Coping with Climate Change in West Africa

April 1, 2013

Today, IFPRI launches West African Agriculture and Climate Change, the first of three monographs on climate change and agriculture in West, Central, and Eastern Africa. The monographs result from a research project headed by IFPRI Senior Researcher Gerald Nelson. Below Nelson talks about his research and implications for policymakers.

Policy decisions usually get made in a messy process that includes incomplete information and often conflicting desires and goals of different interest groups. Policy researchers like me want to improve the quality and accessibility of the information that feeds into this process. We hope that more and better information will help all parties understand the consequences of the choices being considered. 

That was the intention of this monograph project:  to help policymakers understand the uncertainties surrounding climate change effects in their countries and give national- and regional-level guidance with implications for a range of policy decisions, such as investments in the development of new plant and animal varieties, water management strategies, the role of regional trade policies, and many more policy areas. In this blog post, I take a bird’s-eye view of what we do and do not know about climate change and agriculture in Africa south of the Sahara and the implications for the policymaking process.

What we do know is that a wide range of human activities, from transportation to tillage, add to the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the air. Since the industrial revolution, humans have contributed to a measurable increase in these gasses, which trap the sun’s energy and warm our planet. Very little of these increases have come from African countries, but future economic growth could change that. 

An understanding of basic physics and computer modeling of the atmospheres tell us with great confidence that the emissions path we are on will raise global average temperatures, possibly by more than 2°C by 2050. Translated to a farmer’s fields in Africa, this could result in average temperatures by late this century that would make agriculture very difficult in some locations.

What we don’t know is how these global temperature increases will affect precipitation patterns, either changes in seasonal rainfall averages or the number and nature of extreme events such as droughts, hot spells, floods, and frosts. For each of the 11 countries we studied, we included temperature and precipitation maps from different climate models and GHG emissions pathways to illustrate the range of possibilities. Precipitation can increase or decrease in some countries, depending on the scenario. 

To help provide the information that policymakers need, we used computer software that models plant performance based on weather and management practices to assess the range of yield changes that climate change might bring, but we did not take into account the potential effects of extreme events, as neither the data nor the models are available to do that yet.

Agriculture does not operate in a vacuum, but is embedded in the economy of individual countries, and, as such, in regional and global economies. For this reason, we factored in other important drivers of economic performance—population growth, income growth, and agricultural productivity improvements—to assess the range of potential outcomes of interest to policymakers and interest groups. 

What kind of messages do my colleagues and I have for African policymakers? 

First, what not to do. 

* Don’t make policy or investment decisions that assume a specific climate-change outcome in the future. Instead recognize that the future is uncertain, but that uncertainty is not unbounded. Take into account the fact that higher temperatures and more extreme weather events are coming. When a road is designed, ensure that it is built with higher temperatures in mind. When a water-storage facility is designed, plan for more variability in the amount of water it will hold and that the inflows might be very fast. These are examples of the many ways policymakers can account for the potential effects of climate change.

Second, what to do: 

* Put in place the human and institutional capacity necessary to deal with a range of outcomes. Invest in people and give them the tools they need to develop a range of response options. Make sure you have the agronomists, soil scientists, and livestock specialists who can work with the private sector and the international research community to address climate change challenges as well as the need for higher productivity. Make it easy for them to work with others, both nationally and internationally, to share information and to take advantage of work done by others. Develop and support governments, the private sector, and civil society organizations that look across the range of challenges facing a country and help them cooperate to identify solutions. Break down the silos that make cooperation difficult. 

* Recognize that broad-based economic development is critical for addressing climate change (and other) challenges. Don’t implement climate-change policies in isolation from other economic considerations. For example, build the rural roads that are essential to make farmers more productive and make sure the roads can tolerate higher temperatures. Devise sustainable development policies and programs that are sensitive to the range of possible climate-change effects. In short, address today’s development challenges while preparing for tomorrow’s climate-change threats. 

* Finally, improve data collection on weather, prices, land use, and other topics, and make it freely and widely available. The information needed for understanding climate change’s impact on agriculture and the economy as a whole is woefully inadequate today and the need for it is growing in tandem with population, income, and demand for natural resources—all of which will bring unprecedented challenges.

For more background information on West African Agriculture and Climate Change, including summary notes for each of the 11 countries studied, visit our press room page.