Africa Climate Week 2023, which is being hosted in Nairobi on September 4-8, is the first of four regional climate weeks (RCWs) held in the runup to the Twenty-Eighth United Nations Conference of Parties (COP28) in Dubai later this year. The RCWs are designed to gather governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders together to address the most pressing climate issues, such as implementing nationally determined contributions—essentially countries’ roadmaps for their climate objectives and how they fit into global goals—and meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to climate issues. The other purpose of the RCWs is to build momentum ahead of COP28. This year’s COP is particularly significant, as it will see the conclusion of the first “global stocktake”—a process that takes place over five-year intervals during which countries assess their progress toward meeting the Paris climate goals.

Alexander Csanadi
Alexander Csanadi is a research assistant in the Carnegie Africa Program.
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Beyond the connection to COP28, Africa Climate Week offers a chance for African governments and stakeholders to bring regional concerns to the global stage. While climate change is a global challenge, the principal policy responses are not developed with geographically representative input—beginning crucially with the scientific assessments underpinning said policy. Without representative input into the scientific foundations, effective policymaking is impossible.

Despite being responsible for less than 3 percent of cumulative greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the African continent stands to be disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. For example, the African Development Bank estimates that climate effects led to average annual losses in GDP per capita growth of 5–15 percent between 1986 and 2015. These losses were accrued both because of the inevitable results of GHG emissions and because of inadequate adaptation measures. Thus, while climate shocks may be inevitable, the severity of their effects will depend on how well countries are able to prepare and cope. This imperative is reflected in the high prevalence of “adaptation strategies” and “just transitions” in the language of the detailed descriptions of the four RCW tracks.

Adaptation initiatives—such as more resilient infrastructure and effective early warning systems—will be a critical component of sustainable development on the continent in the coming decades. But despite their recognized importance, adaptation initiatives are still often prioritized behind mitigation efforts. For example, an analysis from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that, while the share of climate finance for adaptation has been growing, as recently as 2019 adaptation only accounted for around a quarter of all climate finance, with an additional 10 percent being labeled as cross-cutting. Another recent analysis of World Bank financing for climate change, conducted by economists at the Center for Global Development, also found a bias toward funding mitigation, with these projects receiving about 58 percent of total climate funding—compared to 42 percent for adaptation projects. However, the analysis also found that the bias toward funding mitigation has been declining in recent years.

One possible reason for this discrepancy between the importance of adaptation and funding for adaptation projects: researchers from the Global South are drastically underrepresented among leading climate scientists. Underrepresentation of researchers at the highest levels of climate debates can translate into distortions in research area priorities relative to the true global needs, which in turn impacts which issues get prioritized.

This underrepresentation is particularly acute at the leading institution for setting the global scientific climate debate, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC regularly publishes reports on the state of climate change globally, as well as targeted reports on specific topics. An examination of the authorship of several recent IPCC reports gives a crucial insight into whose voices constitute the scientific basis for defining the contours of global climate policy and debate.

As shown in figure 1, by far the largest share of authors (42 percent) come from Europe, followed by those from North America and the Caribbean (19 percent). African, Asian, and Latin American authors combined constitute less than one-third of total authorship, despite these regions being home to more than three-quarters of the global population—and all of the RCWs.

This discrepancy is stark and persistent, despite the IPCC itself recognizing the importance of geographical representation. The authorship selection process explicitly considers geographic representation for the stated purpose of “ensur[ing] that reports are not biased towards the perspective of any one country or group of countries and that questions of importance to particular regions are not overlooked.” Yet this continued underrepresentation has far-reaching consequences. Ensuring that the reports with the greatest influence over the climate response be driven by the deepest possible reservoir of lived experiences is of paramount concern not just for the sake of diversity. Incorporating as many data sources and perspectives as possible enhances the validity and the benefits of the scientific process that generates climate solutions.

One possible explanation for the underrepresentation of African IPCC contributors is that there are simply fewer climate experts from these countries. While this may be a tempting hypothesis, it’s not a very compelling one. The Carnegie Africa Program has put together a database of Africa-based research organizations working on issues related to climate. To date, this database features more than 170 groups from across the continent focused on forestry and agriculture (ninety), extractive industries (forty-seven), energy (seventy-three), urban development (twenty-three), and more, with some organizations spanning multiple thematic areas. They include technical scientists as well as policy and legal experts working on climate issues.

As with all aspects of the fight against climate change, a rigorous body of scientific research is the foundation of an effective response. Scientific analysis translates directly into the suite of policy options that receive consideration, and the nature of that analysis is directly related to the researchers who produce it. Inequitable representation in the production of research then directly hamstrings the options of policymakers at forums such as the RCWs, the COP, other international summits, and beyond.

The stock of climate expertise throughout Africa—and likely the entirety of the Global South— unquestionably exists, but it needs to be leveraged. To ensure effective outcomes, expertise from regions facing the most acute risks must be more fully reflected in IPCC analysis. This principle is already enshrined in the authorship selection process, but it has yet to become reality. Ensuring equitable representation in the scientific research process—and, critically, the process by which the science relates to policymakers—is critical for guaranteeing effective outcomes.