The latest scientific assessment on climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded, yet again, that we only have a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a future in which people and nature are resilient to the effects of global warming.
Working Group II follows the Working Group I report released in August 2021 in which authors focused on current trajectories and possible scenarios for warming which are directly related to the levels of greenhouse gases emitted at present and in the future.
South Africa’s climate commission, chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa convened last week to discuss what the latest report findings mean for the country and the rest of the continent. Local scientists who contributed to the scientific assessment, addressed the meeting to unpack the risks and recommendations laid out for policy makers that will enable climate resilient development.
Scientists and co-authors of the landmark assessment told the climate commission meeting that the latest report is a culmination of 34 000 scientific papers and 62 000 independent scientific reviews.
For agriculture, a mixed bag of bad news and good news are on the cards. The bad news is that climate change will, at various degrees of warming, impact the sector directly and further exacerbate food insecurity.
And the good news for cities in Mzansi?
Urban farming has been touted as a key adaptation solution, and one that will help cities build resilience to the impacts of climate change both at present and in the future. Greener cities will help reduce the so-called urban heat island effect in which cities lock in heat while urban agriculture can offset the impacts of extreme weather on traditional farming.
Extreme weather events that occur at the same time will, however, compound the risks associated with climate change. South African IPCC author and co-chairperson of Working Group II, Debra Roberts, said a heatwave and drought occurring at the same time will have varying and compounded negative effects at different levels of warming. Scientists have found that every degree of warming will undermine food security and lead to severe malnutrition among vulnerable groups like those in informal settlements.
Around 3.6 billion people are currently living in climate change hotspots around the world. This includes smallholder and subsistence farmers.
The report recommends an overhaul of agricultural practices which will have to adapt to water insecurity and become less reliant on rainfall.
Most of Africa’s agricultural sector relies on rainfall for water. Scientists have advised policy makers and governments to encourage the rollout of irrigation technologies, groundwater conservation, rainfall harvesting and storage, soil moisture conservation programmes and education as well as the use of heatstress-tolerant, and alternative staple crops.
This calls for the diversification of farming and land use, while agroforestry has been earmarked as an adaptation solution that will encourage the restoration of ecosystems for wildlife. With a 2 °C warming, Roberts said farming multiple staple crops in growing regions will be much harder, particularly in the tropics.
Between 55% to 65% of the Sub-Saharan workforce is in agriculture while 95% of cropland is rain fed.
Recent droughts repeated
In a number of scenarios, scientists estimate that Cape Town will be three times more likely to experience drought. This is worrying for the report’s authors as historical droughts over the last few years have shown widespread job losses and other socio-economic impacts in the agricultural sector.
“Africa has already experienced widespread losses and damages that can be attributed to human-caused climate change. And this is a much strengthened finding from this most recent assessment. These losses and damages include reduced food production, reduced economic output, loss of biodiversity, increased human morbidity and mortality,” co-author Christopher Trisos told the meeting.
He stressed that climate change has reduced agricultural productivity growth by about 34% since the 1960s across Africa. “This is more than any other region,” he said. In sub-Sahara, maize yields have dropped by 6% while wheat production has been reduced by around 2%.
Trisos said this was not going unnoticed across the continent, and social surveys have shown that Africans and farmers across the continent have noticed the changes to the climate over the last ten years.
Roberts emphasised that if the planet reaches that 2 °C mark, many of the adaptation tools at the world’s disposal will become increasingly ineffective. Quoting the final words of the lengthy report she said, “The science is clear. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future. This report offers solutions to the world.”
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