The IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report: Impacts, Adaptation Options and Investment Areas for a Climate-Resilient Southern Africa

Submitted by Meadow Poplawsky | published 5th Apr 2022 | last updated 4th May 2022
a screenshot of the cover of the article - with the title, a list of contnets, a background image of women walking, and a map of southern africa

Introduction

Southern Africa has already experienced widespread losses and damages from climate change. The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finds that the climate has warmed at rates “unprecedented in at least 2000 years” due to human activity. Most African countries have contributed the least to the global greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, yet have already experienced widespread loss and damage. Southern Africa is no different and is already facing loss of lives and impacts on human health, reduced economic growth, water shortages, reduced food production, biodiversity loss, and adverse impacts on human settlements and infrastructure as a result of human-induced climate change. Transformative adaptation – which includes climate risk reduction in every sphere of development – will contribute to achieving climate resilience in southern Africa.

This factsheet, available to download from the right-hand column, summarises the information about southern Africa in the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report. It covers how southern Africa's climate is currently changing, future climate projections for southern Africa, climate change impacts already seen, future climate risks, adaptation potential, and key investment areas for resilience. The text below provides a synthesis of the factsheet. It is part of a series of factsheets summarising what the IPCC AR6 report means for Africa. 

This weADAPT article is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text. 

Southern Africa's Current and Future Climate

How Southern Africa's Climate is Already Changing

The Earth’s average surface temperature has already warmed by 1.09°C since pre-industrial times (1850–1900). However, southern Africa’s climate has warmed more than the global average in the past few decades. Here are some of the ways southern Africa's climate is already changing:

Temperature: Southern Africa’s average annual surface temperatures increased by between 1.04°C and 1.44°C from 1961 to 2015.

Heat waves: The annual number of hot days has increased in southern Africa over the last four decades due to human-induced climate change. The occurrence of cold extremes, including frost days, has decreased.

Rainfall: There has been a decrease in mean precipitation over southern Africa since the 1980s, except in the north-western parts, which shows an increasing trend over this period. The number and intensity of extreme rainfall events have increased in southern Africa over the last century.

Drought: Agricultural drought increased over 1961–2016, and meteorological drought frequency has increased by between 2.5 to 3 events per decade since 1961.12 The reduced rainfall that caused the 2015–2017 Cape Town drought was three times more likely because of human-induced climate change.

Southern Africa's Future Climate

The IPCC finds that most African countries are expected to experience high temperatures unprecedented in their recent history earlier this century than generally wealthier countries at higher latitudes. Some future climate predictions are: 

Temperature: At 1.5°C, 2°C and 3°C global warming, average annual surface temperatures in southern Africa are projected to be higher than the global average.

Heat waves: The annual number of heatwaves is projected to increase in southern Africa by between 2–4 (at 1.5°C), 4–8 (at 2°C) and 8–12 (at 3°C). There is 99–100% probability hot and very hot days will increase under 1.5°C and 2°C global warming. Children born in southern Africa in 2020 will, under 1.5°C global warming, be exposed to 3–4 times more heatwaves in their lifetimes than those born in 1960. 

Rainfall and drought: At 1.5°C global warming, the frequency and length of droughts is projected to increase over large parts of southern Africa. At 2°C, unprecedented extreme droughts are projected to emerge. Above 3°C global warming, average annual rainfall is projected to decrease by 10–20% in the summer rainfall region, particularly in the western parts. The length of meteorological droughts is also projected to double from 2 to 4 months. Heavy rainfall events will become more frequent and intense at all levels of global warming (except in the southwestern region), increasing exposure to flooding.

Tropical cyclones: In southern Africa, tropical cyclones making landfall are projected to become less frequent, but have more intense rainfall and higher wind speeds at increasing global warming.

Climate Change Impacts and Future Risks

Climate Change Impacts Already Seen

The multiple dimensions of poverty and wellbeing – people’s health, nutrition, education, security of food, water and shelter, and economic development – are now all affected by climate change. The natural environment is also deeply affected. Addressing climate change effectively depends on viewing climate, people and biodiversity as interlinked systems. Some impacts already seen are listed below. The factsheet includes impacts and future risks in the categories of human life and health, ecosystems and biodiversity, food systems, water for people, education, human settlements and infrastructure, migration, economies, heritage, and compound risks

  • Recent estimates suggest that human-induced climate change was responsible for almost 44% of heat-related deaths in South Africa (1991–2018). In many of South Africa’s districts, this equates to dozens of deaths per year.

  • Climate change is reducing crop productivity in southern Africa. Maize and wheat yields decreased on average by 5.8% and 2.3% respectively across sub-Saharan Africa due to climate change from 1974–2008. A majority of people perceive that climate conditions for agricultural production have worsened over the past ten years. Africans are disproportionately employed in climate-exposed sectors: 55–62% of the sub-Saharan workforce employed is in agriculture and 95% of cropland is rain-fed.

  • Rainfall and river discharge have been extremely variable in southern Africa recently, as in the rest of Africa – between 50% above and 50% below historic levels. This has caused deep and mostly negative impacts across water-dependent sectors: from freshwater supply to people and agriculture, to availability of water for hydropower and tourism.

  • In one estimate, African countries’ GDP per capita was on average 13.6% lower over the period 1991–2010, compared to if human-induced climate change had not occurred.

  • In rural Zimbabwe, adolescents who experienced drought conditions during the first few years of life went on to complete fewer grades at school. This translates into a 14% reduction in lifetime earnings.

Future Climate Risks

Some future climate risks for Southern Africa include: 

  • Global warming of 1.5°C is projected to cause the spread of vectorborne diseases, exposing tens of millions more people to potential illness – and escalating the loss of life, especially in southern and East Africa. The population at risk of malaria and dengue fever is projected to increase sharply at 1.5°C global warming.

  • Future warming will negatively impact African food systems by shortening growing seasons and increasing water stress. Wheat yields in southern Africa are projected to decline by over 50% by 1.5°C global warming, even with adaptation. Global warming above 2°C will result in reduced yields of staple crops across most of Africa compared to 2005 yields, even with adaptation options being implemented.

  • There is increasing demand for water for agricultural and energy production in southern Africa. Governments are responding with ambitious plans to expand irrigation and hydropower infrastructure – especially in the Zambezi River basin. Climate change introduces significant risks to these plans: future levels of rainfall, evaporation and runoff will have a substantial impact. However, climate models disagree on whether climates will become wetter or dryer in this river basin.

  • The exposure of urban populations to tropical cyclones in southeastern Africa is projected to increase: warmer sea surface temperatures will lead to longer, more intense cyclones.

  • The African population exposed to multiple, overlapping extreme events, such as concurrent heat waves and droughts or drought followed immediately by extreme rainfall, is projected to increase 12-fold for a scenario of low population growth and 1.6°C global warming by 2070–2099 (compared to 1981–2010). Projections rise to 47‐fold with high population growth and 4°C global warming. West, Central-East, northeastern and southeastern Africa will be especially exposed.

Adaptation Potential

As described in the factsheet, climate change is already affecting all walks of life and aspects of the natural and built environment in southern Africa. Impacts are projected to become more widespread and severe, further threatening people’s lives and livelihoods, and damaging the region’s economy and ecosystems. Some of southern Africa’s foremost options for adapting to climate change include:

  • Ecosystem-based adaptation uses biodiversity and ecosystem services to assist people to adapt to climate change. Sometimes it is also described as ‘nature-based solutions to climate change’. These solutions can reduce climate impacts and there is high agreement that they can be more cost-effective than traditional ‘grey’ infrastructure when a range of economic, social and environmental benefits are also accounted for.

  • In agriculture, there is potential to boost farmers’ and pastoralists’ resilience to climate shocks and stresses; for example, through the introduction of drought- and pest-tolerant crop and livestock varieties – but often farmers with the lowest incomes cannot afford these without assistance. However, adaptation limits for crops in Africa will increasingly be reached for global warming of 2°C. There is a risk that there will not be genetic varieties of maize available that are sufficiently adapted to southern Africa’s changing climate.

  • People already make abundant use of their local and indigenous knowledge to cope with climate variability. This knowledge is very important for strengthening local climate change adaptation.

  • Even social protection that is not climate specific can improve resilience; however, integrating climate adaptation into social protection programmes, such as cash and in-kind transfers, public works programmes, microinsurance and healthcare access to help households and individuals cope in times of crisis, can go even further to increase people’s resilience to climate change.

  • Early warning systems, targeting weather and climate information to specific users and sectors, can be effective for disaster risk reduction, social protection programmes, and managing risks to health and food systems (such as vector-borne disease and crops).

  • Effective adaptation in human settlements relies on addressing climate risks throughout planning and infrastructure development and can provide net financial savings. This needs to be done in an integrated, cross-cutting way. There is scope for governments to harness the role of the informal sector better in mitigation and adaptation through multi-level governance. This could include, for example, service providers such as informal water and sanitation networks.

Key Investment Areas for Resilience

The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report identifies key areas for enabling climate-resilient development in Africa, where investment would have a catalytic effect on the continent’s resilience to current and future climate change. Some are listed below:

  • Increasing public and private finance flows by billions of dollars per year, enhancing direct access to multilateral funds, strengthening project pipelines, and shifting more finance to implementation would help realise transformative adaptation in Africa.
  • Investing in climate information services that are demand-driven and context-specific, combined with climate change literacy, can enable informed adaptation responses.
  • Governance for climate-resilient development includes long-term planning, all-of-government approaches, transboundary cooperation and benefit sharing, development pathways that increase adaptation and mitigation and reduce inequality, and the implementation of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
  • Increased funding for African partners, and direct control of research design and resources can provide more actionable insights on adaptation in Africa.
  • Working across sectors and at transboundary levels can ensure that adaptation and mitigation actions in one sector do not exacerbate risks in other sectors, and cause maladaptation.

Further resources