Why African Farmers Are Part of the Climate Change Equation

By Patrick Dupoux and Younès Zrikem

In its deliberations over which projects to fund, the international climate community has not prioritized Africa and has largely ignored agriculture, Africa’s biggest source of jobs and a crucial contributor to human welfare on the continent. 

These funding gaps reveal a significant oversight in the world’s response to climate change. So does the underfunding of so-called adaptation projects, which help communities cope with the changing climate. Faced with the choice of putting climate funds into Africa or into more developed regions, donors and investors don’t hesitate: the developed regions get the money. Likewise, mitigation projects, which aim to reverse rather than adapt to climate change, get funded before adaptation projects, and pretty much everything else (certainly anything related to renewable energy) gets funded before agriculture. Africa’s needs haven’t been considered bankable. (See the sidebar.)

The Triple Gap in Funding

The good news is that this “triple gap”—the underfunding of Africa, agriculture, and adaptation—is starting to be seen for the problem it is. At the United Nations’ 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22), held in Marrakesh in November 2016, the risks of not funding these areas were important topics of discussion for the first time in the history of these climate change conferences. 

The new focus on the adaptation of African agriculture stems from the international climate community’s emphasis on food security, starting at the Paris climate change conference in 2015 (COP21) and continuing in Marrakesh. Over the past decade, food security has been a concern in Africa. The continent never had anything like India’s “green revolution,” when modern agronomy techniques led to a big increase in food production. On the contrary, African agriculture has suffered from a lack of interest and investment, which contributed to the food crisis late in the last decade and has left Africa in a perilous position in terms of food sources.

Climate change is an added threat. The scientific consensus is that a 2°C rise in temperature—the do-not-exceed goal set at the Paris conference and ratified in the days leading up to Marrakesh—will reduce agriculture yields in Africa 15% to 20% by 2050. With the expected doubling of Africa’s population to an estimated 2 billion by 2050, agriculture production might have to triple to meet demand. 

Lately, a new possibility has increased the stakes: namely, that Africa’s food security issues could become a cause, as well as an effect, of climate change. Africa is the world’s second-biggest continent, with vast expanses of soil and millions of square kilometers of forest. As such, it should be considered a global common good. A carbon-aware agricultural segment in Africa—following practices such as zero tillage and forest preservation—could do a lot, through a process known as CO2 sequestration, to keep carbon from escaping into the atmosphere. From that perspective, adaptation and mitigation are two sides of the same coin: supporting agriculture projects in Africa helps cope with the effects of climate change while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But Africa’s size also creates a potential risk for the world’s climate control efforts. Consider the consequences if Africa’s agriculture yields do fall. Some African countries might be forced to turn parts of their forests into farms, and to adopt techniques that would exhaust their soil, in order to feed their growing populations. Africa, which has not been a big emitter of greenhouse gases, could become one. That would have a direct impact on the world’s goal of keeping temperature rises below 2°C between now and 2100.

In the past year, the concerns over agriculture and food security have given rise to an initiative known as the Adaptation of African Agriculture, or Triple A, which is led by Morocco and supported by a large coalition of African countries, development finance institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and companies. Toward the end of COP22, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and King Mohammed VI of Morocco spoke in support of the Triple A initiative. The king pointed out the risks Africa faces, including the 10 million people who have already been turned into climate refugees, and asked other African nations to join Morocco in undertaking large-scale transnational adaptation projects.

The challenge is using the visibility created by Triple A to attract more funds to Africa’s agricultural adaptation projects. The projects that are most urgently needed—those that address the consequences of rising temperatures for Africa’s soil, water, and irrigation systems—still aren’t seen as good investments by the people who control climate funds.

African countries need to design their climate-related agriculture projects in ways that lower the risks and increase the returns—and that get the money flowing. Rich countries have pledged to mobilize $100 billion a year starting in 2020 to help poor countries address issues created by climate change. One hopes that the political upheaval that has swept the world in recent months won’t affect this vital source of funds. But no matter what happens, African farmers should rightly make the case for a bigger share of the money that’s available. They aren’t the only ones with a stake in the outcome. What happens in Africa will affect the whole world.