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Climate Change Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability in Africa: Key Findings in the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report


Climate Change Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability in Africa: Key Findings in the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report

Climate Change Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability in Africa: Key Findings in the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report

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The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released the Working Group II’s contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) titled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. The report paints a worrying picture: climate change is already having severe impacts across Africa[1], and impacts are projected to get much worse without swift, deep cuts to global carbon emissions and a significant scaling up of climate change adaptation.

The findings of Working group I, released in August last year, bring the importance of assessing impacts, adaptation, and vulnerabilities into sharp focus. The Working group I report, on the physical science basis of climate change, found that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are already responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming since 1850-1900 (pre-industrial times). Averaged over the next 20 years, the global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming above pre-industrial levels, irrespective of how deeply global governments cut greenhouse gas emissions under all five scenarios considered. Even if the world does manage to limit warming to 1.5°C, the report warns, some long-term impacts of warming that are already in progress are likely to be inevitable and irreversible. 

Significant Loss and Damage Already Seen Across Africa

A critical message of the new report is that Africa has contributed the least to historical global greenhouse gas emissions and has the lowest GDP per capita of all regions. Yet, it has and is projected to continue to experience some of the most severe loss and damage as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Multiple African countries, particularly in West, Central, and East Africa, are the most vulnerable globally.

The group’s research reveals the severe impacts of climate change on Africa’s ecosystems and human societies. In terms of climate impacts, the report states with high confidence[2] that human-induced (anthropogenic) climate change is responsible for mean and extreme temperature trends across Africa, increasing the frequency and intensity of heatwaves and droughts in most parts of Africa and making marine heatwaves twice as likely. Key development sectors have experienced widespread loss and damage due to climate change, impacting the health, livelihoods, and food security of people across Africa.

Additionally, the report finds that higher temperatures and lower rainfall have reduced economic output in Africa; the negative effect of climate change on GDP is greater than that in other regions of the world. The authors cite an estimate that GDP per capita would have been 13.6% higher for 1991-2010 had climate change not occurred[3]. There is strong evidence and agreement that reduced economic growth due to climate change has slowed the trend of declining inequality between countries in the southern and northern hemispheres.

Another concerning finding by the report, particularly given Africa’s vulnerability to food insecurity, is the way in which climate change has disrupted food systems. The report states that total agricultural productivity growth in Africa has decreased by 34% since 1961 due to climate change, a greater decrease than any other region in the world. Food insecurity due to extreme climate events is on the rise; between 2015 and 2019, 45.1 million people in the horn of Africa and 62 million people in eastern and southern Africa required humanitarian assistance for climate-related food emergencies. These disruptions to agriculture are closely linked to the extreme variability in rainfall and river discharge seen in regions across Africa, which has had largely negative impacts on many other sectors, ranging from the water-supply provision and hydroelectric power production to health and tourism.

Ecosystems across Africa are also being affected due to increasing CO2 levels and climate change. The report points to a severe threat to marine biodiversity, with notable impacts including repeated coral bleaching events in East Africa and shifts in the geographic distribution marine species. Research cited by the report has also uncovered an overall trend of changing patterns of vegetation distribution – notably, the expansion of woody plant into grasslands and savannahs that is impacting grazing and water supplies.

Future Warming Means Greater Risks

For is 1.5°C and is 2°C of warming, the report finds that future risks increase significantly.

Most African countries will reach unprecedented temperatures earlier in the century than higher latitude, generally wealthier countries, compounding the inequalities created by unequal economic losses. The authors project an increase in drought duration, frequency, and intensity, particularly in West Africa. Across Africa, approximately 250 million people could be experiencing high water stress by 2030.

1.5 degrees of warming will cause a sharp rise in health risks, the authors find. The number of heat-related deaths is projected to increase significantly, with the number of potentially lethal heat days projected to exceed 50 days per year in West Africa. The transmission and distribution of vector-borne diseases are also projected to increase, particularly in East and Southern Africa, exposing millions of more people to diseases like malaria.

Climate change impacts on the production of agricultural products are projected to worsen with future warming, shortening growing seasons, and intensifying water stress. Yield declines will be partially offset by the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which increase the rate of photosynthesis, spurring crop growth. However, studies suggest that this opposing effect will be immaterial with 2°C of warming, which will result in critical yield reductions in staple crops. Notably, maize yields in West Africa are predicted to decline 20-40% in the case of 2°C of warming. Above 1.5°C of global warming, the catch potential of fisheries decreases by up to 40% in tropical Africa; this would leave almost 300 million people at risk of micronutrient deficiencies, especially children and pregnant women.

The report details some socio-economic and environmental features of the continent that increase vulnerability to future risks:

  1. Many Africans are economically dependent on climate-exposed sectors such as agriculture and fisheries, making them particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts.

  2. Rapid urbanization and a rise in the number of people living in poorly-serviced informal settlements create more hotspots for climate hazards.

  3. High population growth in low-lying coastal areas will expose millions more in Africa to the risks of sea-level rise. It’s predicted that 108-116 million people in Africa will be exposed to sea-level rise by 2030 – in 2000, this number sat at 54 million. Coastal cities of East, West, and North Africa are particularly vulnerable.

Many of the risks outlined overlap, and the authors warn that many African countries are expected to face compounding risks from decreased food production, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, heat-related mortality, and reduced labour productivity. This projection poses a critical threat to Africa’s development objectives, including economic growth, equity, and security

[1] In line with the style of much of the report - Africa is referred to collectively in much of this discussion, given that many of the general findings discussed are applicable to all African countries or individual country results have been aggregated. There are sections in the report for sub-regional analysis which should be referred to for a more precise picture of regional level impacts, adaptation and vulnerabilities.

[2] ‘Confidence’ represents a synthesis of how much evidence there is, and how much scientific agreement exists.

[3] Diffenbaugh Noah, S. & Marshall, B. 2019. Global warming has increased global economic inequality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116(20):9808-9813. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1816020116 Available: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1816020116.


Trisos, C.H., I.O. Adelekan, E. Totin, A. Ayanlade, J. Efitre, A. Gemeda, K. Kalaba, C. Lennard, C. Masao, Y. Mgaya, G. Ngaruiya, D. Olago, N.P. Simpson, and S. Zakieldeen, 2022: Africa. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and VulnerabilityContribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.

About the Author(s)

Gita Briel

Gita Briel

Gita Briel is a researcher at tralac. Her research interests include the trade-environment nexus, applied development economics, and global environmental governance.

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