Mohamed H.A. Hassan | PAS Academician and Daniel Schaffer

Climate Change and Adaptation in Africa: Policies and Strategies


Resilience in the face of difficulty is a hallmark of the African experience over eons of time. Adaptation in the face of climate change has become a byword for Africa in the 21st century. Together – resilience and adaptation – will play a fundamental role in the continent’s future as Africa confronts an endless array of dilemmas and uncertainties in an increasingly climate-changed world.

Africa is a huge continent with a land area covering nearly 30 million square kilometers. That’s almost twice the size of South America and large enough to accommodate the U.S., China, India, Japan, and the 27 member states of the European Union (EU) inside its borders, with room to spare. It is home to 1.4 billion people – some 17% of the world’s population. That’s nearly twice the number of people living in Europe and more than four times the population of North America. In a world largely characterized by stable and even declining populations, Africa’s population is growing rapidly in comparison – by 2.4% in 2021. That’s almost twice the rate of population growth in Asia and nearly five times the rate of growth in Europe. This translates into a youthful citizenry. Sixty percent of Africa’s population is under 25 and 75% is under 35. In contrast, less than one-third of the population in the EU is less than 30 years of age.

African countries are not only youthful, they are also rich in natural resources, ranging from rare minerals to oil to biodiversity. The continent is the world’s largest source of gold and platinum. It possesses 95% of the world’s diamonds and 60% of the world’s cobalt, an alloy widely used in the manufacture of batteries and airplane engines. The continent, moreover, has more than 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, a valuable commodity in an increasingly crowded and overdeveloped planet.

When people think of Africa, they are likely to think of endless sand dunes drifting across the Sahara Desert. While the desert is vast, covering 10 million square miles (an area three times the size of Australia), it is also true that Africa is home to 14 ecological zones, ranging from deserts to tropical oases. The deserts, while deeply challenging environments, are far from the dead zones they are often portrayed to be. They are, in fact, rich in silicates, phosphates and other minerals that, if properly managed, could provide a storehouse of wealth. These sun-drenched environments also offer vast opportunities for the generation of solar energy.

Yet, despite its demographic and natural resource advantages, Africa is the world’s poorest continent. More than 40% of the population lives on less than US$1.90 a day, which the World Bank defines as extreme poverty, and more than 85% live on less than US$5 a day or $2000 a year. Thirty-nine of Africa’s 54 countries are low-income countries; 34 are categorized as least-developed countries.

Food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread – an estimated 20% of the population is undernourished. In east Africa, the percentage of people who are undernourished rises to one-third. Beyond poverty and hunger, 60% of Africans do not have access to electricity and 40% do not have access to safe drinking water.

Climate Matters

It should come as no surprise that Africa is highly vulnerable to climate change. Its at-risk natural resource-based economy, its poverty, its poor infrastructure and weak financial systems and governance all conspire to undermine the continent’s resilience and make adaptation difficult.

No continent – indeed no country or even community – is able to escape the relentless wrath of climate change. The changing climate is a global phenomenon that carries devastating consequences – intense heat waves, unprecedented hurricanes and typhoons, historic droughts and floods, and unpredictable weather patterns that hasten spring and prolong summer – now reach into every corner of the planet.

Yet it is fair to say that both the risks and challenges posed by climate change have been greater in Africa than elsewhere. That’s no consolation – or source of comfort – for those in the Americas, Asia or Europe – whose homes have been swept away by torrential floods, as was the case in Western Europe in July 2021, or scorched to the ground by intense and relentless wildfires, as occurred in the western United States in the summer 2021 and again in the spring 2022. Nor does the African climate change experience relieve the pain and anxiety of families in India and Pakistan whose lives were placed in dire straits by a protracted heat dome that brought temperatures reaching nearly 50° Celsius in April 2022.

But Africa’s disproportionate vulnerability to climate change is nonetheless true – a consequence of its deeply rooted vulnerability to all kinds of economic and ecological risks and the difficulty it has had in responding to all kinds of emergencies, which have been compounded by its inability to deal with the wreckage and dislocation that have been left behind.

It should also be noted that climate change problems in Africa carry an inherent sense of unfairness. That’s because Africa is responsible for just 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet is shouldering a lopsided share of climate change impacts. 

Impacts and Challenges

In Africa, as elsewhere, climate change impacts are coming from all angles and landing in all places, effecting both people and the environment in countless ways.

  • Heavy rainfalls and unprecedented floods in eastern Africa in 2020 and southern Africa in 2022 upended the lives of more than six million people.
  • In 2020, the Horn of Africa suffered its most punishing drought in four decades, seriously damaging the region’s dominant agricultural sector. In 2021, the Nile River reached its highest point in 50 years, threatening the ecological stability of the riverbanks and causing major infrastructure damage to riverside communities. Too little water one year and too much the next reflects how unpredictable and variable the weather can be under a climate change regime.
  • In 2019, Ethiopia and Somalia experienced their worst locust outbreaks in 25 years. For Kenya, it was the worst outbreak in 75 years. The swarming locusts dramatically reduced crop yields, placing additional stress on the agricultural sector, especially small landholders.
  • Climate change aggravated dry conditions and gusty winds, together with intense desert storms, have accelerated and intensified sand movements in the African Sahel. Much of the airborne sand swirls about Africa but substantial amounts drift north across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, damaging the environment and posing a serious public health threat. A portion of the dust is also carried west to the Atlantic Ocean (on average some 182 million tons each year). While a portion of the dust, during its cross-Atlantic journey, drifts to the ocean surface or is leached from the sky during rainstorms, more than 130 million tons reaches South America, the Caribbean and the United States, leaving behind a trail of phosphorous and other plant nutrients that turn Africa’s loss into the Americas’ gain. Sand transport both within and from Africa illustrates how climate change, while largely a detrimental force, nevertheless can create winners and losers.

In sum, climate change impacts pose an enormous challenge for Africa beyond the challenges faced by the world at large. These are challenges not of Africa’s making. And they are challenges that Africa does not have the financial resources or expertise to solve on its own. In this sense, Africa has simultaneously been a part of – and a part from – global climate discussions and actions that have taken place to address what is increasingly perceived to be an existential challenge for humanity.

Global Action

Over the past decade, the world has sought to lend a helping hand to Africa as part of a larger effort to combat climate change in low-income countries, under the growing realization that the challenge must be effectively addressed everywhere if progress is to be made anywhere. Assistance has been largely guided through decisions rendered at the Conference of the Parties (COP), held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCC).

In 2010, at COP16, in Cancun, Mexico, delegates adopted the Cancun Adaptation Framework, designed to help LDCs, and poorer countries more generally, formulate national climate adaptation plans. One year later, at COP17, in Durban, South Africa, steps were taken to strengthen this measure through the approval of the National Adoption Plan Global Support Program. This initiative, established jointly by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with financial support from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), sought to identify climate-related technical and financial needs in low-income countries and to weave national adaptation plans into their broader economic development strategies. In effect, it sought to mainstream climate adaptation efforts by placing them on a level playing field with infrastructure investments and support for agriculture, industry, tourism and other critical issues. Forty-five low-income countries have signed onto this effort, including eleven countries in Africa.

At COP21 in Paris, held in 2015, the Paris Accord called upon each country to voluntarily prepare, maintain and share Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets. The intent was to create country-specific pathways to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and provide a detailed blueprint for constructing effective adaptation strategies based on the scope of the problem as defined by each nation. NDCs have been prepared by each of Africa’s 54 nations, creating country-specific blueprints for climate action. In 2021, at COP26, in Glasgow, UK, the conference called for global adaptation funds to rise to US$40 billion a year by 2025 and to ultimately reach US$100 billion a year. These aspirational goals were accompanied by a pledge to provide US$350 million to LDCs to bolster their adaptation efforts. African nations themselves committed US$6 billion in support of utilizing NDC targets as a framework for policy action and they requested that Northern countries provide an additional US$27 billion to meet the projected US$33 billion needed for adaptation on a continental scale. Recent discussions in advance of COP27, scheduled to take place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022, have focused on the need to create specific financial mechanisms to help Africa adapt to climate change – although an exact amount of monetary assistance has yet to be announced. Increasingly, climate change adaptation discussions have moved from planning to finance.

It is fair to say that international fora have viewed climate change challenges in Africa with a greater sense of urgency over the past decade and that several encouraging steps have been taken to assist the continent in this effort. But it is also true that these steps, however well-intended and designed, have been largely hesitant and sporadic and that the determined rhetoric heard at conferences and summits has often exceeded the discordant reality taking place on the ground (and in the air).

In this sense, efforts to assist Africa in meeting the continent’s climate challenges are not that different from the way that rich nations have approached their own climate change challenges. Good intentions and aspirational thinking have often failed to be turned into durable policy and programmatic actions that are capable of meeting the scope of the problem – both in Africa and beyond.

Action in Africa

In addition to international efforts, Africa has also pursued climate change adaptation policies and strategies that have often been wrapped within larger efforts to protect the environment and strengthen the prospects for economic growth.

  • The African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN), launched in 1985, seeks to coordinate environmental policies across the continent. Climate change issues have become an increasingly important part of its remit.
  • The Committee of African Heads of State on Climate Change (CAHOSCC), created by the African Union (AU) in 2009, strives to nurture common positions on climate change issues to help ensure that Africa speaks with one voice.
  • The African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change (AGN) seeks to forge common regional positions on climate issues.
  • The African Climate Policy Centre (ACPC) helps to improve the capacity of African nations to effectively participate in international climate change negotiations.
  • The African Green Infrastructure Investment Bank (AfGIIB), an AU-convened, African investor-led global financial initiative, is designed to catalyze private capital for Africa’s “green” transition. The initiative, announced in 2021, calls for $25 billion in capital investments derived from African and international sources. AfGIIB, which would oversee these investments, is designed as an independent, commercially operated institution.

There have also been on-the-ground, site-specific initiatives in Africa devised to stem climate change and adapt to its impacts. Although these efforts are largely designed to address mitigation strategies, they are well aligned with the continent’s broader efforts to strengthen its resilience to climate change impacts and advance the SDGs.

  • Africa Great Green Wall (GGW), an initiative sponsored by the AU, is designed as an expansive 8000 kilometer-long and 15-kilometer-wide ecological corridor running from Senegal to Djibouti. The project is dedicated to reforestation, resilient agriculture, ecosystem renewal and biodiversity protection. The goal is to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, sequester 250 million tons of carbon and create 10 million “green” jobs by 2030. The project is projected to cost US$33 billion. The Great Green Wall Accelerator is a companion international initiative, launched by French President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders in January 2021 at the One Planet Summit, with the specific purpose of coordinating, monitoring and measuring GGW progress. International donors have pledged US$19 billion to the project.
  • Desert to Power, an initiative sponsored by the African Development Bank (AfDB), is intended to install 10 gigawatts of solar power by 2030 through an array of photovoltaic systems comprised of both public and private central grids and off-grid installations. When completed, it will be the Sahel’s largest solar project, connecting 250 million people to clean power.
  • The Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program (AACP), a joint initiative launched by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and Global Center on Adaptation Africa (GCA) in 2021, aims to mobilize US$25 billion within the next five years to accelerate and expand adaptation efforts across the continent. AfDB has committed US$12.5 billion to the project. A primary aim is to empower millions of African farmers by providing them with digital climate services and climate adaptation technologies to enhance resiliency and increase productivity. Another principal goal is to ultimately train one million young Africans for jobs related to climate adaptation and resilience.

From Strategies to Solutions

Significant strides have been made in formulating climate change adaptation strategies and policies designed to strengthen Africa’s resilience in the face of a climate-changed world. International organizations have played a key role in these efforts, as have bilateral agreements with other nations and funding from foundations and investments by private corporations.

Increasingly, however, the effort has been led by Africa itself, whether through projects initiated by AfDB, continental and regional groups dedicated to climate and sustainable development issues such as AACP, individual African nations, or African-based non-profit organizations and private-sector firms. Individual initiative has played a role as well. Climate action in Africa has its admirable share of champions.

Progress is undeniable. Yet wide gaps remain between aspirations and reality – between plans and their implementation. Insufficient funding, despite progress on the financial front, continues to slow the response to climate impacts and risks. While large showcase projects at both the regional and national levels are encouraging, the scale of the adaptation efforts continues to lag behind the scope of the challenge. Similarly, while recent investments by Northern benefactors and African governments and organizations are welcome, substantial additional financing will be necessary to build both a robust adaptation infrastructure and propel the energy transformation that will be necessary to secure a sustainable future across the continent.

Partnerships and synergies remain the keys to progress – in terms of both institutions and ideas. Domestically, African nations need to integrate their adaptation strategies into their broader economic and environmental policies – aligning their climate goals with their overall goals for development. As part of this effort, National Determined Contributions (NDCs) targets should serve as roadmaps designed to guide climate change adaptation policies and programs. The more seamless these alignments become, the more likely progress will be made in meeting both climate change challenges and other critical social and environmental issues. For the same reasons, adaptation strategies should be closely aligned with climate change mitigation strategies and, more broadly, the SDGs.

There is much to admire and praise in Africa’s recent efforts to meet the challenges of adaptation and resilience posed by climate change. The continent – both on its own and in concert with others – has taken important steps in addressing what has become a global existential problem unlike any previous problem that the world has faced. But the sum of the parts of these broad-ranging actions – however well-meaning and impactful – has yet to match the whole of the challenge.

Africa’s history speaks to its resilience in the face of difficulty. But there are limits to what resiliency can accomplish when confronting a challenge as complex and all-embracing as climate change. Adaptation is critical but the need to respond at a scale and at a pace commensurate with the challenge cannot be underestimated. And, when it comes to climate change – both in Africa and elsewhere – time is running out.

To meet Africa’s climate change challenges in terms of their immediacy and depth – and to translate African-led climate strategies and policies into tangible results on the ground – we recommend the following actions be taken:

  • Each African country should produce and implement a National Adaptation Plan (NAP) fully integrated into its National Development Plan (NDP) and Nationally Determined Contributions targets (NDC).
  • Each African country should continue to increase financial support for its NAP and to design innovative strategies to encourage adaptation financing and investment from the private sector and international financial institutions.
  • Adaptation actions should be aligned with both mitigation actions and the SDGs to deliver co-benefits (for example, through the Great Green Wall Initiative and efforts to tap the vast potential for solar energy production in northern Africa).
  • African universities should integrate climate change adaptation and resilience into their curriculum to help prepare students for future “green” jobs. In-person and virtual courses should be developed with this goal in mind.
  • Emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, climate change data and information systems, digital agriculture, drones and robots should be deployed to help drive collaborative actions that address adaptation, mitigation and the SDGs.
  • African-based and global partners should provide the financial support needed to implement the actions launched by the African Adaptation Acceleration Program (AAAP). The program promises to extend benefits to both the economy and the environment across Africa that will remain in place for generations to come.