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COP26: Tackling climate change from an African perspective

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A dried up river bed in the Anti Atlas mountains of Morocco, North Africa.Credit: Ashley Cooper pics/Alamy Stock Photo

From October 31, African presidents will be joining their global counterparts at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). In the weeks leading to the conference, that aims to accelerate action towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, there have been new reports and pledges regarding greenhouse gas emission, carbon neutrality, climate financing, among other aims.

While anticipation is also building in Africa, its COP26 developments are largely overshadowed by the new policies and politics of China, the United States, India and Saudi Arabia. Coleen Vogel the distinguished climatologist and acting director, Global Change Institute, University of Witwatersrand, told Nature Africa that the continent’s representatives and climate change stakeholders need to stop looking and dealing with climate issues through the lens of the Global North. Instead, Vogel said, it should be from an African perspective in order to attract and essential local attention. “We are not weak on scholarship in Africa. We have some of the best minds. I think we just need to be much stronger and connected and come together and really be proud of our traditions,” she said.

A new UN-backed report has highlighted Africa’s disproportionate vulnerability to climate change. The State of the Climate in Africa 2020 report projected that by 2030, nearly 120 million extremely poor people in Africa will be exposed to drought, floods and extreme heat, which will hinder progress towards poverty alleviation and growth. Vogel said highlighting this and other social injustice issues connected to climate change would be required to action.

“We cannot remove climate change from general systems change. It comes to the issues of social injustice. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to say when there's a big flood in Johannesburg, in Lagos, in Rwanda, wherever, the marginalized are probably going to be the most hit by that event. We need to be very careful to not focus everything on climate; we need to look at all of those drivers, which climate just exposes. So if you have a drought, it exposes that lack of access to credit, the lack of access to resources,” Vogel added.

Africa’s climate science strengths and weaknesses

While institutions in the Global North may seem to have access to more sophisticated technologies for research on climate science, Vogel argued that Africa’s scientists are better positioned to be at the frontiers of adaptation science. Also, Africa has expanded the world’s body of knowledge on food and water security.

But the continent has comparatively wider knowledge gaps in meteorological and climate services such as early-warning systems. “While we’ve done research on this, it's always been piecemeal. Not enough to influence the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) from the top, that can then drive this into the countries that they take seriously,” Vogel said. She added that “I think our biggest advantage is that it's in our face, we can't hide and we will be accountable to our fellow comrades and whoever in this continent. We can't say well, we never really knew. The context is real. It's very real.”

Francois Engelbrecht, professor of climatology, Global Change Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa noted that, in contrast to Western countries where scientists can specialize in the microphysics of snow, climate science in Africa is more hands-on and the continent’s scientists are better positioned to provide solutions to the problems being faced by the people because they are also living through the challenges. “Climate science in Africa is very much focused on problems and seeking solutions. And nobody can do that better than people that live in Africa and that are experiencing these problems themselves all the time,” he told Nature Africa.

The needed oomph for climate actions in Africa

In defining the Agenda 2063, the blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into a global powerhouse of the future, the African Union recognized climate variability and climate change as one of the main challenges threatening the continent ‘s goals. But apart from South Africa, most of the countries on the continent are not taking bold steps toward meeting the goals set in the Paris Agreement.

Vogel warned that the continent should not wait until it starts seeing a surge in the number of disastrous outcomes of climate change before taking serious action. “If we start seeing a lot of heat waves and climate flooding; the more climate change starts ramping up, I think it's going to force people to say, oh, you know, the house is on fire. You need to do something,” she told Nature Africa.

In the longer term, it will be helpful to continue to think and talk about climate as a personal, collective and generational problem. “It's our problem. It's my problem. It's your problem. It's Francois’ problem, and it's the next generation’s problem. We have to think about it personally,” she said.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d44148-021-00103-3

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