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Climate Change

Published on January 9th, 2020 | by Ciara Gillan


Africa Released 6 Billion Tonnes Of CO2 In 2016, Despite Its Low Record For GHG Emissions

January 9th, 2020 by  

How does a continent with the lowest release of greenhouse gases (“7.1%, despite containing nearly 14% of the world’s population“) release 6 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2016?

Image source: Supplementary Information, Palmer et al. (2019)

Although South Africa ranks at number 13 in the Global Carbon Atlas’s 2019 release of 2018 data on countries’ global emissions, the majority of countries in Africa range quite low. However, when comparing the CO2 release with one of the biggest emitters of CO2, the United States, Africa comes in ahead of their 5.3 billion tonnes of CO2 a year for 2016.

A new study featuring data compiled from two satellites, Japan’s Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) and NASA’S Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2), found that in 2016, “Africa’s tropical lands released close to 6bn tonnes of CO2.” The report found that this land predominantly covered tropical forests and peatlands, “environments which typically absorb large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.” So why then, with Africa being home to one third of the world’s tropical rainforests and 3% of the world’s peatlands, is there such a large release of CO2?

Two reasons have presented themselves.

Research showed that 2015-2016 was one of the worst El Niños in history. While it can affect all regions differently, it resulted “in intense droughts that affected almost 40 million people” in southern Africa. Added to that, increased deforestation in Africa is a growing cause for concern. The pernicious circle of more intense and destructive fires and hurricanes ravaging forests is coinciding with a population boom in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is calling for more and more land to be cleared for subsistence agriculture.

Image source: Global Forest Watch

While experts believe that this “large source of CO2 emissions in tropical Africa does not mean that global CO2 emissions are higher than scientists thought,” it has highlighted two things. More research is required for a part of the world that we know very little about, in relation to climate change. Plus there is a consistent lack of focus on the devastation of deforestation. The “Global Forest Watch estimates that tropical forests have the potential to mitigate about 7.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.” Upon destruction, all the tonnes of CO2 stored is almost instantaneously released back into the atmosphere. “Protecting and restoring forests would reduce 18% of emissions by 2030 and help to avoid global temperature rising beyond 1.5C.”

It is argued that there is too much focus on the impact of burning fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases. With the continent of Africa not being the largest source of global emissions, questions are not being asked as to what else is being done there to impact our climate. This report is indicative of that underlying problem. A natural weather phenomenon and increased globalization are not to be ignored as strong impacts on our issues of climate change, especially in a continent where there’s an increased number of coal-fired power plants, something I’ll be writing about in coming weeks. 

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About the Author

Ciara Gillan is a writer, audio producer and a lover of crime stories. She writes about the environment and is currently figuring out how long it would take her to get from Berlin to Dublin 'Greta Thunberg' style. You can find her on Twitter, or find her audio work here.

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