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Promoting the use of climate information to achieve long-term development objectives in sub-Saharan Africa: Results from the Future Climate For Africa scoping phase

This report provides initial research into the use of long-term (5-40 year) climate information in Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia and the coastal cities of Accra, Ghana and Maputo, Mozambique.
Multiple Authors

African governments and businesses are putting their investments at risk from the long-term impacts of climate change because they are failing to take climate information into account, says a new report from the Overseas Development Institute and SouthSouthNorth for the Future Climate For Africa (FCFA) programme and Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).

African countries are investing in infrastructure and development programmes that will last for decades—and could be deeply affected by climate change from mid-century onwards. Ports, large dams, and social infrastructure such as hospitals and schools built today could last well beyond 2050. By then, Africa’s climate could look quite different than it does now – or has in the last century.

This report is based on initial research into the use of long-term (5-40 year) climate information in Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia and the coastal cities of Accra, Ghana and Maputo, Mozambique. The study also assesses how long-term climate information is being used by planners of large dams and ports in Africa.

The report finds that governments and businesses are failing to consider long-term climate information in investment planning: in most of the case study countries, not a single example of climate information being effectively taken up into long-term decision making was found. As a consequence, new infrastructure and programmes may be highly vulnerable to future climate impacts.

Lindsey Jones, a Research Fellow at Overseas Development Institute and author of the study, said: “Understandably, African decision-makers are overwhelmed by a large number of immediate, short-term development needs and this can eclipse longer-term concerns. However, even some short-term interventions today, like designing healthcare systems, could have consequences far in the future. Climate information – especially when it’s linked with tools for economic analysis – can guide decision-makers towards modest changes in design, to make programmes more climate resilient. Doing so requires a step change in the way we currently conduct and communicate climate science.”

Sam Bickersteth, CDKN’s Chief Executive, said: “The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment has indicated that climate change will have substantial impacts on Africa. With so much infrastructure yet to be built to meet African countries’ development needs, there is an opportunity to apply science more fully to the policy and planning processes. This report shows some of the constraints as well as the opportunities to communicate science to meet the particular needs of decision-makers.”

Executive Summary

While the impacts of climate change are being felt by people and communities now, many of the most severe impacts will be felt in the decades to come. This presents significant barriers to achieving long-term development objectives – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, a region with low capacity to adapt to the future impacts of climate change. Factoring medium- to long-term climate information into investments and planning decisions is therefore an important component of climate-resilient development.

We know little about how climate information is used in Africa to make decisions with long-term consequences, or how effective it is. We know even less about the barriers to – and opportunities for – using climate information in decision-making. How, then, should governments, businesses and donors strive for climate information to achieve Africa’s long-term development objectives?

The Future Climate For Africa (FCFA) programme explores these questions and seeks to challenge many of the assumptions that underlie them. To guide the programme, six case studies investigated how climate information was being used in decision-making in sub-Saharan Africa. These comprised four country case studies: Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia and a combined study of Accra, Ghana and Maputo, Mozambique; and two desk-based studies focused on long-lived infrastructure in the ports sector and the large hydropower sector. This report presents the results of the scoping phase.

Location of FCFA country case studies

How could climate information help African decision-makers achieve their long-term development objectives?

One important conclusion is that not every investment and planning decision needs to be taken on the basis of medium- to long-term climate information. Nevertheless, climate information helps to guide the sustainability and effectiveness of many long-term development objectives. Investments and planning activities in sub-Saharan Africa can generally be characterised as follows:

  • Short-term interventions with short-lived implications. These interventions are typically focused on addressing immediate development needs; their impacts are largely limited to the project cycle – rarely extending beyond 5 years.
  • Short-term interventions with long-lived implications. These interventions are focused on immediate, short-term development needs, but their impacts on infrastructure and livelihoods can be felt long after the programme ends – typically beyond 5 years.
  • Long-term interventions with long-lived implications. These interventions focus on both short- and long-term development needs. Impacts on infrastructure and livelihoods extend over decades.

Many development activities in sub-Saharan Africa fall under the first category, but it is the second and third that have the strongest need for medium- and long-term climate information to be considered within the decision-making. Examples of this are large ports and dams, health care systems and school infrastructure.

What opportunities are there to support the greater use of climate information?

Targeted investments are needed to better integrate science into decision-making and support the capacity of African climate science, its researchers and its institutions. There are several ways to do this:

1. Support Africa’s climate observation network and build the capacity of scientific institutions. Significant opportunities exist to increase the quality and quantity of Africa’s observation networks and infrastructure, and digitise the large swathes of unarchived historical data that are currently inaccessible to many researchers. There are also opportunities to support the capacity of African climate scientists and relevant scientific institutions. Although some international and regional centres provide capacity support to a handful of regional scientific and meteorological centres, these investments are currently limited in scope and size.

2. Improve the usefulness and relevance of climate information. One of the clearest demands from the decision-makers consulted during the FCFA scoping phase was the need for sector-specific impact analyses that weigh up the implications of various policy options. Greater support for region-specific integrated assessment modelling and, where relevant, strengthening its use among decision-makers, may promote an evidence-based approach to long-term decision-making. Enhancing the accuracy and communication of near-term decadal climate predictions1 may also offer advantages in providing information that can be acted upon within the timescales relevant to many decision-making processes. However, these tools should be used carefully, given the scientific and technical challenges that remain.

3. Recognise and overcome political and institutional barriers. Many of the biggest barriers to using climate information relate to institutional mandates, hierarchical structures and a lack of adequate incentives. Investing resources – time and money – to assess the local political context and engage with local partners can lead to more effective communication and better use of this information. This requires a shift away from short funding cycles, rigid targets and donor-driven agendas, towards longer-term partnerships that embed interventions within national policy processes.

4. Help decision-makers to make robust decisions despite uncertainty about the future climate. Despite considerable advances in our understanding of the climate system, large uncertainties are likely to remain, regardless of future investments in climate science. It is vital that there is more understanding about the limits of climate information. Helping decision-makers to select and use systematic, evidence-based approaches that acknowledge this uncertainty is important.

Mine workers, Zambia


Lindsey Jones, Elizabeth Carabine, Jean-Pierre Roux and Thomas Tanner

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