Climate Crisis: African innovations, talent, and knowledge give us hope

By Rosa Barciela - 

I am Principal Consultant at the Met Office, the UK’s national meteorological service. My work is about understanding the impact of climate change on vulnerable communities in Southern Africa and how to help them build resilience to it.

Ahead of the UN’s Africa Climate Week, I wanted to reflect on why it’s so important for the African continent to adapt and build resilience to the climate crisis and why I think the solution is a multidisciplinary approach.

Climate change hotspot

Africa is disproportionately affected by climate change. The continent accounts for approximately 4% of global emissions. Yet climate projections show it could become a climate change hotspot.

The effects are already being acutely felt. These include increases in the frequency, intensity, and severity of events like droughts, floods, and heat waves. High impact events, such as the extensive droughts Southern Africa experienced in 2016 and 2019, and the risks associated to them (e.g. water shortages, food insecurity) are likely to be exacerbated by climate change. In March 2019, the Southern Africa region experienced the biggest and most devastating floods in history. Tropical Cyclone Idai brought intense rainfall that led to landfalls in Mozambique killing more than 2,000 people.

Future climate projections

Future climate projections also show that the Southern African region is becoming warmer and drier. Africa needs to adapt quickly and build resilience to climate change. Action to mitigate the impacts of climate change and build resilient communities needs to happen right now. Inaction threatens decades of progress and plans for inclusive sustainable development, on all dimensions (environmental, social, economic), for current and future generations.

Failing to act now could have devastating effects in terms of food and water security, biodiversity loss, public health, migration and will negatively impact on the socio-economic welfare of communities.

Africa’s climate crisis was at the centre of discussions at the recent Met Office Climate Science Conference held virtually in mid-May. The event brought together leading climate scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs, climate communicators and activists. Professor Stephen Belcher, Met Office Chief Scientist, opened the conference alongside Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government’s Chief Scientist. COP26 President, Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, provided an introduction on the second day.

The conference addressed the societal challenges of climate change and the need to build a more sustainable and resilient net zero future.

Technological innovations

A dedicated Pan-African session convened a broad range of expert speakers and panellists from the African continent.  This session focused on the latest climate science (from current and future risks to impacts), the gaps, the opportunities and the technological advances to chart adaptation measures, and cross-disciplinary solutions to climate change.

For me, it was paramount to hear from the African experts themselves and also to listen to the perspectives of African communities, entrepreneurs, policymakers, activists, the youth, and people living with disabilities. As a diverse society, we need different perspectives to understand the risks and opportunities of climate change and to work together on the solutions.

The conference showcased fantastic technological innovations.

For example, Zinhle Ngidi, who is a South African entrepreneur pioneering alternative green fuels. Zinhle is producing biodiesel from plants to blend and reduce the use of fossil fuels in the marine and aviation transport sector. She is a great example of how science, technology and innovation meet to build a resilient net zero future. Her innovation offers a valuable solution to one difficult aspect of climate change, given that the transport sector globally accounts for around 23% of total energy related CO2 emissions. This is timely given that more and more countries are aiming to bring their greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Her work is creating jobs and bringing economic prosperity to local and rural communities.

Another great example is Boitumelo Nkatlo, a South African entrepreneur who has developed an Acid Mine Drainage innovation to purify acidic water used by low-income communities for drinking and small-scale farming. Acid mine drainage is the runoff produced in mines when water interacts with exposed rocks. The sulphur minerals in the rock react with the water and air to form sulphuric acid and dissolved iron. The increase in acidity contaminates the water. The successful commercialisation of this project will increase the amount of drinking water available to local communities by 30%. The South African city of Germiston has a population of 172,000 people. Thousands of litres of contaminated water sit underground in a disused gold mine.  Using this innovation, the water can be treated and sold at a cheaper price to the surrounding communities. This is improving local livelihoods by increasing the accessibility of clean water.

Reasons for optimism

So, in my opinion, there are many reasons for optimism. We know that Africa has the talent, the people and the knowledge to help tackle the climate change problem. I believe that the Pan-African session clearly demonstrated that.

We need collaboration, bringing different disciplines and communities together, to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The Pan-African session was also an opportunity to draw on the Weather and Climate Science for Services Partnership (WCSSP) South Africa project collaborations and wider networks, including the World Meteorological Organization Global Framework for Climate Services, and the Future Climate for Africa project. These build long-term partnerships. They help  build capacity, transfer knowledge from one organisation to another, and strengthen the exchange of scientific and technical skills between the UK and partner African countries. These collaborations will underpin climate change adaptations and resilience measures.

The key recommendations from the conference are being written up and will be used to inform future research programmes for climate science and services. This will help to set the agenda for the development of science for policy over the next decade and support the implementation of the Paris Agreement. They will also be provided to negotiators from all the nations attending COP26, from 31 October – 12 November 2021.

This offers an opportunity to influence the climate agenda. It will be the first time that the Paris Agreement signatories gather to recommit to keeping global warming to less than 1.5°C higher than pre-industrial levels through emission reductions for 2030 and beyond. COP26 will mark a transitionary period for a real review of what the UN member states pledges have achieved and what needs to happen next.

Professor Rosa Barciela is a Principal Consultant in Applied Science and the Strategic Head of Health Science Integration at the Met Office. Under the UK–South Africa Newton Fund partnership, Professor Barciela leads a team of scientists responsible for the Weather and Climate Science for Services Partnership (WCSSP) South Africa project. She also works with international experts in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and World Health Organization (WHO) on research related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.