Climatic Change: Torrid Times Ahead for Less Developed Countries

climate change
Wednesday, 13 January, 2010 - 10:30

Less Developed Countries (LDCs) are facing disproportionately greater threats to their economies. This is partly due to their relatively weaker mechanisms of adapting to a changing climate.  During the Copenhagen meeting last December, African countries were keen on pushing for a binding political agreement requiring the industrialised countries to meet their carbon reduction targets within a specified timeframe

Over the past few months, and in fact since the beginning of the year 2009, there has been a flurry of activities, workshops and international conference halls filled with bewildered delegates trying to craft solutions on perhaps one of the greatest challenges of our times: climatic change, and what it portends for livelihoods across the globe. More than ever before, effects of climatic change have become more apparent and those who scoffed at the warnings sounded off during the 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference and the subsequent Kyoto Protocol in 1997 have had to recoil with a sense of shame at just how much their folly and commitment to profit maximisation, no matter the social and environmental costs, has contributed to the worsening mess that is our global common. While initial concerns over climatic change were quite rightly raised by the key culprits—the Western industrialised countries—it is now increasingly evident that the Less Developed Countries (LDCs) are facing disproportionately greater threats to their economies partly due to their relatively weaker mechanisms of adapting to a changing climate.

Yet the intensity of the problems associated with climatic change could not have come at a worse time for African countries. Although there are still tensions and sporadic conflicts that continue to ravage the continent, the past two decades have experienced a decline in the propensity of African countries to engage in battlefield confrontations with their neighbours. Most of the countries have experienced modest changes in how they are administered and indeed, quite a few are in transition to democratic governance. Moreover, many countries have been registering some gains from a sustained perch on a positive economic growth trajectory. This has partly raised hope that a few countries might actually be headed to the attainment of some of the key Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. However, events of the recent past have somehow dampened such optimism, resulting in greater emphasis on the struggle for mere survival and calls for a revision of the MDGs with the view of pushing the target date further backwards in to the future. Juma (2009) points out that the Sub-Saharan economies are projected to grow by 3.7 percent in 2010 compared with 1.3 percent for industrialised countries and 2.5 percent for developing countries, excluding India and China.

The World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change
, released in mid-September, warns that a two-degree Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels could permanently reduce Africa’s annual per capita consumption by four to five percent. The report urges industrialised countries, which have released most of the greenhouse gases, to lead the way in the support for new low carbon economies. It is true that LDCs generally have much lower emissions than the industrialised countries. However, many of them have larger emissions from fossil fuels due to inefficient energy technologies. Also land use/cover changes, such as tropical deforestation, often cause considerable green house gas emissions stimulated by the twin effects of economic and population growths.

Almost twenty years ago, Rosenzweig et al (1993) had forecasted a gloomy food supply scenario in LDCs owing to climatic change. The researchers predicted that climate change induced by increasing greenhouse gases would affect crop yields differently from region to region across the globe. Their research pointedly implied that crop yields would decline considerably within the tropics or the low-latitude areas. The economic implications of the changes in crop yields suggested that prices of agricultural products would be related to the magnitude of the climate change impact, and incidences of food poverty would worsen in such areas. Available options would include massive importation of large amounts of food from regions with surplus production. However, the worst scenario would be obtained from severe climate change coupled with low economic growth and little farm-level adaptation. The study concluded that in order to minimise possible adverse consequences, such as production losses, food price increases and starvation, the agricultural sector needed to be encouraged to continue to develop crop breeding and management programmes for heat and drought conditions. These efforts ought to be complemented by deliberate control of population growth across the globe. The latter would also contribute to the slowing of emissions of greenhouse gases as well as the rate and eventual magnitude of climatic change.

A score years later, Africa stares at real prospects of worsening state of food insecurity and the possibility of a potentially dangerous tussle for scarce water resources both within and across national boundaries. There is no credible evidence to indicate that mitigating investments and solutions suggested by previous research and conference engagements have ever been taken seriously. Granted, most of the LDCs, especially in Africa, have had budgetary constraints, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the World Development Report for 2010 calls for financial support to enable developing countries adapt to climatic change and lay the foundation for low-carbon economies. There is, however, a general dearth of political will in certain cases to make tough potentially politically risky decisions consistent with the need to conserve water catchment areas and to purposefully put in place mechanisms for judicious natural resources management.

There are those who believe that we are approaching a population ‘breakpoint’ beyond which our planet simply cannot sustain higher levels of human habitation, consumption and emissions. Others believe that we are already there or have exceeded the threshold. These have a somewhat controversial remedy.

Juma (2009) argues that much of Africa’s political instability is associated with the fragility of its ecosystems and low levels of technological competence to compensate for natural deficiencies. There is a heavy dependency on biomass for energy and rain-fed agriculture for food production on which 70 percent of the population survives. Indications are rife that water supply has dwindled to worrying levels. There are twenty African countries currently suffering from severe water shortage and it is projected that a further twelve will join the group in the next 25 years. This scenario already spells economic ruin and real possibilities of skirmishes over water. Indeed, the progressive drying up of Lake Chad (shared by Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger) by about 80 percent over the past three decades is clear manifestation of the seriousness of ecological changes associated with human activities. Water scarcity affects generation of hydropower, agricultural production, urban development as well as overall land-use planning.

Climatic change is also likely to affect other non-agricultural sectors such as tourism, which is dependent on wildlife diversity, as well as investments in sectors such as fish farming and game ranching. There is also the possibility, pointed out by Professor Swaminathan, that since most of the crops that we depend on are not diverse enough to withstand climate change, a decline in production as a result of a natural calamity may end up in sharp price increases and riots in food deficient countries. Even more unnerving are projections of the emergence of new infectious diseases arising from ecological change and human mobility. Most African states are ill-equipped in terms of technologies for early detection and prevention of such emerging infections.

On a positive note, ahead of the Copenhagen meeting last December a few initiatives indicated a resurgence in world leader’s interest in making amends to mother nature, albeit belatedly. The ‘Climate Vulnerable Forum’ comprising of Heads of State from Africa, Asia, Caribbean and the Pacific have prepared a joint declaration that, among other things, expresses their determination to show moral leadership on climate change through actions which include the commencement of greening their economies as a contribution towards the achievement of carbon neutrality. They further call upon other countries to emulate the moral leadership shown by the Republic of Maldives by voluntarily committing to achieving carbon-neutrality. They, however, require substantial external financial, technological and capacity-building support from developed countries. African countries were particularly keen on presenting a common position at the Copenhagen meeting, and were pushing not only for adequate and predictable financial resources to be availed by the developed countries, but also for a binding political agreement requiring the industrialised countries to meet their carbon reduction targets within a specified timeframe.

The United Nations (UN) needs to encourage all the parties to take seriously their commitments to saving our planet. The upgrade of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) into a fully fledged World Environment Organisation at Nairobi as requested by Kenya’s President, Mwai Kibaki during the African Summit of the Group of Ten on Climate Change at Addis Ababa in mid-November, would be a positive gesture and a show of commitment by the UN and a reflection of a stronger focus on issues of climatic change. On their part, it is incumbent upon African countries to demonstrate their determination to institute adequate mitigation interventions in favour of safer and cleaner environmental conditions.


  • Juma, C., 2009. Climate Change a Stumbling Block to Africa’s economies. Daily Nation on the web (15 September 2009)
  • Rosenzweig, C., M. L. Parry, G. Fischer, and K. Frohberg. 1993. Climate change and world food supply. Research Report No. 3. Oxford: University of Oxford, Environmental Change Unit
  • The World Development Report 2010
  • Eldis Climate Change and Development Reporter

Peter Kimemia is Programmes Manager at Afesis-corplan. This article was first published in the December-January edition of The Transformer and is republished here with permission from Afesis-corplan.

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