Achieving the SDGs in Africa: why user-inspired climate science research must be more than just an asterisk
In terms of the impacts of climate change, the African continent is hit doubly hard: Africa has the largest number of people living below the global poverty threshold of $2 a day; at the same time our nations are already experiencing the brunt of climate change in practically all critical socio-economic sectors. And according to projections in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, things are set to get worse.
For Africa, the vision of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – seeking to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all – could be heavily undermined by the escalating impacts of climate change.
Effective implementation and achievement of all the 17 SDGs in Africa will be largely dictated by the availability of reliable baselines and future climate information. But herein lies a number of challenges: improving predictability of the contemporary African climate is severely hampered by inadequate data, preventing validation of model predictions, meanwhile climate change projections over Africa are also characterized by large uncertainties.
Tackling these systemic issues requires the pursuit of strategic climate science research that is more responsive to Africa’s socio-economic needs by advancing new frontiers of demand-driven research. This research should take advantage of the latest technology to mine, meld and synthesize big data to close gaps in our understanding of changing climate patterns and refine existing climate products and services, making them more appropriate for policy and decision making.
Therefore, integrating climate research into the climate information and services chain is critical to improving models and climate prediction tools in order to enhance climate knowledge and boost Africa’s resilience to climate change, while steering the continent on the path towards sustainable development.
But this requires that investment in user-driven climate science research does not remain an “asterisk” in national budgets, and is instead recognized as an important component of both short and long term development plans. Indeed there are examples within Africa and globally where the fruits of investing in user-driven climate science research have immensely improved the predictability of climate patterns and thus enhanced timely responses to the vagaries of weather and climate.
A ten-year international scientific expedition to understand how oceans interact with the atmosphere, carried out in the 1980s/1990s, led to better understanding of the mechanisms driving the El Nino/La Nina phenomena. This in turn led to the development of methods, including improved models of El Nino/La Nina predictions with demonstrated predictive skills over a 6-12 month lead time. Even though there remains an uncertainty gap to be filled, this gap has shrunk small enough to make even the general public now very aware of the potential impacts of these phenomena. In Africa, integrating climate research into developing seasonal climate predictions, through Regional Climate Outlook Forums (RCOF) in the Horn, West, and Southern Africa, initiated with support of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) more than 15 years ago, have demonstrated how user-driven research can lead to incremental improvements in usable climate information and services for sector-specific decision-making. The pioneering Africa RCOFs continuously blend research with applications (based on user-feedback from previous seasons), and have been so successful that they are now being scaled up and ‘exported’ to many parts of the world.
However, a common thread to these two (global and African) success stories worth noting is the level of coordination and collaboration required. Unfortunately, despite the demonstrable success of blending research, applications, and user-feedback in the RCOFs, climate science research in Africa is yet to be integrated meaningfully within the climate value chain in Africa. Hence, there is need for a paradigm shift in terms of how user-inspired climate research should be fully integrated into the climate information value chain for policy and development planning given the continent’s vulnerability to climate change. Achieving this requires sustained investment to advance new frontiers of demand-driven climate research and development, and innovative decision tools for transitioning research outcomes into applications and decision-making. In addition, reaching this goal requires a multi-institutional and multi-stakeholder collaborative platform and network given the overall costs involved in integrated climate science research, including modeling, analysis, and synthesis of often enormous amounts of data and information. Currently the most pressing challenges to user-inspired and actionable climate science research in Africa are; (a) extremely low or complete lack of (climate) research investments, (b) lack of coordination and collaborative research networks across the continent, (c) lack of “built-in tunnels” for translation of research into applications in our education and research institutions, (d) lack of solidarity in our science agenda across the continent that in turn hinders sharing of research expertise, experience and infrastructure.
Richard Anyah, is an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut (USA) & Interim Coordinator, Climate Research for Development in Africa (CR4D) Initiative.
Opinions expressed in the ACPC Climate Diaries are the authors’ personal views and do not represent the view of ACPC. ACPC accepts no liability for use of or reliance on information found in the Climate Diaries.