Getting ready for a warmer future in Sub-Saharan Africa: Climate change adaptation policies in South Africa and Kenya

Climate Exp0
7 min readJun 7, 2021


Dr Fernando Barrio and Angela Mutsotso, Queen Mary Global Policy Institute, Queen Mary University of London

Artwork: Dr Cécile Girardin

On 12 December 2015, the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) adopted the Paris Agreement, a historical achievement and a turning point for global climate action; 196 State parties reached a consensus to take urgent and decisive steps necessary to keep the rise on global temperature to well below 2°C (3.6° F) and ideally to limit the increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F) in relation to the pre-industrial period (1850–1900).

This agreement should be understood in the context of the long term heating of the planet occasioned by human activity observed since 1900, currently estimated at an increase of 1°C (1.8°F) in total and increasing by 0.2°C (0.36°F) per decade due to Green House Gases (GHG) emissions. The Paris Agreement is complemented by the Katowice Climate Package, which serves as the Paris Rule Book.

To achieve its ambitious goal, the climate package contains operational guidance on a vast array of issues, including mitigation, adaptation and climate finance, among others. Mitigation refers to actions directed towards reducing or preventing the emission of GHGs. Adaptation refers to the process of preparing for and adjusting to future climatic events to minimise the negative impact of a warmer climate. It is important to note that global warming will continue even after all GHG production stops, based on previous emissions.

On the global stage, much emphasis is placed on mitigation, as without substantially reducing GHGs, global warming will continue at a continuous increasing rate. The resulting climate change would ultimately reduce the capacity of carbon sinks (forests, bogs and oceans) to capture GHGs and would result in more GHG emissions from destroyed forests and melting icecaps. However, although mitigation efforts are the ones that tend to grab the headlines around the globe, 79% of the world’s GHG emissions are produced by 20 countries, making the vast majority of signatories of the Paris Agreement recipients of the impact of such emissions, making necessary for them focus on adaptation policies.

In the case of African countries, most of them release a negligible percentage of global GHG emissions. On top of that, Africa is a warm climate continent and therefore will suffer more from climate change than temperate and colder regions. In temperate climate countries, global warming will increase their ability to grow new crops, while in warm areas, the extra heat might result in having theirs agricultural sector destroyed. Sub-Saharan Africa is inscribed within this situation, making adaptation actions and policies of utmost importance and urgency.

South Africa hosts the second-largest economy in Africa and is the world’s 12th largest Green House Gas emitter. It has already experienced the harsh impact of CC, evidenced in events including the 2017 Day Zero Drought and the recent April 2021 Cape Town Wild Fires, making climate change a policy priority for the country. Accordingly, the South African national adaptation strategy is geared towards ensuring that adaptation in economic development policies becomes mainstream.

Those policies include an economic development element that includes protecting jobs and incentivising entrepreneurship, a social aspect that ensures that interventions are contextually appropriate, and an environmental aspect relating to the conservation and remediation of the environment. Additionally, adaptation policies for the forestry and agricultural sector and health sector are included in the national framework. The national adaptation approach is based on the 2016 Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, which contains four elements and six goals.

  • the first element relates to Adaptation Objectives and Planning for Implementation, encompassing four goals, namely to develop a National Adaptation Plan, to take into account climate considerations in all levels of policy frameworks, to build institutional capacity, and to develop and early warning;
  • the second element deals with Adaptation needs and costs, including the goal of developing a vulnerability assessment and adaptation needs framework that is conducted biannually;
  • the third element is Adaptation Investment, with the goal six of communication of past investments, increase in domestic investment, implementation of investment and support from international financial mechanisms;
  • the fourth and last element relates to equity considerations, as South African views adaptation as part of a global effort, but it cannot divert from its development goals, geared towards the elimination of poverty, reduction of inequality and increasing employment.

To ensure that the country integrates adaptation efforts within its national and sub-national decision-making, the country requires adaptation investment, capacity building and development of medium and long-term adaptation planning in its national development plan. Additionally, the Country has a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy in place to guide national efforts, a Health and Climate Change policy, a Cold Spell Management and it integrates adaptation in its Disaster Management laws.

Kenya, on the other hand, is a fast-developing nation and a small GHG emitter. The country experiences perennial droughts, floods in low lying areas and intense El-Nino and la-Nina events. The country is working to fast pace its development; it prioritises its agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors in its development agenda. Kenya aims to build a climate-resilient society by mainstreaming climate change adaptation into national planning, including the Medium-Term Plans (MTPs) and County Integrated Development Plans (CIPD), prioritising adaptation in key sectors. These sectors are identified in the 2020 Updated Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) and re-emphasised in the Climate Change Strategy and the 2015–2030 Adaptation Plan.

Kenya aims to build a climate resilient society by mainstreaming climate change adaptation into national planning including the Medium-Term Plans (MTPs) and County Integrated Development Plans (CIPD), prioritising the following adaptation programmes:

Disaster Risk Reduction: This encompasses drought and flood risk management including early warning systems, preparedness and management.

  • Agriculture (crops, livestock and fisheries): Mainstream climate adaptation in the agricultural sector to increase productivity, build resilience and strengthen adaptation communication in the sector.
  • Environment: This includes goals on the forestry sector aimed at increasing tree coverage and greening infrastructure. There are additional goals on the coastal and marine management and conservation.
  • Infrastructure (energy): Following a vulnerability risk assessment develop guidelines on climate proofing energy infrastructure and increase participation in efficient energy use.
  • Infrastructure (roads): includes climate proofing and design innovation on at least 4500km of road.
  • Water and Sanitation: conduct climate risk assessments, build resilience on dams, dykes and rivers lines and promote water harvesting.
  • Health: conduct vulnerability assessments, develop climate change plans and policies and work to reduce the incidence of malaria and other vector borne diseases.
  • Population, urbanisation and housing: introduce flood control measures and green building codes in urban areas.
  • Tourism: develop guidelines and a climate resilience action plan.
  • Gender, youth and other vulnerable groups: Develop social structures, strengthen vulnerable groups access to climate finance and make climate technologies more accessible to different groups in society.
  • Private Sector: Mobilise financial resources for green investment and operationalise the Green Business Agenda. Promote eco-labelling and climate proof waste management infrastructure.
  • Devolution: Build climate vulnerability and risk assessments into County Planning processes and decision making.
  • Adaptation M&E: Refine and operationalise adaptation M& E systems.

It is argued that the country should prioritise adaptation over mitigation efforts when directing government funds and stakeholder efforts, given that it is a low GHG emitter and ought to build resilience to ensure sustainable development. Unlike South Africa, the Country’s efforts are majorly in the vulnerability and risk assessment stage of adaptation preparation.

It can be observed that South Africa constitutes an example within the African context given the country’s susceptibility to CC impact and the mainstreaming of mitigation and adaptation policies. Kenya, conversely, is an example of a developing economy that is a minimal polluter with emerging CC related policies, but, as it develops, must prepare to build resilience and a comprehensive adaptation framework. These observations lead to some lessons that might be applicable to developing countries at large:

  • Vulnerability Assessments: vulnerability and impact assessments tend to be part of the menu of the responses of most developing countries, although in their majority they are conducted as a one-off event at the start of the policy design or implementation process. The South African experience, where the assessments are conducted biannually, shows the need of the assessments to be viewed as continuous tools in national planning, and other countries should adapt their policies in this respect.
  • Element Based Vs. Sectoral Specific Approach: To attain sustainable development and effectively respond to climate change, an integrated approach to policy and decision making must be employed across all levels of government. Kenya approaches adaptation by outlining 11 priority sectors and this approach has its merits, as these sectors have been identified in National Development Plans, but it may be more beneficial to identify Adaptation Objectives as the focal point of CC responses. This approach ensures mainstreaming of adaptation and resilience measures across all sectors. While there is merit in prioritising resilience in key productive sectors, this should be reserved for sectoral policies instead of the overarching national approach.
  • National Coordination: Finally, it is important that the national coordination structures and their policy making powers be established by legislation, in order to ensure consistency and stability that goes beyond the political changes of each country. Ideally, this structures should be part of a Climate Change Act.

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