• bessieodell

What should African nations do about climate change?

Updated: Oct 6

I have had many email and LinkedIn requests over the past couple of years to share my entry to the 1,000-word Slaughter and May Africa Essay Prize, which won the top (£2,000) award in 2020. I am now making the essay response publicly available for interested readers (in blog form) here:


The past several decades has seen an unprecedented rise in general warming worldwide, leading to increased atmospheric and ocean temperatures, and to rising sea levels.[1] These changes are widely considered to be anthropogenic in origin, and cannot be explained by natural climate variations alone.[2] As this trend continues, no continent on earth will be struck as severely by the impacts of climate change as will Africa. For example, global warming of just 2˚c would put over 50% of the continent's population at risk of undernourishment, through increased water stress and the reduction of rain-fed agriculture. [3]

A number of methods for Africa to address climate change have been proposed by both the nations themselves and by external parties, ranging from boosting financial aid to investing in technology. This essay will firstly outline why it is imperative that African nations (both individually and collectively) act to mitigate climate change. Secondly, it will it will propose two key, symbiotic efforts that can be made to address climate change, namely (1) through education, and (2) local initiatives.

Why act at all?

When assessed quantitatively, Africa is not one of the foremost contributors to global warming. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa is responsible for just 7.1% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Further, most African countries have been found not to emit much carbon dioxide (CO 2) [4]. By comparison, China is the world’s largest emitter of CO 2 and accounts for approximately 23% of all global emissions[5]. Further, the average Briton will have emitted more CO 2 in the first two weeks of 2020 than any one of seven African nations (Rwanda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Guinea and Burkina Faso) does in an entire year.[6] Such figures necessitate the question - what obliges (or indeed, what should oblige) African nations to act at all?

Perhaps the most compelling argument - beyond moral justifications that it is for the greater good of the global population, is self-preservation. Africa is thought to be the global region most vulnerable to climate variability because of the dominant role agriculture plays in supporting rural livelihoods and economic growth across most of the continent.[7] [8] For example, in Ethiopia more than 80% of the population depends on various forms of agricultural production for their livelihoods.[9] As global temperatures rise, African nations (particularly those which are sub-Saharan), will become increasingly exposed to a number of ills. For example, it is thought that climate change will lead to the spread of disease such as malaria and HIV,[10] and that it will further accelerate the nations’ vulnerability to poverty caused by conflict, environmental degradation, colonialism and market failure.[11]

Current approaches

Despite the continent’s relatively small contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change, a substantial number of African nations have readily signed up to international agreements to fight it (United Nations, 2019). This includes, for example, the 2016 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, and the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). More recently, policymakers and key stakeholders from all 54 African countries gathered in Accra for Africa Climate Week 2019.

Therefore, the impetus to tackle climate issues exists. Many of the aforementioned agreements focus on increasing access to funding, resources and technology in African nations. What remains to be done is to introduce fresh, compelling, evidence-based interventions which benefit both the global population and individual African nations themselves.

Proposal: Education and local initiatives

‘It is critical to include it in curricula, but it [also] needs to be embedded in the DNA of today’s very education concept. It is not just another course; it is about how everything else we study or do is affected by climate change. It is about understanding the transformation to be able to act on it.’

- (Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC)[12]

An astounding 4 in 10 Africans are unfamiliar with the concept of climate change. This is even the case where people have personally observed detrimental changes in weather patterns. Furthermore, only 3 in 10 people in Africa are fully “climate change literate,” with an awareness and basic knowledge of its negative effects and causes.[13] These figures are particularly worrisome because, without a basic understanding of the detriments of climate change, individuals and nations will not feel affected by it. In turn, they will not feel compelled to act. As noted by UNICEF, ‘if access [to resources] gives Africa a foot in the door, then education and training allows them to push it wide open.’[14]

This essay therefore proposes education as a key action which African nations can take to address climate change. Particular targets will include populations who are less likely to be well-versed in climate issues, including children, people working in agriculture, rural residents, women, the poor, and the less educated.[15] Community-based education is particularly important and will allow for a sense of empowerment, in addition to providing wider (e.g. economic and social) benefits to individuals and communities.

Secondly, it is proposed that local initiatives should be put in place in order to raise awareness of climate change, as well as to encourage and support African citizens to take affirmative steps to address climate issues.

Case studies

In Uganda, an initiative has been established at St. Kizito High School in Namugongo, which combines the education of local school children and communities with local projects centred on renewability (case study 1, below).


Furthermore, the Ghana Bamboo Bikes initiative is currently working towards helping achieve the UN’s Global Sustainable Development Goals [17] and reducing the emission profile of the transport sector.

The local enterprise offers gender-balanced and inclusive job opportunities to build eco-friendly bamboo bicycles. Two of its flagship programmes aim to promote an increased cycling culture whilst strengthening the role of the bicycle industry in climate actions. For example, they have promoted bamboo bicycle rental in urban and resort centres, as well as the free distribution of bamboo bicycles throughout Ghana. [18]


Educational, local enterprise projects such as these will empower African citizens to invest in and take charge of important aspects of their lives (such as agriculture) – areas which are also most susceptible to climate change. By educating both current and future generations, and by providing economic incentive, it is hoped that the climate issues faced by African nations will be addressed long before reaching crisis point.


[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC. Geneva, Switzerland. 151: pp. 1-151. [2] Rosenzweig, C., Karoly, D., Vicarelli, M. et al. (2008). Attributing physical and biological impacts to anthropogenic climate change. Nature 453, 353–357. doi:10.1038/nature06937 [3] United Nations Environment Programme (n.d). Responding to climate change. Available at: [accessed 7 Jan 2020]. [4] The Economist (2018). Africa’s big carbon emitters admit they have a problem. Available at: [accessed 5 Jan 2020]. [5] Lin, J., Khanna, N., Liu, X., et al. (2019). China’s Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Future Trajectories and Mitigation Options and Potential. Sci Rep 9, 16095. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-52653-0. [6] McKie, R. (2020). Britons reach Africans’ annual carbon emissions in just two weeks. The guardian. Available at: [accessed 6 Jan 2020]. [7] Challinor, A., Wheeler, T., Garforth, C., Craufurd, P. and Kassam, A. (2007). Assessing the vulnerability of food crop systems in Africa to climate change. Climatic Change. 83: 381. Doi: [8] Oluwatayo, I. and Ayodeji, O. (2016). Is Africa’s dependence on agriculture the cause of poverty in the continent?: An empirical review. The Journal of Developing Areas. 50. 93-102. Doi: 10.1353/jda.2016.0016. [9] Dercon, S., and R.V. Hill. 2009. Growth from agriculture in Ethiopia: Identifying key constraints. Paper prepared as part of a study on Agriculture and Growth in Ethiopia. (Department for International Development, London). [10] Endo, N., Yamana, T. and Eltahir,E.A.B. (2017). Impact of climate change on malaria in Africa: a combined modelling and observational study. The Lancet. 389: 2. Doi: [11] Thomas, D.S.G. and Twymanb, C. (2005). Equity and justice in climate change adaptation amongst natural-resource-dependent societies. Global Environmental Change, 15, 115-124. Doi: [12] United Nations Climate Change (2015). Article 6: Climate Education and Training. Available at: [accessed 3 Jan 2020]. [13] Selormey, E.E., Dome, M.Z., Osse, L. and Logan, C. (2019). Change ahead: Experience and awareness of climate change in Africa. Afrobarometer, Policy Paper No.60. Available at: [accessed 6th Jan 2020]. [14] Dybenko, E. Greening the Gap: How Investing in Technology Access and Education Can Help Africa Cope with Climate Change. In Besada, H. and Sewankambo, N.K. (eds.).(2009) CIGI Special Report on Climate Change in Africa: Adaption, Mitigation and Governance Challenges. Available at: [accessed 2 Jan 2020]. [15] Selormey, E.E., Dome, M.Z., Osse, L. and Logan, C. (2019). Change ahead: Experience and awareness of climate change in Africa. Afrobarometer, Policy Paper No.60. Available at: [accessed 6th Jan 2020]. [16] Kyeyune, M. (2019). Ugandan students turn waste to wealth. Africa Renewal. Available at: [accessed 4 Jan 2020]. [17] United Nations General Assembly (21 Oct 2015). The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Seventieth session. A/ 70/ L.1. [18] For more information on the Ghana Bamboo Bikes initiative, see: [accessed 1 Jan 2020].

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