Managing Climate Risks in Africa: The Role of Geoengineering (Opinion Article)

Ayalew and Gasc (2013) – Managing Climate Risks in Africa Role of GE – Click for Download

Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 11.06.08 AMA given community could approach geoengineering in one of three simplified ways. The first is to work for an international ban of geoengineering research, development and deployment. Second, it may advocate for a laissez faire approach to relevant activities. Third, it may work towards an international system of governance and regulation. Africa should not only opt for the third option but also actively work in shaping the form and content of such international regulatory system as it may emerge.

Climate change adversely and particularly affects Africa, which has limited adaptive capacity.[1] By reducing the length of the growing season and putting marginal lands in large areas out of production, climate change is projected by 2020 to reduce yield by as much as 50% in some countries.[2] Likewise, it is projected to expose between 75 and 250 million additional people to risks of water stress.[3] Coastal population centers will be adversely affected by expected sea level rise.

The fact is: the structure of the problem is such that the fate of Africa is largely in the hands of the big polluters. Discussion of climate risks should recognize Africa’s ‘helplessness’; much of the problem is not Africa’s doing and hence there is nothing much it can do to reverse the situation, apart from engaging in adaptation planning. Adaptation activities, as response to climate risks in Africa, are fraught with problems of resources and limited effectiveness. It is therefore important not to downplay Africa’s role on the mitigation front. One thing it cannot afford to do is to play into the ‘tragedy of commons’ characterizing current global mitigation efforts. Working to realize available mitigation potential could help Africa occupy a higher moral ground and hopefully will put pressure on the big polluters to take action.

It is in this context that the implications of geoengineering should be seen. By claiming to limit and even reduce temperature, geoengineering will address the main cause of Africa’s vulnerability. Adverse effects of climate change are caused by not only temperature changes but also changes in precipitation and climate extremes. Hagerl and Solomon (2009) critique the current debate on geoengineering for its focus on limiting warming. While it is true that the desirability of a given course of action should be evaluated on its effectiveness in addressing changes in all aspects of the climate system, one must not also lose sight of the relative weight of temperature rise as compared to changes in precipitation patterns and frequency and severity of climate extremes. It is this later consideration which provides a prima facie case for consideration of geoengineering for its use to buy time to address the root causes of the problem[4] and to manage risks more severe than anticipated.

In Africa, relative to changes in precipitation pattern and extreme events, it is the temperature rise that is expected to cause extreme human suffering. Food security, health, and biological diversity will be adversely affected. The issue of food security is given such importance in the current climate change discourse that it is expressed in the ultimate objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Studies suggest that it is temperature rise (as opposed to changes in rainfall patterns) which will largely impact food production by adversely affecting pollination, grainfilling and photosynthesis.[5]

Geoengineering not only claims to address the principal concern of Africa, temperature increase, but it also appears that it might reinstate Africa’s fate largely into her own hands. Possibilities of unilateral deployment, readily available and cheap technologies are what make solar geoengineering through stratospheric aerosol injection seductive, compared to related technologies and mitigation efforts. It is these aspects also which could potentially restructure the problem, giving Africa a meaningful role in managing climate risks on its own. We do not have any illusion that even the lower costs and readily available technologies of geoengineering are within easy reach of any of the African countries. Any obstacles in this regard can however be overcome with appropriate cooperative arrangements among countries in Africa. Any deployment of geoengineering by African countries could also be undone by counter deployment of such or similar technologies by one or more countries. Despite this possibility, however, the negotiating position of Africa and hence control of its destiny could be enhanced.

There, therefore, lies the prima facie attractiveness of geoengineering in minimizing climate risks and development challenges in Africa. This should not however prevent consideration of geoengineering risks. The principal claim of geoengineering is that, by reducing incoming and/or increasing outgoing short-wave radiation, it will cool the Earth. The evidence for this so far is based on effects of volcanic eruptions, sulfate pollution and modeling exercises. It might therefore be prudent to see any harmful side effects of geoengineering by studying effects of volcanic eruptions, for instance. Conceptually, it is plausible to expect that reducing energy absorbed by the earth will affect the level of evaporation, further reducing precipitation. After examining the precipitation and stream flow records from 1950 to 2004 and taking into account changes from El Nino, Trenberth and Dai (2007) concluded that the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991 resulted in “substantial decrease in precipitation over land and a record decrease in runoff and river discharge into the ocean from October 1991-Septmeber 1992”. The authors also found that the changes are greater in the Tropics, which has worrisome implications for Africa. Other studies also found or predicted that stratospheric aerosols might expose regions including Africa to drought conditions.[6] Climate change is expected to expose millions of Africans to risks of water stress. It is not clear whether the drought resulting from geoengineering is in addition to the changes in rainfall patterns expected from climate change. If not, careful trade-offs have to be made in this regard, a decision which will benefit from a more refined scientific knowledge. Other risks mentioned include ocean acidification, ozone depletion, moral hazard and termination.[7]

From the discussion above, Africa’s interest lies not in a laissez faire development and deployment of geoengineering. Nor does it lie in a ban on geoengineering. It will be recklessness of a highest magnitude to tie the fate of Africa to mitigation efforts by developed and major developing countries. The challenges of taking this course are blindingly obvious. Because of collective action problems, the reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases required to keep the increase in temperature rise below 2oC below pre-industrial level has proved elusive, at least so far. Even though some unlikely breakthrough is found and such reductions are made, this will still expose human lives in Africa to unacceptable risks. It therefore benefits Africa, perhaps more than any region of the world, if efforts are expended to develop options to contain temperature rise should global mitigation efforts prove inadequate or should unaccepted climate risks materialize.

Any governance and regulatory system that seeks to account Africa will have the following elements, among others. First, it should principally work towards a progressively better understanding of the effects of geoengineering in minimizing and maximizing climate risks in Africa. Any regulatory regime addressing a novel problem (such as the initial climate change convention) is bound to be a system of information gathering and reporting, at least at the beginning. A number of instruments could be developed to achieve this purpose: disclosure obligations on those engaged in relevant activities and financial support to studies of geoengineering risks in Africa, just to mention two. Second, such regulatory system should work towards development of ‘safe and effective technologies’; that is, adverse affects of the technology on the continent should be minimized to a possible minimum. There are suggestions that possible risks of geoengineering such as risks of termination, human health risks of sulfur deposition, and destruction of the ozone layer could be avoided or minimized through better engineering. Third, it should identify financial resources to geoengineering research from sources that do not reduce the flow of climate finance to Africa. Fourth, it should recognize the right of Africa to have access to safe technologies. Fifth, it ought to design ways of compensating Africa should any deployment (sanctioned or otherwise) results in loss and damage. Sixth, it should recognize the paramount role of mitigation as appropriate response to climate change and should circumscribe the role of geoengineering to managing emergencies in cases where the climate changes faster than expected and where global mitigation efforts prove inadequate.

No single course of action is without uncertainties and risks. The question is how each fares with its benefits and risks compared to others. Such assessments require extensive knowledge and information as to the performance of alternatives. Africa’s interest, considering potential roles of geoengineering in minimizing and maximizing climate risks on the continent, requires generation of extensive scientific knowledge and control of its deployment with a view to minimizing costs of errors.


Araus, J.L., G.A. Slafer, C. Royo and M.D. Serret. 2008. “Breeding for Yield Potential and Stress Adaptation in Cereals”. Critical Reviews in Plant Science 27: 377-412.

Burke, M.B., D.B. Lobell and L. Guarino. 2009. “Shifts in African Crop Climates by 2050, and the Implications for Crop Improvement and Genetic Resources Conservation”. Global Environmental Change 19(3): 317-325.

Hegerl, G.C. and S. Solomon. 2009. “Risks of Climate Engineering.” Science 325 (5943): 955-956.

MacCracken, M.C. 2006. “Geoengineering: Worthy of Cautious Evaluation?” Climatic Change 77: 235-243.

Matthews, H. D. and K. Caldeira. 2007. “Transient Climate–Carbon Simulations of Planetary Geoengineering.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(24), 9949-9954.

Narisma, G.T., J.A. Foley, R. Licker, N. Ramankutty. 2007. “Abrupt Changes in Rainfall During the Twentieth Century”. Geophysics Research Letters 24(06), L06710.

Robock A, L. Oman and G.L. Stenchikov. 2008. “Regional Climate Response to Geoengineering with Tropical and Arctic SO2 Injections.” Journal of Geophysical Research 113, D16101.

Robock, A. 2008. “20 Reasons Why Geoengineering May Be A Bad Idea.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 64(2): 14-18.

Schlenker, W. and D.B. Lobell. 2010. “Robust Negative Impacts of Climate Change on African Agriculture”. Environmental Research Letters 5(1), 014010.

Trenberth, K. E. and A. Dai. 2007. “Effects of Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption on the hydrological cycle as an analog of geoengineering.” Geophysical Research Letters 34, L15702.

Wigley, T.M.L. 2006. “A Combined Mitigation/Geoengineering Approach to Climate Stabilization.” Science 314: 452-454.

[1] IPCC, 2007

[2] IPCC, 2007

[3] IPCC, 2007

[4] Wigley, 2006

[5] Schlenker and Lobell, 2010; Burke et al., 2009; Araus et al., 2008

[6] Robock et al., 2008 and Narisma et al., 2007

[7] MacCracken, 2006; Robock et al., 2008; Matthews and Caldeira, 2007; Robock, 2008

photo credit: <a href=””>Oxfam International</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

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