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When climate change leaves you with the only (most expensive) option to adapt
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson (Faculty of Science)
Published: 15/02/2023

​​​There may come a time in our efforts to gradually adapt to climate change that we are pushed over a tipping point – when the only choice we face is either a completely transformed way of doing things, or nothing.

These so-called tipping points in adaptation are, however, going to be very capital and technology intensive, warns Prof Guy Midgley, interim director of the School for Climate Studies (SCS) at Stellenbosch University. He is the main author on a recent article, “Potential tipping points for climate change adaptation costs", published in the journal Climate and Development. The other authors are Prof Arthur Chapman, also from SCS, and Julio Araujo from SouthSouthNorth, a non-profit organisation working in the field of climate change resilience in Africa.

According to Prof Midgley there tends to be a focus on low-risk adaptation responses in the literature, mostly due to high levels of uncertainty about the impacts of climate change.

In the case of Africa, however, our adaptation capacity is already regarded as limited. In the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Africa, breaching adaptation limits is one of the critical risks facing African countries.

In the article, they identify three phases of human adaptation to a changing climate. Firstly, in the “coping adaptation phase", the responses are inexpensive, largely reactive, and involve low-cost beneficiation of existing technologies.

Once these coping mechanisms are no longer effective, there is a transition to more deliberate efforts to find alternative technologies or practices, accompanied by an increase in costs. However, the essential characteristics of the sector are still retained.

The third phase is "strongly technology dependent and/or capital-intensive" and characterised by novel management techniques and practices that alter the essential character of the sector in question and transform it, often associated with a further steep rise in costs.

What does this mean for food production and nature-based livelihoods in Africa?

According to the authors, one of Africa's key vulnerabilities is the sensitivity of agricultural production to drought and heat stress, and the link between crop failures and nature-based livelihoods.

This means many communities rely on indigenous knowledge systems and local knowledge to adapt to the impacts of climate change. This is typical of the low-cost adaptation response phase. In the case of Rwanda, for example, tea production is currently limited to elevations between 1600 and 2100 metres above sea level, due to its sensitivity to heat stress.

Warming of 1 degree Celsius will shift this suitable elevation band about 160 metres higher. Tea production is also impacted by rainfall variability – less rain resulting in a smaller crop. Relying on their intimate knowledge of the area and its vegetation, local farmers can still adapt by relying on these signals.

However, as future warming and greater rainfall variability are predicted for that region, the adaptation responses become more costly, such as planting shade-providing trees and physically relocating tea plantations upslope, or using shade cloths and misting. When these do not work anymore, we enter the third and much more expensive phase, such as the physical relocation of the cropping area.

In this phase, local farmer's knowledge loses its effectiveness.

According to the authors, as indigenous knowledge systems start to fail, it will require even more costly technological solutions: “If this is the case," they write, “then African countries face a significant loss of value that is not currently considered in economic terms – the loss of generations of hard-won indigenous local knowledge".

Strengthening policy making and planning in Africa

Prof Midgley says they hope their identification of these tipping points in adaptation investment will help policy-makers and planners to better understand what lies ahead, as well as strengthen their stance during negotiations on the global mitigation goal.

“A focus on identifying adaptation cost tipping points would enhance the immediate value of climate impacts and adaptation research for policy makers and planners, especially in developing country regions such as Africa," they conclude. 

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​Photo: Rwandan tea plantations around Nyungwe national park. Photo credit: ​​Ben Ayobi wikicommons​ -​