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Asia Must Help Africa Escape Worst Impacts of Climate Change

Amit Jain is the Director of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies at the Nanyang Business School in Singapore.

When I was in school, the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro was half-covered in snow. These days it is barely noticeable. The weather in Kenya has become hotter and scientists now fear the ice cap on the mountain could disappear entirely by next year.

That would be a tragedy, but one that can no longer be avoided, even if global warming is kept 2 degrees Celsius below preindustrial levels in accordance with the target set at the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The focus of the African Group of Negotiators as they go into the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties, known as COP26, in Glasgow is therefore on climate adaptation. That means preparing to meet what is to come rather than trying to avert it.

Although it only contributes less than 4% toward global carbon emissions, Africa is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world and is the continent worst impacted by climate change.

A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says Africa is likely to experience warming of more than 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Rainfall is expected to fail in many places, causing drought. But when it does rain, it will fall with such ferocity that it will lead to widespread flooding and destruction. For a continent where seven out of 10 people rely on rain-fed agriculture for a living, this spells doom.

The evidence of climate change is everywhere. The desert is creeping south of the Sahel, turning the once lush farmlands into arid zones, and crop failures have become frequent. Extreme weather events that used to happen once a century are now common.

Less than two years after cyclone Idai ripped through Mozambique in 2019, it was hit by two more devastating ones. Somalia experienced the worst cyclone on record last year while flooding cost Sudan $250 million in losses. Climate change has become such a lived reality for millions of Africans now that no matter what commitments are made at COP26, they are unlikely to escape its worst impact. Temperatures in Kenya itself could rise by up to 2.2 degrees Celsius by 2050.

Studies indicate Africa will see a 20% drop in rainfall by 2030. Crop yields in Africa are projected to decline by 10% in the next thirty years. Wheat could disappear by 2080 and the production of maize, a staple food, will become scarce. With agriculture accounting for a third of Africa’s carbon emissions, embracing climate-smart agriculture is the way forward. This is where Asia can help make a big difference.

Singapore-listed Olam International, which sources more than seven million metric tons of primary commodities from Africa, has made a commitment to cut greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2030. It has implemented a program that tries to increase agricultural productivity through modern farming techniques and improve the resilience of farming communities by providing training, finance and better inputs.

Similar investments by other Asian commodity traders could make African agriculture much more resilient to climate change. China is already the most prolific infrastructure developer in Africa. It also provides significant loans. But Chinese lending to Africa peaked at $28.3 billion in 2016 and has been falling ever since. What Beijing could do is repurpose some of its existing loan commitments to Africa toward climate-resilient infrastructure projects.

Take power, for example. With 40% of homes in sub-Saharan Africa that are not connected to the grid, many are powered by Chinese-made solar panels. Off-grid solar power stations built by China Electric Power Equipment and Technology (CET), a subsidiary of State Grid Corp. of China, for instance, have electrified thousands of homes and small establishments in Ethiopia.

So far, China has mostly invested in hydropower projects, but their fate is often threatened by environmental and financial concerns. It may be time for companies like CET to start making photovoltaic solar panels in Africa. If they do, the renewable energy sector can become an integral part of the local economy, creating jobs all along the supply chain.

Japan is a major bilateral donor and the fourth-largest shareholder of the African Development Bank. But the $9 billion worth of private Japanese investments in Africa trails behind China and needs to change. In 2019 the AfDB and the Japan International Cooperation Agency set a three-year investment target of $3.5 billion under the Enhanced Private Sector Assistance initiative.

This will cover cofinancing of infrastructure projects that are backed by sovereign guarantees; and a new financing facility that will allow AfDB to invest in private companies trying to address climate change. With their own national agency backing new projects, Japanese investors can show far more boldness in their investment decisions.

At the end of the day, it is about throwing more money at the problem. Africa needs at least $12 billion to cover its total current annual adaptation needs. To bridge the gap, it will have to rely on market-driven financial instruments such as the $8.8 billion Green Climate Fund.

That could help de-risk private sector investment and incentivize Asian investors to take advantage of the many opportunities emerging in Africa as it adapts to climate change.