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Walking together towards climate action

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

It was my privilege to be a keynote speaker at the recent Walker Institute ‘Big Event’ which highlighted how new and creative ways to communicate the challenges of climate resilience. Adding this creative dimension can be a powerful medium to bring complex issues to life and reignite discussions to find innovative solutions.

For me, as a passionate advocate for climate action in Africa, and in my role as the Director of the Special Initiatives Division (SID), a natural resource management division, the African Climate Policy Centre, Green Economy and Natural Resource Section, and New Technologies and Innovations of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, we must address three points.

First, how do we increase the scientific capacity of Africa? The answer is quite simply to continue to invest in research data infrastructure. Climate information services (CIS) must connect to critical development sectors, combining scientific knowledge with local knowledge to develop sustainable solutions. Have we, as a society and a scientific community, benefitted fully from the ‘S’ in CIS? The services that would provide the full scale of development impact in agriculture, health, energy, water and the transport sector. I don’t think we can say we have. This is because we have not been able to tell compelling narratives of how CIS in Africa can support development. Communicating these narratives and linking them with grassroots research was a key message at Walker Institute ‘Big Event’.

Our collective messages on CIS equals development, CIS equals poverty reduction, CIS equals climate action has been weak. As a result, we haven’t been able to grow the full potential of CIS beyond agriculture and beyond forecasting. For me, climate information is the first rung of the poverty reduction ladder. The transformational impact of knowledge that can inform agriculture, improve productivity at a wide scale, inform long-term investment in infrastructure, and can reduce the outbreak of potential diseases - has more or less remained at the aspirational level.

The investment that we need to make to create better climate services has not been done. Restoring historical data, putting in place the relevant equipment to support met agencies - all of this needs investment.

My second point is that resilience-building needs to extend beyond thinking about socioeconomic systems. We also need to build resilient systems in energy efficiency, in infrastructure and in innovation. Africa’s development depends largely on its natural capital and the way in which this natural capital can be translated into assets. We also need to build the human capital that will enable us to take advantage of the productive dimensions of climate change and create new jobs to establish a business infrastructure that will enable the continent to become more competitive.

Third, we cannot build resilience of systems to support innovation and growth without public institutional capacity and institutional infrastructure to enable better planning and the development of efficient services. Land degradation is affecting more than 67% of agricultural land with about 490 million hectares showing erosion and declining vegetation. Africa has the world’s largest technical potential for renewable energy power generation. It has an abundance of solar, biomass, geothermal, and wind but it only accounts for 4% of the total global energy consumption (and 15% of the world’s population). Africa is home to ten of the fastest growing economies, however while these countries are discovering oil and gas, we have seen that the extraction industry is largely being seen as an enclave economy. It has not benefitted other areas of broader development.

So our work to build resilience has to move now towards a different pathway and support Africa’s transition towards low carbon development, decarbonising its energy systems and decarbonising its economies. This move will require new skills, new infrastructure, new science and technology and all of this has to be built.

It’s a bold and big ask. A British philosopher once said 'it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness', so we need to communicate these challenges in fresh and innovative ways that will finally take climate action into the fast lane.

Dr Fatima Denton