A Climate Emergency What the IPCC’s 2021 Report Means for Africa

Major climate changes are now inevitable and irreversible the latest UN climate report has warned. What will this mean for Africa?

Last week Monday, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its much-awaited 2021 report on the state of climate science, its sixth of such reports since 1988. The Six Assessment Report (AR6) by IPCC Working Group 1 took eight years of work from the world’s leading climate scientists and peer-reviewers and was approved by 195 governments. It represents the world’s full knowledge to date of the physical basis of climate change.

The landmark report has warned that major climate changes are now inevitable and irreversible. It reaffirmed that human influence has warmed Earth’s climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years and is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since AR5, the authors added. ‘We have all the evidence we need to show we are in climate crisis,’ said three-time IPCC co-author, Sonia Seneviratne, professor at the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science of the ETH Zurich.

Under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, every country in the world set the ambitious goal to hold the rise in global average temperature ‘well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degree Celsius.’ The authors of AR6 believe that 1.5 degree Celsius will be reached by 2040 in all scenarios, if emissions are not curtailed, as predicted in an earlier IPCC’s special report. This report submitted that the world would face severe climate impacts even with 1.5-degree Celsius warming, and such degrees of warming would likely entail ‘high multiple interrelated climate risks’ for ‘some vulnerable regions, including small islands and Least Developed Countries.’


Africa, home of the majority of least developed countries (LDCs), faces the sharp end of climate change. The entire continent of Africa has contributed little to planetary warming, just 3.8 per cent, but is disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Africa is warming faster than the global mean surface temperature and is expected to be one of the hotspots of vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change for coming decades. Eight African countries are among the ten most vulnerable countries in the world. According to WMO Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas, ‘climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement and stress on water resources.’

According to the AR6, increasing agricultural drought (when the soil moisture available to plants becomes so low that it adversely affects the crop yield) and ecological drought (a prolonged and widespread deficit in naturally available water supply that creates multiple stresses across ecosystems) are likely to occur across Africa. The report also projected that a small number of regions in Africa will be affected by increases in hydrological droughts, and several regions are projected to be affected by increases or decreases in meteorological droughts. Monsoon precipitation is expected to increase in the mid- to long term at global scale, particularly over West Africa apart from the far west Sahel. Heavy precipitation and associated flooding will intensify and become more frequent in most regions in Africa, it further added.


The AR6 underscores the need for more ambitious plans to achieve rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to achieve the 1.5-degree Celsius target, which according to IPCC, is still possible but only if the world takes aggressive action. But current national government commitments on greenhouse gas emissions (as contained in their Nationally Determined Contributions or ‘NDCs’ submitted under the UN Paris Agreement) fall well short of the Paris climate agreement. However, the upcoming 26th UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) is a great opportunity to galvanize global action to confront the global climate emergency.

In November, governments from 197 countries will meet in Glasgow at COP26. This meeting is currently expected to be the most important meeting on the climate emergency since the 2015 Paris summit. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, who described the latest IPCC report as ‘a code red for humanity’ called on all the parties to COP26 to combine forces now to avert climate catastrophe. ‘This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet,’ Guterres said. British PM Boris Johnson said the report serves as ‘a wake-up call for the world to take action now, before we meet in Glasgow in November for the critical COP26 summit.’

It is important to reemphasize that climate change is a significant illustration of inequality in the 21st century. The bulk of the temperature increase is due to historical emissions of developed countries that have attained their current levels of development through carbon-intensive growth since the pre-industrial period.  The African Group of Negotiators at COP26 must have a unified voice and build bridges with other party groupings to achieve laudable wins as it relates to ‘burden-sharing’ and the ‘free-rider’ dilemma: developed countries that have historically contributed the most to greenhouse gas emissions (to which developing countries are disproportionally vulnerable) ought to take on a greater share of climate change burdens. However, developing countries must also accelerate their climate action, since they will also benefit from emissions reductions by developed countries.

Given the current scale of the climate challenge, the 2009 pledge by developed countries to jointly mobilize $100 billion annually in support of climate action in developing countries is no longer sufficient and must be revisited at COP26. Estimates show that Africa alone needs $510-675 billion between 2010 and 2030 for climate change mitigation (lowering emissions), and $20-30 billion every year till 2030 for climate change adaptation (vulnerability). Together, African countries will require approximately $3 trillion by 2030 to implement their NDCs under the Paris Agreement. Africa countries must join forces with other LDCs to demand ambitious climate action and sustainable flow of climate finance.


Climate change is clearly the greatest development challenge of the 21st century, threatening every country and community, but especially those in developing countries and particularly the poorest and most vulnerable in Africa. Africa’s rivers and lakes are drying up as a result of climate change with catastrophic consequences for socio-economic activities in several communities. Drought conditions have led to severe food crisis in East Africa where millions are at risk of starvation and acute food insecurity. North Africa is increasingly inundated by flooding, devastating communities and damaging homes and infrastructure. The latest IPCC report is authoritative and definitive: ‘it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land’. Governments and the international community no longer have an excuse to duck their responsibilities to accelerate the transition to clean-energy sources, halt greenhouse gas emissions and achieve a net-zero global economy. That the report was published just three months before COP26, makes AR6 a veritable weapon for climate activists and representatives of poorer countries to pressure global leaders to take action to cut greenhouse gas emissions before it is too late

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