Confronting Climate Change in Southern Africa

“Although climate change is a global phenomenon, its impacts are felt at the regional and local levels, and it is at these levels where actions to adapt to it and mitigate its effects are required.” - World Meteorological Organization.

In recent decades the term ‘climate change’ has most often been used to describe changes in the Earth’s climate driven primarily by humans, particularly through the burning of fossil fuels and the removal of forests, resulting in a relatively rapid increase in the carbon dioxide concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere. The African continent has contributed a small percentage to global carbon dioxide emissions but it is expected to be one of the hardest hit by the effects of climate change including droughts, floods, water stress and food shortages. It is therefore important to explore, from an African perspective and in this case, a Southern African perspective, the challenges arising from climate change and the continent’s response to date.

Understanding the challenges

The number of global climate-related disasters, including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms, has doubled since the early 1990s. Furthermore, according to the International Monetary Fund, the adverse consequences of climate change are concentrated in regions with relatively hot climates, where a disproportionately large number of low-income countries are located.

It is widely reported that climate change is severely impacting Africa, contributing to population displacement, food insecurity and stress on water resources. Over the last three years, the Southern African region has been subjected to extreme weather and climate events. In 2019, Tropical Cyclone Idai in Mozambique was among the most destructive tropical cyclones ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, resulting in hundreds of casualties and hundreds of thousands of people displaced. Also in 2019, Zambia and Zimbabwe were hit with the worst drought the two countries had faced in nearly 40 years while the government of Lesotho declared a national disaster as a result of a drought which left a fourth of its population facing severe food insecurity. In the same year, Namibia confronted its worst drought in 90 years leading to the declaration of a State of Emergency. Neighbouring Botswana declared 2018/2019 a drought year and commenced distribution of relief food packages in drought-stricken parts of the country. Needless to say, the fiscal response needed to address the drought put additional strain on these countries.

In the drought-prone sub-Saharan African countries, the number of undernourished people has increased by 45.6% since 2012 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This is due to the fact that agriculture is the backbone of Africa’s economy and accounts for the majority of livelihoods across the continent. Key risks to agriculture include reduced crop productivity associated with heat and drought stress and increased pest damage, disease damage and flood impacts on food system infrastructure, resulting in serious adverse effects on food security and on livelihoods at the regional, national and individual household levels. In Southern Africa, the number of people in need of food assistance increased to 13.8 million, nearly three million more than in 2018.

Southern Africa faces significant financial and human resource challenges in addressing climate change risks which are becoming more severe. This highlights the importance of the region’s contribution to initiatives that address the reduction of climate-related risks. At the Hogan Lovells 2020 Africa Forum, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made the following comments: "It has been said climate change poses a relationship between energy and development. It has redefined the relationships and expectations between business, governments and people. It is a fact that Africa, unlike other regions of the world, has contributed less to the climate crisis we now face. However, such is the interconnectedness of our world that despite this and the fact that many on the continent are without electricity, Africa faces a higher burden than most on changes for climate. Is Africa ready for sustainable values? Is Africa ready to resume full responsibility for its development? Yes. Africa is ready."

Policies and Progress

For nearly three decades the United Nations has been organising annual global climate summits called COPs (Conference of the Parties). In that time climate change has gone from being a fringe issue to a global priority. Recognising the increasing threat of climate change, in 2015, 196 countries convened at COP21 to adopt the Paris Agreement which aims to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to limit the global temperature increase, within this century, to below 2° C. The Paris Agreement, which has been ratified by almost every Southern African country, is informing policies across the region. Notably, the Paris Agreement establishes a set of binding Nationally Determined Contributions (“NDCs”). Since 2015, the NDCs have become the main instrument for guiding policy responses to climate change. Parties commit to “prepare, communicate and maintain” successive NDCs to “pursue domestic mitigation measures” aimed at achieving their NDCs, and to regularly report on their progress in implementing their NDCs. At COP21, countries agreed to update their NDCs every five years and by 2020, fifty-two African countries had submitted their first NDCs.

The 26th COP annual summit, COP26, is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021 (delayed by a year due to the pandemic). Given that the commitments laid out at COP21 did not come close to limiting global warming to below 2° C, COP26 has been described, by the BBC and other news outlets, as “the last best chance to avert the worst environmental consequences for the world”. Ahead of COP26, countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net-zero by the middle of the century. Several strategies have been proposed to achieve these targets, including energy efficiency, renewable energy, switching to electric vehicles and carbon capture and storage (CCS) amongst others. Expert groups such as the Climate Change Committee believe that the world will not hit its net-zero targets for carbon emissions without the help of CCS. This comes at a time where South Africa is the only country in the Southern African region to have implemented a legal and regulatory framework which deals with CCS at a national level. South Africa, a leading economic and political power in the region, has an economy which is largely based on indigenous fossil fuels, mainly coal – which provides electricity and liquid fuels and is a foundation for most of the country’s industries. Despite the fact that South Africa’s economy is heavily dependent on coal, the South African government has recognised the need to move towards a low-carbon society and has taken significant steps in this regard. Notably, in South Africa, a Carbon Tax Act, which places specific levies on greenhouse gases from fuel combustion and industrial processes and emissions, came into effect in June 2019. According to the “Combatting Climate Change” report, by 2035, the carbon tax could reduce the country’s emissions by 33%. In addition, the South African Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage (SACCCS), a division of a state-owned entity reporting to the south African Department of Energy, has been mandated to investigate the technical feasibility of CCS in South Africa. South Africa, through SACCCS, has made some progress towards the implementation of a Pilot CO2 Storage Project that will be a proof of concept for CCS in South Africa.

Africa as a whole has taken great strides to contribute towards the global climate agenda. This is demonstrated by the ratification of the Paris Agreement by over 90% of the continent. In addition, many African nations have committed to transitioning to green energy within a relatively short time frame with 70% of African nations prioritising clean energy and agriculture in their NDCs. However, many of their commitments are conditional upon receiving adequate financial, technical and capacity building support. Some believe that COP26 will be a golden opportunity for Africa to speak with one voice in addressing some of the continent’s most pressing challenges in the transition to resilient, carbon-neutral societies including questions around the importance of aligning COVID-19 recovery efforts with mid-century climate-resilient visions as well as climate finance which is a major challenge hindering climate action in Africa.


Authored by Andrew Skipper and Nancy Ricardo.


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