By Dr Mark Nasila*

Climate change affects everyone everywhere, but it’s potentially even more devastating for those in emerging markets who are less prepared for calamities and ill-equipped to rebuild after them. It’s also a potential impediment to the progress that nations in Africa, the subcontinent, and elsewhere are making.

This is why any and all strategies to combat climate change or mitigate its effects are worth exploring, including artificial intelligence (AI), which will likely be critical in Africa’s climate action strategies.

The causes of climate change are numerous and varied and include both human causes and natural ones. But it’s humanity’s influence that’s the most damaging, from our ongoing rampant use of fossil fuels which fill the atmosphere with carbon, to our degradation of the rainforests and other carbon traps that help mitigate climate change’s effects. One of the most obvious effects is global warming. Since the industrial revolution, we’ve already increased global temperatures by about 1ºC. That means more evaporation, which in turn means more extreme precipitation in some parts while exacerbating droughts in others.

The changes affect and threaten water supplies, increase the odds of natural disasters and pandemics, make agriculture more difficult and unpredictable, and are an existential threat to humanity’s ongoing survival.

Why we need to worry about climate change
Gone are the days when people — and especially those in power — could argue that climate change wouldn’t affect them in their lifetime and, consequently, they needn’t worry about it. Climate change is being felt almost everywhere today, from unusually hot summers to unusually cold winters, flash flooding, runaway fires, unprecedented droughts, or other formerly once-in-a-generation events that are now becoming commonplace. As glaciers diminish, oceans rise and coral reefs atrophy, these conditions are set to worsen and to do so more quickly.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), climate change is affecting everything from coffee and wine production to the rate at which species are becoming extinct. Moreover, two in three people worldwide already live in areas with water scarcity — even minor increases in global temperatures will exacerbate the situation significantly. The WWF also points out that not only are the rainforests of the Amazon threatened by climate change, but they’re also dwindling due to deliberate deforestation. This in turn puts them at even more imminent risk of further damage.

Likewise, oceanic species unable to adapt to warming waters are dying, as are coral reefs around the world. This, in turn, affects local flora, which can also help trap carbon or remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, and increased CO2 in the atmosphere only makes matters worse by making the oceans more acidic. This means anyone planning to visit the Great Barrier Reef is encouraged to do so soon, because it may not be there for much longer.

While water shortages are becoming more common in some regions, others such as North Carolina in the US are seeing massive increases in rainfall, which is disastrous for crops that may be washed away or may not be able to withstand the increased rain and could fail as a result.

The challenges presented by climate change are not entirely intractable, but they require swift and decisive action, and the longer the world (and its leaders) continues as though it’s business as usual, the swifter and more dramatic those actions will need to be if we’re to avoid calamities that collectively result in changes that are irreversible and which compound with increasing swiftness.

The risk for financial institutions
When financial institutions grant credit, they take on credit risk, which is the chance that a customer may not be able to repay the loan amount and the interest on it. To mitigate this risk, they assess a customer’s history of servicing their debt, their assets, income, job security and other factors that may affect their ability to make repayments.

Climate change represents a threat to each of these — it can significantly affect customers’ income while also destroying assets used as collateral. Similarly, climate change affects industries such as agriculture, tourism, energy production and myriad other sectors, many of which also rely on financial institutions to raise debt.

For example, one need only consider the effects of Hurricane Ian which devastated Cuba and neighbouring Florida in the US in September or the flooding that ravaged Durban in April. Then there are the floods that displaced tens of millions of people in Pakistan in August, and the wildfires that tore through California in 2018, and have recurred to various degrees most years since. The growing scale and frequency of natural disasters make it hard to continue to claim climate change isn’t to blame.

Climate change threatens Africa
Like the rest of the world, Africa is warming, and 2019 was one of the three hottest years on record. That trend is projected to continue and it’s going to mean growing concerns around drought in sub-Saharan African nations and the food security issues that come with it.

The increased rainfall seen in other parts of the continent, meanwhile, brings agricultural problems of its own: flooding ruins crops as mercilessly as a lack of precipitation does, but it also brings with it the risk of malaria, dengue fever and other diseases that warmer, wetter conditions facilitate.

Studies by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have found that the adverse effects of climate changes are more prevalent in regions with hot climates and those are by and large home to lower-income nations already. The African Climate Policy Centre meanwhile projects that should global temperatures climb to between 1°C and 4°C relative to pre-industrial levels, Africa’s collective GDP could decrease by between 2.25% and 12.12%, with Central, East, and West Africa the most acutely affected.

According to the African Development Bank, despite contributing the least to greenhouse gas emissions, Africa is the most vulnerable continent when it comes to climate change. This is in part because agriculture accounts for a large share of GDP and employment, and in most of the continent’s agricultural efforts get their water from rainfall.

Consequently, climate change also represents a sizable threat to Africa achieving its sustainable development goals or maintaining the progress towards them that it has managed to date.

Climate change could see as many as 86 million Africans being forced to migrate by 2050 through what’s called “internal climate migration” — that is, moving inside one’s own country because conditions in one’s usual location made it untenable to stay there. For instance, if prolonged drought or flooding makes it impossible for a farmer to produce crops, they may have to relocate.

Drought threatens urban areas too. The most famous incident in recent memory was the prolonged water shortages in Cape Town that were dubbed “Day Zero” — namely, without seriously reducing water usage, there was a real and imminent threat that the city would run out of fresh water completely. For now, the crisis has been averted, but it’s a chilling example of what can happen when conditions once considered edge cases become persistent.

In 2019, Cyclone Idai destroyed 90% of the infrastructure of Beira in Mozambique, the country’s fourth-largest city and a hub for its energy production. Though Madagascar tends to shield Mozambique from tropical storms, they’re getting more intense and are increasingly forming in the Mozambique Channel. Similarly, tropical cyclones are becoming more common in Southern Africa generally, which is an alarming development for the area, parts of which are densely populated but which are seldom equipped to contend with extreme weather or natural disasters effectively.

Changes in climate also affect ecosystems more broadly. In South Africa, apple and pear trees in the Cape are consistently flowering earlier than usual, as are the purple Jacaranda blossoms that blanket Gauteng province in late spring. At the same time, warming oceans have delayed the sardine run that occurs along the southern coast of KwaZulu-Natal. These changes are stark indications of climate change, but they also can’t go on forever — eventually, something has to give.

Can the problem be solved?
Combating climate change is much like planting trees: The best time for action was decades ago — the next best time is right now. Because the problem has been known about for decades, efforts to deal with it sooner would have made the road ahead less daunting. But the same logic applies now: the sooner efforts are made, the less difficult it’ll be to reduce the effects of climate change down the line.

“We definitely know how to reduce emissions to a significant degree. We are seeing more impacts of climate change, but we can also see a heightened interest and concern in the general public,” says Dr Joeri Rogelj, a climate scientist at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute.

“Ultimately, reducing emissions is really an issue of public and political will. Preferably we would have started 25 or 30 years ago, but I will take any year at which we start declining steadily towards net-zero.”

The current goal is to prevent a 2ºC increase and to aim for no more than 1.5ºC instead. Rogelj says the difference in that 0.5ºC could mean “the difference between 70% or 99% of coral reefs dying or a summer free of Arctic sea ice once every 100 or 10 years.”

But there’s not much room for error. Today, we emit approximately 42 billion tonnes of CO2 a year into the atmosphere. Current estimates suggest that a total of “420 to 580 billion tonnes of CO2” is the threshold beyond which the planet will warm by 1.5°C. That means, if we start today and aim for net-zero emissions, we need to get there by the middle of the century or it will be too late.

Reducing emissions through legislation or behavioural changes is a start, but hitting the necessary targets in time requires more aggressive and innovative responses, like harnessing AI and other emerging technologies to help us reach our goals.

* Dr Mark Nasila is chief analytics officer at First National Bank and a member of the NITheCS Interim Steering Committee

This article was first published on on 27 October 2022