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Towards a Sustainable Environment in Africa: Challenges and Prospects
Towards a Sustainable Environment in Africa: Challenges and Prospects

By - Isaac Joseph

Posted - 28-01-2020

From Sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa, the sustainability of our environment remains an integral issue that cannot be overemphasised. Despite several reports on the increasing degradation and destruction of the environment, it is ironical that not many concrete actions have been undertaken to combat this menace. While there are several actions written on paper, only few are seen in reality. However, there is still room to do more, in this time of action, for Africa to save its environment, even amidst daunting challenges.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Africa is losing 4 million hectares of forest every year, twice the world’s average deforestation rate. While deforestation may increase agricultural land, it also leads to only short-lived agricultural productivity as land nutrients are depleted. Approximately 50 per cent of Africa’s eco-regions have lost 50 per cent of their areas to degradation, cultivation or urbanization.” As pitiable as this statistics seems, it is astonishing that the major cause of degradation of the environment in Africa has been traced to man-made actions. Wikipedia reports that deforestation has wiped out nearly 90% of Africa’s forest and West Africa only has 22.8% of its moist forests left; while 81% of Nigeria’s old-growth forests disappeared within 15 years. It is also estimated that the green belt of Africa contains over 1.5 million species that are all at risk, if the forest habitat is deforested.

The environment is pivotal to the survival of humans and other species, hence, the need to ensure its utmost safety. Man needs the resources garnered from the environment for his use; however, despite the obvious importance of the environment, man’s misuse of the natural resources at his disposal has led to an adverse effect, which has now become a threat to his own safety. The effects on the ecosystem are also further enhanced by the ever-increasing human populace and climate change.

In a message written by Dr. Donald Kaberuka, President, African Development Bank Group in 2012, on ‘Solutions for a Changing Climate in Africa’, he mentioned that “the adverse impacts of climate change are already manifesting themselves on the continent in more frequent occurrences of climate events such as floods, droughts, and heat waves. He further stated the major concerns for Africa’s key economic sectors with disastrous consequences and they include; a heightened threat of food security, inadequate water resource availability, degeneration in natural resources productivity, diminished biodiversity, decline in human health viability, increasing land degradation, increasing desertification, and coastal zone recession. More so, recent assessments have shown that the economic costs of climate change in Africa are likely to be significantly higher in relative terms than in other regions of the world.”

As reported by NASA, ‘Global climate change has already had observable effects on the environment, as glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted and trees are flowering sooner’. This has also raised concerns from different quarters as it generally affects humans and biodiversity. At the eighth Climate Change and Development in Africa (CCDA) conference held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Dr James Kinyangi, the Chief Climate Policy Officer at the African Development Bank (AfDB) highlighted the commitments by the Bank on tackling climate change is ‘by first taking urgent action to build the Resilience and Adaptation to the adverse impacts of climate change for the most vulnerable communities across Africa.’ He further stated that “the time is now, to translate the (2015 Paris) agreement into concrete action, to safeguard development gains and address the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.” Also, Mithika Mwenda, the Secretary General for the Pan Africa Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), an umbrella organization of over 1000 Africa environment and climate civil society groups mentioned at the CCDA conference that “leaders must be challenged to walk the talk, and lead from the front in the spirit of the UN Secretary General, who recently pointed out that beautiful speeches are not enough to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

There has been a whole lot of paperwork proposed by different African governments for the clampdown on environmental degradation and by extension, climate change. Such paperwork include the “Scientific and Technical Consultative Group on Climate Change,” that was established by ECOWAS, the PARIS Agreement, Tanzania and Uganda’s Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, South Africa’s National Environmental Management Act and other regulations enacted in different African countries. However, these laws have not been backed up with proper implementation.


Africa’s economy depends more on natural resources that are sensitive to the climate such as agriculture. This has exposed the continent to the challenges of reduction in agricultural production, good water supply and generation of hydroelectric power. Many of these resources have been poorly used as little or no efforts have been made to replace used resources. This has placed Africa in a precarious state as there are no proper preparations to combat the effects of climate change on the environment.

Also, Africa’s role in international climate change discussions has been far from impressive. Despite the fact that seven of the 10 countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa, her delegates are often marginalized, un­derrepresented, uncoordinated and ineffective in influenc­ing policies favouring the continent (Anesu 2013). And according to the African Development Bank Group, Africa is reported to be the most vulnerable continent to climate change impacts under all climate scenarios above 1.5 degrees Celsius. One would have expected that Africa is greatly involved in the scheme of discussions surrounding climate change but the case has been otherwise.

More so, it is recorded that about one-fifth of African bird species migrate on a seasonal basis within Africa while one-tenth migrate annually between Africa and the rest of the world. The significant losses of bird’s biodiversity could result if climatic conditions or specific habitat conditions at either end of these migratory routes change beyond the tolerance of the species involved, according to Hockey (2000).

One of the leading human and environmental crises in the 21st century, according to the Institute for Security Studies (2010) is climate change. The institute asserts that Africa is already facing considerable water stress as a result of insufficient and unreliable rainfall that changes pattern and causes flooding. It is also recorded by UNESCO that climate change negatively impacts on agriculture on which three-quarters of Africa’s population depend for their livelihood. The effect is seen in the reduction in arable land for farming, prolonged droughts, and crop failure.

Despite the myriad of challenges faced in our environment as a result of climate change, “Africa have less than 11 years to make the transformation necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have to be cut by 45 per cent by 2030 to prevent global warming above 1.5oC – in other words, the threshold at which the worst impacts of climate change could be averted, according to the latest research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” In this decade of action, Africa, as a continent, has to be more proactive in combating climate change as there are prospects for the future.


According to Foresight Africa 2020 report, studies from the New Climate Economy shows that ‘bold climate action could deliver at least $26 trillion in global economic benefits between now and 2030. It could also generate over 65 million new low-carbon jobs by 2030, a number equivalent to the combined workforces of the United Kingdom and Egypt today; avoid over 700,000 premature deaths from air pollution compared with business-as-usual; and generate an estimated $2.8 trillion in government revenues in 2030 through subsidy reform and carbon pricing alone.’

On the other hand, Africare President Julius E. Coles carefully stated that “Africa cannot afford the current approach to resource extraction. If the trend of unsustainable oil and mineral extraction is allowed to continue, environmentally sustainable development in Africa will continue to be a great challenge.” This implies that the continent would be at a great risk if climate change is left unchecked.

Taking a bold climate action is definitely going to come at a price, which is the political willingness to do so. Ambassador Josefa Sacko, the Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the Africa Union Commission, highlighted the need for increased ambition in the fight against climate change as she stated that “without ambitious and urgent global commitments to tackle climate change, the ability of most African countries to attain the Sustainable Development Goals and the ideals of Africa’s Agenda 2063 remain elusive.”

Just as the Chief Executive Officer of Unilever, Paul Polman, rightly said – “The biggest risk to Africa’s growth is climate change. It is expedient that immediate actions are taken to mitigate the effects of climate change. A lot has been said; A lot has been written; A lot needs to be done in this decade of action.

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