Dr Joan Nyanyuki, executive director of African Child Policy Forum, believes the powerful people making laws and policies have too little skin in the game when it comes to avoiding the consequences of climate change.
As politicians, bankers, policy experts and big business from Africa and around the world got together in Gabon recently for Africa Climate Week, I was somewhat concerned by the absence of one important group: children and young people. Sure, the ACW website makes a passing mention to the involvement of youth, but I am far from convinced that the voices of African children and young people will be heard – let alone listened to – amid the discussions.
It’s a depressingly familiar story. Often with the best of intentions, adults get together to formulate policy, agree action plans and draw up strategies. The future is decided without consulting the very people who will be most affected: the next generation. According to the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA), young people are often excluded from politics precisely because Africa has the oldest political leadership.
And so it is with the climate crisis. Half of Africa’s population is under the age of 20, and according to the Children’s Climate Risk Index, 490 million children in 35 sub-Saharan countries are at risk from the worst impacts of climate change. At least 11 million children across the continent face food insecurity due to extreme weather events including drought and floods.
Climate change undermines children’s rights to life, dignity, health and education, and increases the risks of violence and displacement from climate-related weather events and conflicts. Pressures on Africa’s already sprawling cities will get worse as young people abandon increasingly unproductive land and head for urban areas in search of a better life.
Girls and young women will be disproportionately affected, both because they are heavily involved in subsistence farming and because after a natural disaster, the burden of responsibility also typically falls disproportionately on female shoulders.
It’s not as if young people are silent on the matter of climate change. Across Africa, activists such as Yero Sarr from Senegal, South Africa’s Raeesah Noor-Mahomed, Vanessa Nakate from Uganda and Fatna Ikrame El Fanne of Morocco – along with countless others – are grabbing headlines for their outspoken and courageous climate activism. They represent millions of young Africans facing a bleak future unless those attending Africa Climate Week – and November’s COP 27 UN climate change summit in Egypt – get their act together, and quickly.
One billion children by 2050
Of course, everyone is affected by climate change, but children and young people in Africa will bear the brunt in the coming decades, since the worst effects are expected mostly in the second half of this century.
By the mid-century, in 2050, the continent will be home to one billion children who, given the right life chances, could power an African social and economic renaissance.
The climate crisis could scupper that. Over and above the direct impacts of floods, droughts, land and water conflicts, displacement and climate migration, the consequences for employment, economic productivity and growth will be significant. Without meaningful action to reduce emissions in rich countries and to adapt development infrastructure and policies in Africa, declines in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of up to 30 percent are predicted.
Investments in essential services for children, such as early and basic education, health, nutrition and social protection – from which future generations would reap the benefits – are likely to be sidelined as governments, international donors and private investors divert funds to climate adaptation and mitigation.
There will be less money to spend on educational, social and health services: the result will be reduced productivity, lower earnings and increased poverty. One recent study estimates that today’s 5-14 age group, who would expect to reach their expected peak earnings period around 2045, can instead anticipate up to an 80 percent decline in income growth compared to today. This long-term income damage will substantially affect their future and that of their children.
By the time the worst impacts of climate change are felt, many of those attending Africa Climate Week and COP 27 will be long gone. Despite their best intentions and calls for action, they have little skin in the game. It’s Africa’s children and young people who will be left to pick up the pieces as best they can. The sooner they are given a say in their own future, the better.
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