Splitting the bill:
Mitigating a situation we didn’t cause.
By Nyameko Bottoman


The Bard cautions us against showing others the “steep and thorny way to heaven” while we tread the “primrose path of dalliance”.

Similarly, with climate change we would do well to heed warnings that we are setting developing countries on a “slippery, steep slope”.

Moreover, it’s unjust and unrealistic to expect developing countries to foot the bill for a problem that affects them disproportionately and which has been, in the main, the developed world’s making.

It’s not only misguided, it’s a bit rich, for the wealthy to pressure the poor to swallow the bitter medicine they are prescribing for the world’s climate change ills, says Dr Joyce Kimutai, a climate scientist with the Kenya Meteorological Department.

Kimutai argues that developing countries, notably in Africa, can’t afford the expensive mitigation measures (such as swearing off fossil fuels) that developed countries are anxious to foist upon them.

Tipping Points

Kimutai was among three panellists who took part in the latest Tipping Points webinar: “Stuck on mitigation: Why climate efforts have tipped away from adaptation.” Organised by Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation, the Tipping Points series aims to foster debate on critical environmental issues.

Joining her on the panel, were Prof Laura Pereira, a Wits University scientist, and Peter Makumbe, a cattle rancher and researcher at the Oppenheimer’s Shangani Holistic, an environmentally savvy cattle ranch in Zimbabwe.

Futile targets

The online discussion, hosted on Thursday last week (March 29), took its cue from debate at Cop 28, the Climate Change Conference in Dubai late last year. There was a strong view from some at the biennial meeting that adaptation was taking a back seat to mitigation.

Tipping Points facilitator, Dr Christopher Trisos, pressed the panellists to explain why both adaptation and mitigation were lagging and what might be done to remedy this.
Makumbe warned of the futility of expecting developing countries to meet ambitious mitigation targets.

He spoke about a false dichotomy that had developed when it came to adaptation and mitigation. These methodologies were not mutually exclusive, he said, but intertwined.

He explained that adaptation sought to reduce risk and vulnerability to climate change by helping people respond better to change. Mitigation, on the other hand, was about reducing the severity of climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Peter Makumbe conducting a waterbird survey at Upper Insiza Dam, Zimbabwe. (Photo: Supplied)

Makumbe, who is pursuing a doctorate in Nature Conservation at the Nelson Mandela University, studying the migration of bull elephants in areas where people live, stressed that adaptive measures were central to “African countries’ survival in the growing climate emergency”.

He said “mitigation ultimately saves lives”, but it “takes longer to be felt’. And with the people of the continent already under threat, “immediate solutions” in the form of adaptations were needed. These would “help save lives” in response to crises including droughts, floods and declining biodiversity.

He cited a recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation report which found that 800-million Africans were food insecure and 200-million of these were undernourished, with “most of it being compounded by climate change”.

Food insecurity and undernourishment has rising constantly in Africa since 2014, reaching a peak of almost 800 million food insecure and almost 300 million undernourished people on the continent in 2021. Source: Mo Ibrahim Foundation. (Photo: Rawpixel)

Makumbe argues that African countries have limited resources so a balance must be struck between adaptation and mitigation, remembering that mitigation was 20 times more expensive than adaptation and was already expected to account for 66% of climate financing in this decade, he said.

“Expecting developing countries, like in Africa, to achieve mitigation targets while concurrently sustaining struggling economic growth and formulating sustainable climate change adaptation strategies, is as challenging as ascending a slippery, steep slope,” said Makumbe.

Who should pay?

Pereira, who is an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Global Change Institute and is also involved with the Stockholm Resilience Centre, agreed that adaptation and mitigation were not mutually exclusive. Nor were they opposite ends of the spectrum.

She reminded the webinar that the UN Convention on Climate Changes had been set up with a focus on mitigation and for many years it had been widely understood that wealthy nations, companies and individuals were most to blame for the crisis. Yet ,“very little action has been taken to mitigate.”

“Mitigation has not really happened so we need to adapt to climate change,” said Pareira, but she added there were “things we can’t adapt to, so we need to think of the loss and the damage”. As a consequence, we “have to think about who has to pay for this”.

She said adaptation should be getting much more attention and quoted Prof Jim Skeer, the new chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who in a recent talk said adaptation would be “front and centre for the IPPC agenda”.

Wits University scientist, Prof Laura Periera.

Pereira said companies and individuals needed to step up to “be part of the solution space”.
She said an “equity issue” was at play and we were not seeing a “commitment from the wealthier nation to understand” what developing countries were facing – crises that were not their doing.

“We need to recognise and finance adaptation, so we don’t lose livelihoods,” said Pereira. She mentioned the ability to produce food and to stave off extreme events, “like the flooding we saw play out quite strongly in Cape Town” and if we were to avoid losing the “biodiversity that we rely on so strongly”.

Shortsighted

Pereira was critical of strategies that were not about stopping consumption but rather about such things as sequestering carbon, including planting trees in arid regions where this might be harmful.

Inadequate planning

Kimutai, who was lead author for the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land, felt efforts had tipped away from adaptation, and quoted a gap report that highlighted inadequate planning, implementation and financing on adaptation, leaving the “world exposed”.

She said the gap was widening, and we were investing in and doing less adaptation, even as events such as the severe droughts and subsequent flooding in East Africa and the wildfires in North America and Europe reminded us that communities were increasingly vulnerable.

“We see if we don’t invest in adaptation we are going to see more losses and damage.
Why has adaptation fallen so far short?

Kimutai identified a lack of a framework or matrix to systematically assess the effects of climate change and to formulate adaptation goals. While greenhouse gas inventories were established back in 1988, and were well defined and helped to hold countries and organisations accountable, when it came to adaptation, goals were “elusive” and hard to implement.

Making things better

What should be done to make things better?
Kimutai called for a taskforce, with scientists coming together, to make a concerted effort to develop indicators and matrices to assess progress towards goals. They should also talk about gaps in financing, implementing and planning. This would put adaptation on an equal footing to mitigation and make it a reality.

Climate justice was another area that must receive attention, she said, if we were to stem losses and damage to communities and this required the reform of the “architecture of finance”.

In a similar vein to Makumbe’s comments on the limited resources available to African countries, Kimutai said the budgets of developing countries were typically dedicated to fighting poverty and improving health and education, while adaptation was not a priority.

“So when we talk about an architecture of finance, we talk about access to resources in a way that does not burden their debt and that supports communities to adapt better and adopt adaptation plans,” she said.

Later in the webinar, Trisos, who directs the Climate Risk Lab at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town, took questions from the floor.

“Joined-up approach”

Pereira, who attended Cop 28, was asked about sustainability and whether a more joined-up approach to climate change problems might foster adaptation.

She was concerned that “if we don’t get our institution together and our goals aligned we are going to potentially find ourselves” in a decade’s time “going around in circles, but in a much more dire circumstances”.

She referred to possible major tipping points like the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Governance structures were not in place to address these and other pressing climate problems. “We need to have a convention and set targets and we need to orient our actions. But until we can reconfigure and convene structures and look at the underlying economic drivers… we won’t see transformation”.

Kimutai was asked about the limitations of adaptive techniques like planting drought-resistant crops.

Drawing on her research in the Horn of Africa, which was seared by drought from October 2020 to January 2023 and then lashed by floods in October and November last year, she said these extreme events had dampened the adaptive capacity of the people and natural systems had been dampened.

Diversifying food systems was one of the adaptive techniques that could be pursued, she said. It was also important to get people to draw on their indigenous knowledge to see what would work for them. These communities need resources to revive and see how they could diversify their livelihoods to recover and support themselves.

But this needed a lot of support, including funding for loss and damage, and sometimes the limits of adaptation had been reached.

Trisos asked Makumbe about climate-smart ways to ranch cattle in semi-arid areas.
Makumbe stressed the importance of using local breeds that were adapted to the conditions, following a holistic approach that managed grasslands, reducing ground cover and using cattle to help moisture and nutrients infiltrate the soil.

“Recharging the groundwater and rivers is one of the most important ways to adapt to climate change for the livestock farmer,” he said.

In response to a follow-up question, Makumbe identified data management as an important area that needed improvement as more reliable statistics would help livestock researchers in a sector that was important to the livelihoods of millions in Africa.

“You cannot formulate strategies without solid science,” he said. – Additional reporting, Matthew Hattingh.

About the author

Nyameko Bottoman is an emerging writer undergoing training with Roving Reporters.
This story was produced with the support from Jive Media Africa – science communication partner to Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation.