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The IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate: What’s in it for Africa?

This publication offers a guide to the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, prepared for decision-makers in Africa by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and SouthSouthNorth (SSN). This is not an official IPCC publication.
The slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania near Amboseli with a wooden settlement in the foreground


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate in August 2019. The Special Report was a response to proposals from government and observer organisations to the IPCC.

For its preparation, more than 100 scientists from more than 30 countries assessed “the latest scientific knowledge about the physical science basis and impacts of climate change on ocean, coastal, polar and mountain ecosystems, and the human communities that depend on them.” Communities’ vulnerabilities, adaptation capacities and societies’ options for achieving climate-resilient development pathways were also assessed. The Special Report’s findings are of great importance to Africa and the world.

This publication unpacks the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere prepared for decision-makers in Africa. It includes supplementary material from recently published research that extends and explains the points made in the IPCC Special Report. This publication responds to the widespread demand among CDKN’s African partner networks for region-specific information.

*Download the full publication from the right-hand column. The key messages from the publication are provided below.

*Download the full publication in French here.

About this Publication

The IPCC’s ownSummary for Policy-Makers focuses principally on global issues and trends.This report distils the richest material available on Africa from the more than 700 pages of the Special Report.As such, this is not an official IPCC publication.

However, the expert research team which wrote this report has benefited from reviews by IPCC lead authors in their personal capacities and other expert reviewers to ensure fidelity to the original report.

In a few places in the report, the authors have included supplementary material from recently published research that extends and explains the points made in the IPCC’s Special Report. The authors have clearly labelled this supplementary material ‘Beyond the IPCC’.

Key Messages

The overarching key messages explored in this publication are listed below. In the publication, each of these key messages has a dedicated chapter providing a wealth of information, knowledge, and resources relevant to African nations:

  1. Climate change driven by human activity is changing the temperature and chemistry of the oceans
    • This leads to a warmer, more acidic and a less productive ocean
  2. These changes harm marine life and people who depend on it
    • Warming is destroying coral reefs and threatening other fragile ecosystems
    • For this reason, species are on the move and fish stocks are and will be affected
    • See page 7 of the full text for information on how the Canary and Benguela Currents in the Atlantic Ocean are affected
  3. Sea level rise and other climate hazards increasingly affect Africa
    • Sea levels are rising at a faster rate than previously
    • Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent
    • See page 10 of the full text on cascading impacts and compounded risks
  4. Africa’s high mountain frozen lands are melting, with implications for society
    • River runoff is changing
    • An environment and way of life is threatened
    • Hazards in high mountain areas are increasing
  5. The best way to limit changes in the oceans and cryosphere is to mitigate climate change
  6. Early action reduces climate risks and costs less than dealing with future damages
  7. Future-proofing coastal development will be essential
    • Blue carbon, for example, is an opportunity to integrate adaptation and mitigation action
    • Read more about the potential and limits of ecosystem-based approaches on page 18 of the full text
  8. Ecosystem governance and management must join up across scales and address social issues
    • ​​An integrated approach is required
    • The full text has sections on governance targeted at high mountains, oceans and coasts individually
  9. Communication, education and capacity building are critical


The Special Report brings to light in a clear, newly-framed way how human-induced climate change is making ice caps and glaciers melt and is warming and changing the chemistry of the oceans. These changes are already well underway, even though most people in the world can scarcely perceive them yet. Over the last few decades, global warming has led to mass loss from ice sheets and glaciers, reductions in snow cover and loss of Arctic sea ice.

Since 1970, the global ocean has taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate. Furthermore, the ocean has become more acidic as a result of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Melting ice from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is speeding up the rate of sea level rise. On average, global sea levels are now rising two and a half times faster than the rate of sea level rise last century. The sea level will continue to rise under all emission scenarios, but is projected to be less under lower greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Changes in high mountain frozen lands are projected to affect water resources and their many uses by society. Although still largely invisible, these changes will cause problems in decades to come for the hundreds of millions of people living on exposed coastlines and dependent on safe, regular flows of water from high mountain ecosystems.

Adaptation investments can limit the damage. Significantly, the IPCC’s Special Report finds that societies are far better off investing in adaptation solutions now than delaying action and seeking to clean up the damages later. The types of adaptation actions considered by the IPCC on coasts, for example, include: wetland conservation and restoration, hard coastal protection and managed realignment or ‘coastal advance’ measures, where the sea is allowed to flood certain areas in a managed way. However, it is uncertain when societies will reach the limits at which such adaptation actions are effective.

Some communities in highly exposed mountain environments and particularly fragile coastal environments such as atoll island nations are already living on the edge. They are close to the limits of adaptation in their environments.

As with previous IPCC reports, the biggest takeaway message is that mitigating climate change by cutting global greenhouse gas emissions is by far the best way to limit damage to Earth’s marine, coastal and frozen ecosystems and the repercussions for the rest of the planet.

Suggested citation:

  • Dupar, M. (2019). IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate: What’s in it for Africa? Cape Town: Climate and Development Knowledge Network, Overseas Development Institute and SouthSouthNorth

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