Carbon emissions from Africa are climbing faster than they can be absorbed

  • Researchers at Wits University have published alarming research that highlights how Africa is emitting more carbon than it absorbs.
  • In the last year Africa released 1.2 petagrams of carbon and only 0.6 petagrams were absorbed through natural carbon sinks.
  • The researchers highlight that landscapes which take in excess CO2 need to be restored and maintained while other solutions are explored.

The African continent is often referred to as a carbon sink. This means the continent absorbs more carbon than it emits, only that isn’t the case anymore according to a team of researchers who looked at the continent’s recent carbon emissions.

A team from the Futures Ecosystems for Africa programme based at Wits University has released data that reveals that between 2010 and 2019, Africa turned from a slight net carbon sink to a slight net carbon source. Essentially, Africa now emits more carbon than it absorbs.

“In terms of global numbers this means Africa still hovers around 4% of fossil fuel emissions, but actually emits nearly 40% of the global emissions from land use, and is now, for the first time, contributing 3-5% of the growing amount of GHGs [greenhouse gases] in the atmosphere,” says Professor Sally Archibald, Principal Investigator at the Future Ecosystems for Africa Program, and Professor in the Wits School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits University.

The researchers arrived at this conclusion after studying the budget assessment protocol laid out by the REgionalCarbon Cycle Assessment and Processes (RECCAP2). Then the team looked at potential carbon sources including agriculture, fossil fuel emissions and natural sources such as wildfires. This was considered against data on natural carbon sinks such as grasslands, forests and savannas.

Upon studying this data, the researchers concluded that Africa is a source of 4.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. Looking specifically at emissions from human activity, the researchers determine that 1.2 petagrams of carbon were released last year with only 0.6 petagrams being absorbed by forests and the like, leaving 0.6 petagrams of carbon to be released into the atmosphere.

This should be a warning sign to Africans to assess and determine where carbon emissions can be managed more effectively. The researchers say that moving to carbon neutral energy sources could remove as much as 30 percent of emissions coming from human activity.

“Protecting, managing, and restoring the landscapes that are helping to take up the excess CO2 is an important part of the solution – but there are challenges with making carbon storage the main goal of conservation and it can conflict with biodiversity and water provision. The Future Ecosystems for Africa Program is working with scientists, policy makers, and carbon projects across the continent to try to navigate this and identify opportunities to store carbon in natural ecosystems that do not damage the ecology”, says Archibald

However, the topic of combating carbon emissions is a touchy one on the African continent. Despite being at risk of being the most severely impacted by climate change, Africa’s emissions are dwarfed by the emissions of China (2.69 billion tonnes) and North America (6.13 billion tonnes). As Al Jazeera rightly put it in 2023, “…an average American or Australian emits as much CO2 in a month as an individual in Africa does in a year.”

Because of this wide chasm of differences, many on the African continent feel that the Global North should be doing more to address climate change. More than that, African nations are often passed when consideration is made for carbon-neutral projects.

South Africans holding that opinion may want to reconsider it as Al Jazeera also found that South Africa is the biggest CO2 emitter on the continent and its not even close. South Africa, a coal-dependent country, emits 435 million tonnes of CO2 each year, a quarter of the entire continent’s emissions.

All of this is to say that as a species, we need to do more to address carbon emissions and the climate change those emissions drive.

Daily Maverick has published a fantastic piece of content that highlights seven tipping points that humanity is in danger of triggering. Think of a tipping point as a wire on the inside of a bucket, as the bucket tips, the water gets closer to the wire. Eventually, the water will reach the wire and we don’t really want to find out what happens when a tipping point is reached as it’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible to come back from that.

We are leaving an indelible mark on this planet and at the rate we’re going, not even the billionaires will be able to reach Mars or whatever their Plan B is.

[Image – Antony Trivet from Pixabay]


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