which wet-bulb temperatures exceeded 30°C for weeks, birds began falling from the sky. A heatwave with wet-bulb temperatures that approached 28°C killed 110 people in Egypt in 2015. The 2021 heatwave in North America’s Pacific northwest killed over 1,000 people at a wet-bulb of 25°C.
Extreme levels of heat and humidity are occurring twice as often now as they did in 1979. If the world warms 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels, wide swaths of the tropics would begin to see dangerously high wet-bulb temperatures for days, weeks, or even months every year.
Climate change isn’t an abstract or future threat to the African continent. Having neither caused nor benefited from causing climate change, African countries now bear the brunt of its impacts.
Millions of livestock have died across the Horn of Africa, where tens of millions of people face severe water shortages, food insecurity, and historic drought.
It is the African continent’s 152nd drought since 2000.
Countries are not equally vulnerable to climate change, or prepared for its impacts. Vulnerable countries are those most likely to be impacted by climate change and least likely to have the capacity to adapt to its negative effects. Countries with low levels of “readiness” are less able to take the actions needed to prepare for climate change.
Low-income countries are the most at risk from climate change. They are both highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the least prepared to address them.
African countries are particularly susceptible to climate change. The world’s 10 most climate vulnerable countries are in Africa, accounting for over 150 million people. Most African countries are also unprepared to tackle the impacts of climate change.
Many climate-vulnerable countries have also been the most impacted by the pandemic, rising food costs, and conflict. This convergence of crises places these countries in a particularly precarious situation. The adverse effects of climate change aggravate their development challenges, put additional strain on their already overstretched finances, and raise the risk of increased conflict and displaced populations. Heavily indebted countries are particularly at risk given the fiscal constraints posed by high debt payments. This situation has only worsened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
in debt distress
of debt distress are particularly vulnerable to climate change.
This includes 22 African countries , which risks handcuffing their ability to take climate action.
As the planet warms, access to water and arable land will become more challenging, particularly in areas with rapid population growth. Nowhere is that more likely to be true than in the Sahel, a semi-arid region that dissects the African continent, separating the Saharan Desert from the subtropics.
Africa is expected to see some of the largest increases in population by 2050. This is especially true in the Sahel region, where government budgets may not be sufficient to address the needs of growing populations.
Climate change could push millions more Africans into extreme poverty and lead to massive migration. Warming temperatures could make parts of the Sahel inhospitable to humans, other mammals, and even desert plants. The Sahara Desert expanded 10% from 1902 and 2013. It’s now growing at a rate of 48 kilometres per year in Mali, exacerbating food insecurity and instability. By 2050, the projected total number of potential internal climate migrants in sub-Saharan Africa could be as high as 86 million, or 4% of the population.
To avoid the worst consequences of climate change, we need global collective action on three fronts:
Critical actions on the first two fronts include a transition away from fossil fuels to less polluting and more renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and expanding our ability to keep unavoidable emissions out of the atmosphere.
On adaptation, the rich, industrialised countries most responsible for climate change must partner with countries that contributed the least in adapting to its realities. In 2020, only 28.6% of the total climate finance mobilised and provided by high-income countries for low- and middle-income countries went toward adaptation.
Many African countries are proactively working on adapting to climate change, and some progress has been made. But more finance is needed to support those efforts. African countries will need an estimated US$50 billion per year in climate finance by 2050 to adapt to climate change. Without that support, already cash-strapped countries will be unable to mitigate climate change’s impacts or harness opportunities to transition to renewable energy.
Unfortunately, the necessary support has been slow to arrive. At COP15 in 2009, high-income countries committed to mobilise US$100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020 (later extended through 2025), specifically to address the needs of lower-income countries. They have yet to hit that target. And most of the money delivered has been in the form of loans, adding to the burdens of heavily indebted countries.
African countries could position themselves as global leaders in creating a more sustainable future. To do so, they will need significant financial and technical support, including from international donors and the private sector.
For instance, most African countries’ grid systems need updating, at an annual cost of US$40 billion. Achieving Africa’s energy and climate goals will require over US$190 billion per year from 2026 to 2030, with two-thirds going to clean energy. Current levels of investment pale in comparison to what is needed. Just 2.4% (US$55 billion) of global investment in renewable energy between 2010 and 2020 was in Africa.
Despite the challenges, now is the time to act. Even as African countries use fossil fuels (especially gas) as a bridge to a renewable energy future, countries must initiate their energy transitions now given the long investment horizons. Doing so would enable African countries to:
605 million Africans (44%) do not have access to electricity. For those that do, access is often unreliable and inadequate: In a year, the average Nigerian uses less energy than an air conditioner in the US.
At current projections, over 65% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa will still rely on woodfuel for cooking in 2050.
Only 20% of Africa’s electricity came from renewable sources in 2020. That’s low compared to the rest of the world. In 2021, 81% of all newly added electricity-generating capacity globally was renewable; less than 1% was in Africa.
With support, African countries could make a transformative shift to renewable energy systems to help end energy poverty and establish value-added industries in renewable energy infrastructure. The continent’s unmet need for reliable, affordable energy and renewable natural resource endowments place it in a unique position to benefit from a transition to renewable energy.
As the world’s least energised region, and with an abundance of renewable energy resources, Africa has the potential to make a transformative clean energy shift. This makes a compelling case for private sector investment, provided that enabling policy and regulatory environments and necessary infrastructure are put in place. Doing so could give African exports a competitive advantage in a global market in which carbon is priced.
Africa’s vast renewable resources and the falling costs of solar production are predicted to drive double-digit growth in solar and other renewables across the continent.
Many African countries have large reserves of minerals and metals critical for clean energy technologies. These hold significant revenue potential given that global demand for them is set to increase exponentially in the coming decades. They also provide an opportunity for African countries to invest in value-added manufacturing processes, such as battery and solar panel production.
Zimbabwe produces a small amount of lithium, a key mineral used in electric vehicle batteries, but several other countries are believed to have extensive untapped deposits.
Mined responsibly, including through consultations with local communities, these minerals could play a transformative role in catalysing Africa’s energy transition and economic development.
Protecting its natural assets, which seldom get accounted for in national wealth, is critical for the continued development of African countries and the livelihood and well-being of their peoples.
Africa has around one-sixth of the world’s remaining forests, and eight of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots – biologically rich and threatened areas with significant numbers of endemic or threatened species. African rainforests absorb an estimated 1.1 billion to 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, more than the Amazon.
The Congo Basin in Central Africa is the world’s second largest rainforest after the Amazon, home to one-quarter of the world’s mammal species, one-fifth of the world’s bird species, and one-sixth of the world’s plant species. It currently sequesters an estimated four years worth of human-created global carbon dioxide emissions, which risks being released into the atmosphere if the land is disturbed. At current rates of deforestation, all of Africa’s primary forests will be gone by 2100.
Africa’s leaders are already moving toward a more sustainable and resilient development pathway. Actions towards clean energy and climate-resilient agriculture feature in 70% of nationally determined contributions of African countries. The African Union has taken the lead on coordination, developing continent-wide strategies to respond to climate change in a post-COVID economic climate through the Green Recovery Action Plan and the Climate Change and Resilient Development Strategy and Action Plan for 2022-2032. Development partners should support the ambitions of African countries by providing the financial and technical assistance they need to meet those objectives.