Updated: 3 days ago
By Astrid R.N. Haas - Fellow, Infrastructure Institute, School of Cities, University of Toronto
For most city mayors and managers in Africa, the debate about whether climate change is real is a moot topic. They know it is. They are on the front lines dealing with the impact of droughts, rising sea levels and floods, such as those in the Gulf of Guinea.
Cyclones are more frequent and intense. Cyclone Freddy, which hit Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar in June 2023, is an example. More than 1,000 people were killed.
Climate change’s impact on water supplies is particularly dire. The first city in the world to nearly run out of potable water was Cape Town in 2018. Like many cities in Africa, it draws most of its water from a rain-fed system. This meant that its water reservoirs ran close to empty when the worst drought in over 300 years started in 2015.
For those responsible for running African cities, the climate change debate is therefore around who should be paying. The question is relevant because African cities contribute the least to climate change. Yet cities in low-income countries face the highest impacts of climate change in terms of frequency and severity of weather events.
A recent World Bank report shows that 70% of greenhouse gases are generated in cities. But cities in low-income countries, including most of Africa, have contributed less than 0.2% of this total to date.
So who should foot the bill for mitigating the impacts and adapting infrastructure to future extreme weather events?
Based on my research as well as my work with many African city mayors and managers, I agree that more climate finance must reach African cities directly. Countries that developed on the back of the environment will have to step up their financial support for climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts in lower-income economies, particularly in Africa.
At the same time, African leaders at a national and city level must demonstrate foresight, planning, strong leadership and management so that the climate finance received is properly invested and can benefit their populations.
Mismatch between cause and effect
Many African leaders point to the mismatch of cause and effect in the global climate system. All countries, as per the Paris Agreement, are expected to drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the global temperature rising by 1.5℃.
Former Nigerian vice-president Yemi Osimbajo relayed these concerns in 2022.
He denounced the hypocrisy of richer countries which developed through climate unfriendly industries, often in the manufacturing sector. Requiring African countries to develop along low-carbon lines, and thus constrain their energy policy choices, would mean they couldn’t industrialize. Yet industrialization has been a precursor to economic growth and development for all developed countries.
Re-balancing this equation so that African cities can urbanize sustainably and unlock productivity will require immediate and major investments in infrastructure. Retrofitting cities once people have already settled comes at a financial as well as political and social cost.
Costs and benefits
Cities in Africa and in low-income countries elsewhere will have to make substantial contributions to countering climate change.
Yet there are potentially large benefits. A path to net zero can have substantial positive outcomes for African cities.
For example, for cities like Kampala, combating pollution is already a priority because rapidly deteriorating air quality has led to an increase in respiratory and other illnesses. Most activities in cities that are related to deteriorating air pollution, particularly around transport and industry, also directly contribute to global climate change.
Thus, tackling one improves the other and enhances overall livability for residents in these cities.
There are also other benefits. A study conducted across 35 cities in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa estimated the total benefits of investing in green cities to be about US$1.1 trillion up to 2050. This is equivalent to 250% of these countries’ annual economic output. In addition, it estimated that it could generate returns of US$90 billion in Ethiopia, US$52 billion in Kenya and US$190 billion in South Africa.
The report also found that although there would be job losses from carbon-intensive industries, there could be a net positive gain in the order of hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
Who should pay
The same study that calculated the estimated total benefits of greening Africa’s cities also noted that the costs of infrastructure investment were around US$280 billion between now and 2050 for all the 35 cities in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa.
Yet climate finance flows to these three countries in 2018 totaled only US$4.7 billion, about 1.7% of what’s required.
This is where upper- and middle-income countries come in. They can support their low-income country counterparts by increasing climate finance flows.
Another important source of finance will be from the private sector. Currently, about half of the climate finance globally comes from the private sector. But in Africa it makes up only 14% of the total flows. An even smaller share of this flows directly to cities.
Unlocking this will require reforms at national and city levels. This can also be supported by so-called blended finance where private financial flows are encouraged through development finance.
Managing the finances
Leadership in African cities will be key. It must ensure that this finance is invested in infrastructure that helps mitigate and adapt to the impact of climate change, and makes cities more compact and livable.
For example, a city’s shape has a substantial impact on its emissions. The more compact the city, the lower its greenhouse gas emissions. This will require more foresight in planning, as well as information and targeted incentives to shape behavior. Nearly 1 billion people will settle in African cities between now and 2050. They should do so in areas that are safe and secure.
This is a big ask. African cities are developing in vulnerable locations. For example, the stretch of coastal west Africa between Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria, including large cities such as Abidjan, Accra, Lomé, Cotonou and Lagos, is the fastest urbanizing region in the world. It is projected to become a megalopolis by 2050.
This is the same region that in 2022 had the worst flooding in recorded history, affecting 5.9 million people.