Mount Kilimanjaro has an almost mythical fame, the highest mountain in Africa, with its characteristic world-famous glacier on its peak. Indeed, ice in tropical Africa is almost a contradiction in terms. As a little girl in the sixties in Tanzania, I used to enjoy the sight - and the beautiful pictures of the white peak my parents took during their arduous climb to the top. 20 years later, it was my turn to climb the mountain, and I noticed how much smaller and greyer the glacier had become.
Something was wrong with mother nature.
I regularly returned to the land of my childhood and watched the peak from the air; the glacier shrinking by the year. I wondered when it would be gone completely. Now a new UN report on the ‘Status of the Climate in Africa’ gives us an answer. The ice will be gone and the peak turn completely grey in around two decades. Not only that, the other two mountain glaciers in Africa, Mount Kenya and the Rwenzori Mountains, are also receding at such a rapid pace that they most probably will disappear by that time too.
The status report tells the story with brutal facts. It shows the injustice we are witnessing. While African nations contribute less than 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the continent will likely be the hardest hit by climate change. The report comes out just in time as world leaders gather for the climate summit in Glasgow, COP 26.
One of the most important issues to be discussed is the resources Africa and other hard-hit countries need to better adapt to the new and worse climate conditions and to support countries and populations that are hardest hit. So far, the world’s biggest polluters of greenhouse gases and those with most resources have not delivered on their commitments.
That the demands from the African continent are legitimate is clear. The ‘Status of the Climate in Africa’, coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), documents how changing precipitation patterns, rising temperatures and more extreme weather have already contributed to mounting food insecurity, poverty and displacement in Africa in 2020. This has been compounded by the socio-economic and health crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
During 2020, the climate indicators in Africa were characterized by continued warming temperatures, accelerating sea-level rise, extreme weather and climate events, such as floods, landslides and droughts, with devastating impact. In fact, Africa has warmed faster than the global average temperature over land and ocean combined. The rates of sea-level rise along the tropical and South Atlantic coasts and Indian Ocean coast are higher than the global mean rate. There was extensive flooding across many parts of the continent. Floods and storms contributed the most to internal disaster-related displacement, followed by droughts.
Around the world, climate-related disasters now force more than twice as many people from their homes as war and armed conflict do. As New York Times reports, in the first six months of 2020, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a nongovernmental data service, recorded 14.6 million new displacements across 127 countries and territories.
Food insecurity increases by 5–20 percentage points with each flood or drought in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2020, there was an almost 40% increase in the population affected by food insecurity compared with the previous year. Madagascar was among the worst, hit by “climate famine”, as the UN characterized last year’s phenomenon.
The number of people being affected by the impact of climate change overall is steadily increasing. By 2030, it is estimated that up to 118 million extremely poor people will be exposed to drought, floods and extreme heat in Africa if adequate response measures are not put in place. For sub-Saharan Africa, the impact of climate change could further lead to lower gross domestic product (GDP) by up to 3% by 2050.
The report highlights Africa’s disproportionate vulnerability and shows what can be done. In fact, the potential benefits of investments in climate adaptation, weather and climate services and early warning systems far outweigh the costs. Enhancing climate resilience is an urgent need. Investments are particularly needed in capacity development and technology transfer, as well as in enhancing countries’ early warning systems, including weather, water and climate observing systems.
In sub-Saharan Africa, adaptation costs are estimated at US$ 30–50 billion each year over the next decade, to avoid even higher costs of additional disaster relief. It may seem a lot, but in 2020, one year alone, total aid worldwide, for example, is more than three times as much. This is also why COP 26 is so important. Without a much stronger commitment and support for climate adaptation from the better off countries, African states are unlikely to be part of a consensus in Glasgow. This is also about justice. Poor people never caused climate change. Yet, they are now among those paying the highest price.
Without a willingness to do justice to their cause, the global efforts to combat climate change will also suffer. The impact of that is already seen on the other side of the planet, where glaciers and ice are also melting away at an incredible pace. The melting in the Arctic is happening twice as fast as the global average, and is currently visible year by year, not only on the North Pole, in Siberia, on Greenland and Svalbard, but also on the glaciers in the mountains of Norway. The impact on the sea levels and their ecosystems will be significant, with potential global impact. While the countries in the Northern hemisphere do carry a significant responsibility for this, through their emissions of greenhouse gasses over decades, African countries do not. Glasgow should deliver, not only for the planet – but also for the poor.