Is climate change a problem for Africa?

Africa’s contribution to climate change – however defined – is miniscule. The continent’s share of annual greenhouse gas emissions is just 4 percent. Of this, over half comes from just three countries: South Africa, Egypt and Algeria.

Conversely, the continent contains the world’s largest carbon sinks. Its forests and other natural ecosystems likely sequester more carbon dioxide each year than its people have emitted over the last hundred years.

This notwithstanding, it is widely accepted that Africans are bound to suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not only is the continent warming faster than the rest of the world, but aberrations in weather patterns will also disrupt access to clean water and jeopardise food security.

Talking points

It was only natural, then, that African leaders, gathered for the inaugural Africa Climate Summit, which took place in Nairobi in early September, should declare that Africa’s “contribution to reducing global carbon emissions” be properly measured and recognised, and that the international community honour its commitment to “provide $100 billion in annual climate finance, as promised in 2009 at the UNFCCC COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark.”

It all seems pretty reasonable, and serious. The continent that contributed the least to climate change, stands to suffer the most from its effects, and is pulling the most carbon dioxide from the air, demands to be taken seriously in all interventions and conversations about climate change.

The problem is, within context, climate change is Africa’s smallest problem. Sure, there are things we can do that minimise emissions, like deploying cleaner cooking methods and generating our electricity from renewable sources. But we are already doing this – not to fight climate change, but rather to improve our quality of life.

For us, getting to cook with a gas stove and flicking a switch to light up a room is development, not a war with the climate. The alternatives, in this case, are a smoky wood or charcoal stove and a weak dancing flame from a paraffin lamp, both of which are potent indoor air pollutants.


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Not even on the environmental front is climate change our biggest challenge. No sane person who walks through a typical African city – especially in the places where most of the people live – hops across open sewers and squeezes past mounds of trash so toxic even flies fear them, can come out thinking that climate change is the biggest threat facing Africans.

Though catastrophic weather-related events like flooding in cities can be blamed on climate change, in Africa, such floods will most likely happen because drainage infrastructure is blocked by trash or doesn’t exist in the first place.

The challenge of keeping our land, water and air clean is much worthier of our leaders’ attention than climate change. Solving it will reap much greater dividends for the quality and dignity of African lives than anything any country on the continent can do to combat climate change.

And it is something that African governments can do on the cheap, without having to wrangle US$100 billion from rich world taxpayers. Unlike fixing the climate, which has never been done before (so that no one can say with certainty that they can do it), dirt has been handled all over the world. The blueprints exist.


This is not to say that climate change shouldn’t receive attention. Rather, I mean to point out that the rich world created this problem – and defined it as an existential one – and must now solve it. This poor continent is already absorbing all your carbon dioxide; we are already doing our part. You’re welcome.

And, of course, it should go without saying that, to the extent that it is possible, African countries should not pursue development paths that exacerbate the climate crisis. But this is hardly a priority for the continent and shouldn’t be thought of as one, not even if a bunch of African leaders gather to try and make it seem like one.

Don’t fall for it. They are just looking for more money to steal.

There is no better argument for this than the leaders’ own lifestyles. Consider Mr William Ruto, the President of Kenya, who hosted the event. To demonstrate to the world how serious he was about climate change, the good man drove himself to the venue in a tiny electric car, leading a convoy of electric cars, with outriders on electric motorcycles.

By that afternoon, however, he was back to his usual train-long convoy of imported air-conditioned gas-guzzling SUVs and big-engine BMW outriders. Since the summit closed, he has been gallivanting endlessly around the planet in a presidential jet. He was last spotted at another climate summit, this time in Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo, from which we can expect a similar declaration to be issued.

If we are going to fight the climate, maybe Mr Ruto should start cycling to his office (or drive that tiny car every day). It’s only three kilometres from his house. Actually, he should do it even without thinking about the climate. The money he would save us would be worth a lot more than the forfeited emissions.

The same goes for his fellow African leaders.

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: Pexels


Showing 2 reactions

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  • Rob McKilliam
    commented 2023-11-09 12:42:22 +1100
    Thank you for another good article Matthew. I was born and raised in East Africa and can relate to your descriptions and explanations.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2023-11-08 12:37:59 +1100
    Hello again Mathew Otieno.

    FWIW “Bwana Steven” agrees with you.