End of a carbon store: Africa is struggling with global warming – and is now becoming a climate sinner itself

When the water reached their hut, Nyayiel Kay Nakney sold a cow for a canoe.

End of a carbon store: Africa is struggling with global warming – and is now becoming a climate sinner itself

When the water reached their hut, Nyayiel Kay Nakney sold a cow for a canoe. With this she paddled the actually dry path to Bentiu in South Sudan. Four years of historic rains have flooded the region so badly that thousands are seeking refuge in United Nations refugee camps. Nyayiel is now among the estimated 360,000 internally displaced people hoping for a new life. "We had everything we needed, we were wealthy," she reports in a UN refugee aid camp. But climate change has washed away their existence as farmers.

Africa is one of the regions of the world that has been struggling with the consequences of global warming for longer than other continents. However, this is not because climate change is occurring more strongly on the continent than elsewhere. Fragile statehood, corruption, sometimes bloody conflicts, poverty and a low level of education make African society particularly vulnerable to environmental and climate disasters.

Like everywhere else in the world, the temperature is rising in Africa. Rainfall there is becoming less frequent but more intense, say climate researchers like Heiko Paeth from the Institute of Geography and Geology at the University of Würzburg. Nevertheless, there are regional differences: in some places livelihoods are being washed away, in others they are drying out.

The Horn of Africa is one of the continent's climate hotspots. The region has been drying out for about 25 years. When it rains, it happens briefly but heavily. The dried out soil can no longer absorb the masses of water - rural areas and towns are flooded and the residents are displaced. This happened in November 2019 or 2023. Climate scientists estimate that the reason for this could be man-made warming and natural phenomena in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. "We see this region as particularly vulnerable. But that doesn't mean that other regions are not affected," says Andreas Fink from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

The rise in temperature is much more noticeable north of the Sahara, in the Maghreb states, but also in parts of the Sahel zone. “We are observing the same mechanism there as in the European Mediterranean region,” says climate expert Paeth – i.e. increasing high pressure areas that promote warmer than average temperatures in the region. Scientists are not yet entirely clear how the situation south of the Sahara will develop. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assumes that the monsoon in sub-Saharan West Africa will strengthen in the future. Hurricanes like those that swept over Mozambique and Madagascar in 2023 would then be more likely.

Climate scientist Paeth expects the opposite. The reason: land use change. Compared to other continents, Africa is sparsely populated. However, migration flows triggered by wars, conflicts and climate change lead to uncontrolled settlements and illegal land grabs. Researchers speak of “shifting cultivation”. If forests are cut down, air circulation also changes. This weakens hurricanes.

Until now, the African continent has formed a kind of carbon sink for the planet. However, ecosystems are increasingly having to give way to agriculture. A current study shows that Africa is slowly but steadily switching to the side of climate sinners: because of deforestation for agriculture, the continent has been emitting more CO2 for around ten years than it can compensate for with its ecosystems.

“We know from satellite data and our climate models that such land use changes have a dramatic effect,” says Paeth. This is particularly evident in Africa's tropical regions: between the Congo Basin and the savannah in the north and south of the continent, the temperature could rise by 2.5 to four degrees in the middle of the 21st century compared to the pre-industrial comparison period. Europe is currently heating up the fastest in the world (read more here), but Africa could soon replace the continent, Paeth estimates.

This offers political explosives: As a recipient country, Africa benefits from the climate fund. The funds in it come predominantly from western industrialized countries. The basis is the assumption that the Global North is responsible for climate change and therefore must support the Global South, which is particularly affected. It is feared that if it turns out that uncontrolled settlement in Africa is increasing regional climate change, the money tap from the climate fund could be turned off. “Which, by the way, would not be justified because we in Africa as a whole cannot shirk our responsibility,” emphasizes Paeth.

How could the problem be solved? With trees – maybe. From airlines to search engines, various companies and organizations promote reforestation. But it doesn't always bring as much as expected and hoped - especially not in Africa. The African Union, together with the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, wants to reforest 100 million hectares of degraded land in Africa by 2030. The project was initiated in 2007 to prevent the spread of the Sahara, which is no longer happening today, as climate researcher Fink admits. "The project as a whole was strongly politically motivated and hardly scientifically proven."

“In principle, of course, it makes sense to counteract deforestation. The only question is: are we doing it in the right place?” Paeth agrees. For the Great Green Wall, which is supposed to wind through the Sahel zone, seedlings were planted in the savannah, where they have no place and are more likely to damage the ecosystem, shows a study in the journal "Science".

Trees are therefore unlikely to serve as a permanent solution in the fight against climate change. Especially not if the seedlings will soon be cut down again due to mass migration. What alternatives are there then?

“It would be better to show African farmers cultivation options to increase the water content in the soil and also store CO2 there,” says climate scientist Fink. Ecosystems could also be protected with national parks financed by tourism.

But the continent offers a lot of potential for the energy transition, says climate scientist Paeth. From wind to sun to water, everything is available. "Even a small part of the Sahara could solve the entire world's energy problems." If Africa released the space for this, Western states and companies could invest in renewable energies there instead of mining raw materials as before and otherwise leaving the field to China, which might use the space for coal-fired power plants.

New economic agreements with African states could also be linked to the development of social systems. Paeth estimates that if this had been considered earlier, there might be a middle class in Africa today. That would mean more prosperity and a higher education system. The country might then also be better equipped to deal with the consequences of climate change. Instead of selling cows for canoes, people in the Horn of Africa could continue to live from agriculture.