Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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The world is in a climate emergency 19 Sep 2019

The world is at the precipice of an ecological disaster. Environmentalists are worried about the thousands of fires raging in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. As of August 21, 2019, the fires had increased by 84%, compared to the same period in 2018, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which has recorded almost 90,000 fires in the Amazon this year alone.
The Amazon is considered to be vital in the fight against global warming because it contributes significantly to mitigating climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It also contributes about 16% of total oxygen produced by photosynthesis on land, as estimated by Yadvinder Malhi, an ecosystem ecologist at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. Therefore, destroying the Amazon will reduce the ability of nature to slow down global warming.

Deforestation is happening all over the world, not only in the Amazon. Vast swathes of rainforest are being cleared for farming and other human activities. And apart from forests, wetlands are also vital "carbon sinks," which remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, land is also being degraded due to the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

A degraded land is not only less fertile, in terms of its ability to support crop production, it also has a diminished capacity to capture CO2 out of the atmosphere. Land degradation produces almost a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

It has now become quite clear that the world is in a delicate situation. Human subsistence is inextricably linked to nature as mankind heavily relies on nature to be fed and provided water. But in an ironic twist of fate, this reliance on natural resources has precipitated a dangerous threat to human existence.  

“The food system is both a leading cause and a casualty of climate change," said Joao Campari, Global Food Practice Leader at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Much of the raging Amazonian fires has been attributed to the activities of loggers and ranchers who set fires to parts of the forest to clear land for cattle rearing. Brazil dominates the world's beef market, accounting for nearly 20% of total global exports, according the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Putting into some perspective the implications of the insidious activities of Brazilian beef producers, livestock production accounts for 14.5% of total global GHG emissions. Beef alone is responsible for 41% of livestock GHGes. This includes the land that is degraded for cattle rearing as well as the GHG – methane – emitted by cows. And when we consider that the negative effect of methane on the climate is 23 times higher than CO2, we realise that cattle rearing is causing more global warming than the combined CO2 emissions of the world's transportation systems.

In a widely-discussed report released last month by the IPCC, the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change stressed the need to stop further degradation of land if we must preserve global food supply. "The way we produce food and what we eat contributes to the loss of natural ecosystems and declining biodiversity," said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of the IPCC.

What is clear from the report is that our patterns of food production and consumption are ecologically unsustainable. The UN Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the annual amount of global meat production will increase from the current 300 million tonnes per year to 455 million tonnes in the next 30 years. The IPCC report, therefore, calls for reduction in over-consumption.   

As land degradation drives climate change, the devastating effects of climate change further aggravates land degradation. Various parts of Africa are already in the grip of this climate change vicious circle, which is worsening poverty, malnutrition, hunger and conflicts. In 2017, the UN declared that close to 12 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya were in need of food assistance. This was the fallout of a drought crisis in the region.

Last month, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that over two million people in Zimbabwe are facing starvation following a severe drought. Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi have not recovered from the effect of tropical cyclone Idai, one of the worst tropical cyclones to affect Africa, which ripped through their shores in March 2019.

In Nigeria, the Director-General of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), Muhtari Aminu-Kano, said last year that the country loses about half-kilometre of its land mass to desertification annually. A major factor in the conflicts between nomadic Fulani pastoralists and crop farmers in Nigeria is climate change-induced desertification.

Last October, a different IPCC report, authored by the world’s leading climate scientists from 40 countries, showed that the risks of droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty would worsen if global average temperatures were to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) by the end of this century. (Current global mean temperature is about 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels.) The report warned that an increase to 2°C should be avoided to forestall some of the worst-case-scenarios of global warming.

The UN's warning that “climate change is the defining issue of our time" is a wake-up call to leaders to confront global warming with a fierce urgency. A key part of the actions that need to be taken is climate change awareness and education.

A recent report by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research institution, shows an astonishing level of climate change illiteracy in Africa. Only about three in 10 Africans are fully “climate change literate.” The report describes a climate literate as someone who has heard of climate change; associates it with the negative changes in weather patterns; and knows that human activity is a major cause.

Only 20% of Nigerians fulfilled these three requirements of climate change literacy, compared to 30% of Kenyans and 46% of Ugandans. Of the 33 countries surveyed, only in Mauritius was a majority of the people (57%) climate change literate.

As the UN Climate Action Summit gets underway in New York on September 23rd, it must be on the agenda of African and world leaders to put structures in place to increase climate change awareness among the African population, and galvanise effective response mechanisms to this global emergency of our time.