Tag: AfricaCheck

FACT SHEET: Why Africa is vulnerable to climate change (Part 2)

This article first appeared on AfricaCheck.

Researched by Sarah Wild


Africa as a continent will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, or so the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been saying since 2001. Some scientists even think it will be the continent hardest hit by climate change.

As we discussed in our previous factsheet, to a large degree this is because Africa straddles the equator and has two arid and semi-arid zones on either side of the tropics.

But that’s only part one of the story. Here’s what’s set to happen when things heat up.


1. Expanding dry areas

Semi-arid areas are thought to be particularly vulnerable to climate change, says the inter disciplinary research group Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) at the University of Cape Town. That’s because these areas are already climatically stressed with high temperatures, low rainfall and long dry seasons.

“Semi-arid ecosystems are highly dynamic, with bursts of productivity in the wet season and in good years, and [with] very low productivity in dry years, often leading to temporary or longer term land degradation,” Mark New, director of the university’s African Climate Development Initiative, wrote in a note on ASSAR’s website.

The UN climate change panel noted in its fourth assessment report – published in 2007 – that by 2080 arid and semi-arid land areas in Africa are projected to increase by between 5% and 8% under a range of climate scenarios.

While climate change will not affect all regions on the continent adversely, as these arid and semi-arid areas expand, more people will fall into these zones.


2. Relying on rain

Africa already has a number of countries facing semi-arid conditions, which poses challenges to agriculture, the UN panel’s fourth assessment report noted.

That’s because arid and semi-arid zones are characterised by erratic and low rainfall of less than 700 mm per year as well as droughts every so often, explains the community adaptation and sustainable livelihoods unit at the global non-profit International Institute for Sustainable Development.

“Regarding livelihood systems, in general, light pastoral use is possible in arid areas and rainfed agriculture is usually not possible. In semi-arid areas, agricultural harvests are likely to be irregular, although grazing is satisfactory,” the unit further says.

Climate change is expected to cause a shorter growing season and force large tracts of peripheral agriculture out of production, the fourth UN report noted.

Rain-fed agriculture accounts for 95% of farmed land in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Water Management Institute, a non-profit science organisation. This practice “exposes agricultural production to high seasonal rainfall variability”, according to a paper published in the journal Ecological Economics.

“Agriculture is a huge issue, especially because African agriculture is not irrigated,” says Guy Midgley, a Stellenbosch University scientist involved in writing the climate change panel assessment reports. “Also, [African farmers grow] maize, which is not well suited to African environments.” That is because the crop is sensitive to drought and extreme temperatures.

Maize production is expected to decrease as climates change, as this paper shows. While the average predicted for the continent and Latin America is a 10% decrease, some areas may see more.

Midgley describes Africa’s reliance on maize as an “own goal”. “It’s a tragedy and a pity that it’s become entrenched.”


3. Diseases change with the climate

Changing climates are also likely to change disease patterns. Malaria is the best example of this.

The World Health Organisation estimates there were 214 million cases of malaria this year and 438,000 deaths this year. The mosquito-borne disease disproportionately affects sub-Saharan Africa, which is thought to account for 89% of malaria cases and 91% of deaths, the organisation says.

Although great strides have been made in curbing malaria – cases have fallen by 37% globally between 2000 and 2015, the WHO says – climate change may undo some of these gains.

For example, rising temperature has been shown to affect mosquito population numbers, and how the malaria parasites develop in their hosts, the authors of a paper published in the journal Science explained. They studied malaria incidence in the highlands of Ethiopia and Colombia.

The researchers further noted: “[There will be] an increase in the altitude of malaria distribution in warmer years, which implies that climate change will, without mitigation, result in an increase in the malaria burden in the densely populated highlands of Africa and South America.”


4. One catastrophe away from extreme poverty

The major reason that Africa is vulnerable to climate change, though, is that many of its inhabitants are poor.

A report published by the World Bank this year notes that rising temperatures could push another 100 million people into extreme poverty. Titled Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty, the authors write: “The poor live in uncertainty, just one natural disaster away from losing everything they have.”

That is because climate-related catastrophes — a natural disaster, a crop failure due to drought, an increase in disease or a farmer’s herd wiped out, for example — can be too much for vulnerable people to recover from.

“Such events can erase decades of hard work and asset accumulation and leave people with irreversible health consequences,” the report stated.


Adaptation: Communities are doing it for themselves

In its fifth assessment report, the UN climate change panel noted: “Most national governments [in Africa] are initiating governance systems for adaptation.” For example, the Nile Basin Initiative bring together governments of the 11 countries through which it passes to coordinated all development activities and programmes on the river.

Climate scientist Bob Scholes, a distinguished professor at the University of Witwatersrand’s Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute, believes that when people say “Africa will be hardest hit by climate change” they mean the continent has a poor capacity to cope with climate disaster.

“Government and civil society responses [in many African countries] are not as strong as in other places,” he says. “But while [that poor coping capacity] is true at government level, it is not true at village and town level.”

“Because of the lack of government support, I find African societies quite resilient.”


FACTSHEET: Why do many scientists think Africa will be hardest hit by climate change? (Part 1)

Researched by Sarah Wild

This was first published by AfricaCheck.

logo_tousensembleThe world’s leading climate scientists will meet this month in Paris at the Congress of the Parties 21 (COP21) to hammer out an international agreement to attempt to keep global warming below 2° C compared to pre-industrial levels. The 2° C target was chosen because it represents “the maximum allowable warming” to avoid dangerous man-made interference in the climate.

The UK Met Office announced earlier this month that average global temperatures had already increased by one degree above pre-industrial levels. This was based on a dataset jointly run by the Met Office and the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia.

But these temperature increases will not be uniform: some places will record greater rises in temperature than others. The difference in temperatures is one of the reasons why many scientists think Africa would be hardest hit by climate change.


UN assessment reports stated risk

General view from the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo's City Hall on 10 December 2007, in which the laureates, the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, represented by the chairman, Rajendra K. Pachauri, and former US vice president Al Gore, were awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Photo: AFP/Heiko Junge/SCANPIX NORWAY

General view from the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo’s City Hall on 10 December 2007, in which the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change were awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Photo: AFP/Heiko Junge/SCANPIX NORWAY

“The idea that Africa would be the hardest hit started in the UN’s [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] third assessment report in 2001… and the fourth report allowed this conclusion to be drawn,” Guy Midgley, a Stellenbosch University scientist involved in producing the reports, told Africa Check. “It’s pretty much become embedded in the global change common understanding.”

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the major repository of climate research and technical information drawn from scientists across the world. It has produced five assessment reports on the state of climate change, starting in 1990, with the latest one published in November 2014. Midgley was part of the international team that shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for producing the fourth assessment.

The UN’s third report stated “Africa is highly vulnerable to the various manifestations of climate change”.

In the fourth report (2007), this became: “Africa is likely to be the continent most vulnerable to climate change. Among the risks the continent faces are reductions in food security and agricultural productivity, particularly regarding subsistence agriculture, increased water stress and, as a result of these and the potential for increased exposure to disease and other health risks, increased risks to human health.”

Midgley said that after the strong statement about Africa’s vulnerability, “[the fourth report] then goes on to list a range of adverse impacts which, taken together, have led to the conclusion that Africa will be the hardest hit”.

Following the fourth report, the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) compiled a factsheet for the United Nations Environmental Programme. It said: “No continent will be struck as severely by the impacts of climate change as Africa. Given its geographical position, the continent will be particularly vulnerable due to the considerably limited adaptive capacity, exacerbated by widespread poverty and the existing low levels of development.”

However, this statement was compiled by ministers and not scientists.


‘Africa already quite hot’

While scientists and policymakers agree that African countries will be vulnerable to climate change for myriad reasons, there are still many gaps in our understanding of exactly how climate change will affect different parts of the world, different places within the different continents and to what extent.

Climate scientist Dr Bob Scholes is more sceptical than Midgley about the claim that Africa will be the continent hardest hit by climate change. Scholes, a distinguished professor at the University of Witwatersrand’s Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute, is another author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment reports.

“The claim is based on two things: geographically and climatically Africa is exposed,” he told Africa Check. “Africa in general is already quite hot. Heat it up more and it’s just downhill for animal production, plant production and human health.”

However, other parts of the world are also quite hot and have their own vulnerabilities. And there are a number of regions within the African continent.

“In general, I would support the argument that Africa is vulnerable. But ‘the most vulnerable’? That gets into [the realm of] hyperbole,” Scholes said.


A geographic disadvantage

One of the reasons that African countries are vulnerable to climate change is the continent’s geography.

“Africa straddles the tropics with vast semi-arid regions on either side,” said Midgley. These arid and semi-arid areas are likely to see higher temperature increases than other areas, skewing the average temperature rise for the continent.

The UN’s fifth assessment report explainedthat it is “likely that land temperatures over Africa will rise faster than the global land average, particularly in the more arid regions, and that the rate of increase in minimum temperatures will exceed that of maximum temperatures.”


Drastic temperature increases between 1961 and 2010

Additionally, research by a team of international and South African scientists published earlier this year found that parts of subtropical and central tropical Africa had already shown drastic increases in temperature between 1961 and 2010.

“Over these regions, temperatures have been rising at more than twice the global rate of temperature increase,” the researchers noted.

Temperatures are projected to increase in these areas during this century “with plausible increases of 4 to 6° C [relative to the present day climate] over the subtropics and 3 to 5° C [relative to the present day] over the tropics by the end of the century”. This would happen, the researchers said, in the UN’s “low-mitigation scenario” – where countries put few measures in place to stop climate change.

Principal researcher and study leader, Dr Francois Engelbrecht from South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said in September: “If negotiations [in Paris] fail to ensure a high-mitigation future, we are likely to see rapidly rising surface temperature across the continent…

“For many regions, the impact of temperature increases on the agricultural and biodiversity sectors may be significant, stemming from temperature related extreme events such as heat waves, wild fires and agricultural drought.”


Temperature only one element of vulnerability

Temperature increase is only one of the variables determining a country or a continent’s vulnerability, as wealth and infrastructure, among other things, also help to determine its ability to adapt to climate change.

“Australia is also beset by a very dry portion of its continent,” noted Midgley. “But from a vulnerability and exposure point of view, Africa is more vulnerable because of poverty.”

Or as the third assessment report puts it: “The adverse impacts of climate change are expected to fall disproportionately upon developing countries and the poor persons within those countries.”


‘We need an operating manual for the planet’

While scientists like Midley and Scholes may disagree about the extent of Africa’s vulnerability, there is no doubt among the thousands of scientists that contribute to the UN assessment reports that climate change is real and driven by human activities. However, more scientific research needs to be undertaken to understand how ecosystems will be affected.

“We don’t have an operating manual for the planet,” Midgley said, “and we need one.”


Is South Africa the third best location for solar power globally?

This was first published by AfricaCheck.


A cartoon image that went viral on Facebook depicted South Africa as the third best solar location globally. How on earth do you measure and rank that?

Researched by Sarah Wild

If even dim-witted cartoon character Homer Simpson thinks it’s a bad idea for South Africa to build another nuclear power station – when the country is the “third best solar location in the world” – then why is the country’s government pursuing it?

Environmental campaigning organisation Greenpeace Africa argued this by posting an image of Homer Simpson hitting his forehead with his hand on its Facebook page to encourage followers to sign an anti-nuclear petition.

“Do you also feel a #facepalm moment coming on when you think of South Africa’s crazy #nuclear plans?” the caption read. Nearly 13,000 followers had shared the picture in the last month.

But how does one rank countries according to solar location? And is South Africa indeed in third place?

Greenpeace says it meant investment attractiveness

Greenpeace activists locked themselves to a mock Trojan horse they built and chained to the front gate of the South African department of energy in Pretoria to warn of the dangers of nuclear energy on August 25, 2015. Photo: AFP/MUJAHID SAFODIEN

Greenpeace Africa’s statement “relates to South Africa as a location for solar power investments, rather than as the third best location for solar production in the world”, Melita Steele, senior climate and energy campaign manager, told Africa Check

She said their data was sourced from the quarterly Ernst & Young’s Renewable Energy Country Index. Steele acknowledged their statement was “slightly inaccurate” as they didn’t distinguish between the two main solar technologies.

For solar photovoltaic technology – the kind that is used in solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity – South Africa was ranked seventh out of 40 countries in terms of “investment attractiveness”. South Africa was third on the ranking for concentrated solar power (CSP).

Concentrated solar power uses mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a small area, harnessing the heat to either power turbines and generate electricity immediately, or to be stored in molten salt solutions and released during peak electricity demand.

This is measured by how much sunlight hits an area head on, a term called direct normal irradiation (DNI).

‘Unable to disclose further details’

However, Africa Check discovered that Ernst & Young had released their most recent index on 16 September, whereas Greenpeace’s post went out on 25 August. Before the September report, South Africa had never ranked higher than fourth for the investment attractiveness of concentrated solar power. (Note: At the time of publication Greenpeace had not explained why this is so. We will update the report if they do.)

Furthermore, Ernst & Young won’t reveal what exactly they take into account to rate the 15 parameters making up their index, which includes political and economic stability, investor climate and the cost and availability of finance, on top of natural solar resource.

The index’s editor, Klair White, told Africa Check: “These rankings are based on many factors and data sets… However, we are unable to disclose further details on the specific methodology given its commercial sensitivity.”

The report also doesn’t explain the choice of countries included. Missing from the index are countries with some of the highest concentrations of irradiation in the world, such as Namibia, Bolivia and Argentina.

Meaningful and exact ranking difficult

SolarGIS' world map of direct normal irradiation (DNI)

But if we take Greenpeace Africa’s claim at face value, only looking at concentrated solar power resource, where would South Africa rank in the world?

The former head of the Solar Thermal Energy Research Group at Stellenbosch University, Paul Gauché, told Africa Check: “Chile has the best solar resource by a mile… South Africa, on average, is also one of the best countries. I can’t say however that South Africa is specifically second or third, etcetera.”

The area between Springbok and Pofadder and around Sutherland in South Africa’s Northern Cape province are the best places for concentrated solar power in South Africa, he explained.

Gauché, now head of a concentrated solar power pilot project called Helio100, said the problem with ranking country irradiation values “is that irradiation ranges over a country, so it is hard to define. It isn’t worth defining an irradiation ranking, rather look at the good irradiation in a country or region and see what value it offers for concentrated solar power.”

“If the country is short on capacity and running diesel generators and the sun is good, then the value of concentrated solar power is so much higher.”

The head of the solar thermal power plants and high temperature group at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany provided similar comment. Thomas Fluri told Africa Check: “It is difficult to make a meaningful exact ranking. You can say [South Africa] is one of the countries with the highest irradiation… If you want to make a precise ranking, there is not that much value to it.”

Similarly, “solely looking at irradiation does not make sense. The performance of the [concentrated solar power] plant is not only dependent on the irradiation.”

Relatively new technology expensive

Concentrated solar power plants need to be close to electricity transmission lines and located on a relatively flat area where the vegetation is not under threat and that also has a suitable land use profile – in addition to getting sufficient sunshine, wrote Fluri, a postdoctoral researcher at Stellenbosch University at the time, in a 2008 academic article.

Using these criteria, Fluri found areas around the country that could yield a total 547.6 GW in electricity, which is an order of magnitude greater than Eskom’s current generating capacity of 42 GW.

While the Northern Cape has the highest irradiation in the country, “the lack of water in the Northern Cape is likely to push a large portion of the development into other provinces”, Fluri writes. These provinces include the Free State, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape.

But what Homer Simpson and Greenpeace need to keep in mind is that concentrated solar power is still expensive, because it is a relatively new technology. The authors of a Development Southern Africa article, which included Gauché, wrote: “Until sufficient concentrated solar power capacity is installed each year, the localisation potential, and the overall economic benefit for [South Africa], will not materialise. This in turn could stall the technology.”

Conclusion: Doh! Ranking countries according to solar resource does not make sense

Greenpeace Africa’s post on Facebook that South Africa is the “third best solar location globally” is incorrect in a number of ways.

First, the organisation says it was actually referring to the “investment attractiveness” of concentrated solar power technology in South Africa. (According to Greenpeace Africa the country’s third place ranking was sourced from an Ernst & Young index, but the report they referred to was only published after their Facebook post.)

And since the auditing company does not say how it weighs the different parameters it takes into account or where it collects its data sets from, it is impossible to verify the index’s veracity. Ernst & Young also excludes some of the countries with the highest irradiation levels in the world.

While experts agree that South Africa is one of the countries with the highest irradiation in the world, taking advantage of its solar resource relies on many factors, most notably cost.