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

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.

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.

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:

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Climate Exp0 was the first virtual conference from the COP26 Universities Network and the Italian University Network for Sustainable Development (RUS).