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Governing Climate Change in Africa

Since the coming into force of the Paris Agreement in 2016, 50 of Africa's 54 countries have signed and ratified it, while the remaining four countries have only signed it (Angola, Eritrea, Libya, and South Sudan). Scientifically, it is common knowledge that Africa is the continent most vulnerable to climate change. Non-climatic factors — such as economic strength, access to technology, and social policies — are increasingly influencing African countries' vulnerability. Moreover, some parts of the continent are exposed to climate change more severely than others, and their level of resilience and adaptability differ. For instance, the probability of drought is higher in Southern Africa, desertification is a threat for West Africa, and East Africa faces more flooding. Despite the heterogeneous consequences, three areas of climate impact are critical for most African countries: water stress, food security, and human health. Addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort at the continental level to streamline and coordinate climate policies and actions, improve weather-related information-gathering, and address chronic funding shortfalls for climate change adaptation.

Major Challenges to Climate Action in Africa

In order to promote inclusive growth and development in Africa, climate actions and policies must focus on addressing the challenges posed by climate change. Key challenges for addressing climate change in Africa are information deficit, inadequate funding, lack of a unified stance on climate change, and weak coordination.

Information Deficit: Climate observing systems in Africa are unevenly available across the continent. This makes monitoring and predicting climate processes more difficult and limits systematic understanding of climate changes. Weather reporting in Africa is far below the recommended minimum of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO); climate scientists in Central Africa, in particular, face a huge information deficit.

Inadequate Funding: The World Bank estimates that between 2010 and 2050, the annual cost for adaptation to climate change will be at least USD$18 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa and USD$2.5 billion in the Middle East and North Africa. While these costs are lower in absolute terms compared to the costs faced by countries in East Asia or Latin America, the costs as measured in percentage of gross domestic product are higher in Sub-Saharan Africa than any other part of the world. This highlights the disproportionate cost burden facing African countries. Moreover, according to the Climate Funds Update, between 2003 and 2018 only USD$2 billion was approved from multilateral agencies for climate change adaptation action in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is woefully inadequate to meet African countries' climate change adaptation needs. The paucity of international funding means that in countries like Uganda, national governments are bearing up to 91 percent of the climate change adaptation costs, an unreasonable burden on a low-income country. The challenge of inadequately funding needs to be met immediately in order to effectively plan a response to the climate change crisis in Africa.

Lack of Unified Stance:[1] A continent-wide approach is necessary in Africa because climate adaptation plans need to be implemented beyond national borders for effective progress.  However, the complexities of overlapping memberships in Africa's regional economic communities (RECs) necessitates compliance with multiple and conflicting agendas. Another obstacle to policy unity is the tendency for regional powers (Egypt, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Nigeria) to assert different priorities in climate change policy than the majority of other African states.[2]

Weak Coordination: Africa lacks a concerted climate action management structure to oversee the implementation of climate change strategy. Moreover, within individual African countries, development plans often conflict with climate action plans. In addition, climate change policies of Africa's RECs are often at odds with national-level policies.

Recognizing these weaknesses, Africa has taken steps aimed at eventually harmonizing and coordinating climate change policies on the continent. For example, the African Union has attempted to gather and align various regional organizations, such as the RECs and the African Ministerial Environment Conference (AMCEN), under its umbrella.

Another step toward improved coordination is the Climate for Development in Africa (ClimDev-Africa), a joint initiative of the African Union Commission (AUC), United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and African Development Bank (AfDB). ClimDev-Africa is a secretariat that coordinates the continent's response to climate change and provides information and analysis relevant for policymakers. Its political leadership is provided by the AUC (which coordinates continental policy response and global negotiations); its financial resources are provided by the AfDB; and its implementation is led by UNECA's African Climate Policy Center.

At the sub-continental level, coordination of climate action is led by the various the RECs. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has established an environmental strategy for the Horn of Africa plus Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania; the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has created a Directorate of Environment and Climate Change responsible for West Africa; the East African Community (EAC) has formulated a common position for East Africa, and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) has set out a framework for Southern and Eastern Africa. Overlapping memberships among these regional bodies, however, complicates coordination.

At the national level, countries are guided on climate change policy by their individual Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — which are often at odds with the climate change policies of the corresponding REC(s), and also often conflict with national economic development plans. To help smooth these contradictions, the NDC Hub was launched during the 2017 Conference of Parties (COP 23). This initiative supports African countries in implementing national strategies in line with the Paris Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Africa Agenda 2063. The partner organizations for implementation of the NDCs include the African Development Bank (AfDB), AUC, Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), and various UN departments. The NDC Hub is founded on three pillars: (1) fostering long-term climate action; (2) mobilizing means of implementation; and, (3) promoting coordination of advocacy and partnership.


Climate change has serious consequences for the development aspirations and well-being of Africans. It threatens the livelihood of millions of people on the continent who depend on good climate conditions, and also increases the potential for conflicts. In spite of increasing efforts at the national and inter-governmental levels to contain the effects of climate change, significant challenges persist. Since the effects of climate change are inter-territorial, stronger and more effective coordination among African countries is needed. Moreover, better-coordinated regional and sub-regional climate change policies and actions in Africa should aim to address key challenges involving information deficit, inadequate funding, and the need to establish and sustain common positions.

Gildfred Boateng Asiamah is a Research Analyst with the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, with an interest in good governance and inclusive development on the African continent.

Lea Jechel is a graduate student at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, pursuing a degree in International Relations Development Policy, with a major focus on Africa.

[1] The African Union Commission submitted the first draft about the African Common Position on Climate Change in September 2011, the cornerstone of this document was already set in 2006, when the African Union endorsed the climate strategy of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). The common position, which is meant to be strategic guidance to address climate change for all member states, includes: (1) financial compensation for natural, economic, social resources; (2) historical responsibilities of developed countries with regards to climate change; and, (3) reduction of GHG emissions by developed countries.

The emphasis of the common position is to enable further economic development without significant restrictions under climate change policies. Hence, there should be no mandatory mitigation requirements for African states. To strengthen this position on the global level as well, negotiation coalitions were built in order to unite the various voices of African countries.

[2] Michael B. Nelson, "Africa's Regional Powers and Climate Change Negotiations," Global Environmental Politics 16, no. 2 (2016): 110-129.

About the Authors

Gildfred Boateng Asiamah

Lea Jechel

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more