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FACTSHEET: Understanding greenhouse gas emissions, and how Africa compares with the rest of the world

Africa is already suffering because of global warming, warns the African Union. This factsheet looks at greenhouse gases and how African countries’ emissions compare with the rest of the world.

Africa is already bearing the brunt of climate change, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa told the region’s heads of state and government in a June 2021 meeting.

“Africa continues to be one of the most affected regions in the world and frequently experiences phenomena associated with global warming,” he said

These included droughts, floods, extreme heat and cyclones which have damaged infrastructure and displaced thousands of people.

The United Nations (UN) says that unless steps are taken to limit global warming, the long-term heating of Earth’s climate because of human activities, African countries will be severely affected by rising temperatures in the coming decades. This could contribute to food insecurity, population displacement and drought. 

Among the key drivers of climate change, which is the long term change in average weather patterns across the world, is the emission of greenhouse gases. These have a direct impact on climate change. 

This factsheet looks at what greenhouse gas emissions are, efforts to manage them, how they are measured and how African countries compare with the rest of the world.

Climate change in Senegal
The old foundations of a destroyed mosque are seen though an old house in Bargny, Senegal on August 18, 2020. Photo/JOHN WESSELS/AFP

What are greenhouse gases? 

Greenhouse gases is the term for gases that trap heat from the sun in the earth’s atmosphere. The gases can remain in the atmosphere for anything from a few to thousands of years.

According to the British Geological Survey, an organisation focused on geological science research, greenhouse gases are crucial for life on Earth. Without them absorbing and trapping infrared heat, the planet’s temperature would be at an estimated -20℃.

Greenhouse gases include the following:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) which makes up the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. It is released through burning fossil (natural) fuels such as oil, coal and gas, deforestation and the manufacturing of cement. 

  • Methane (CH4) is released through fossil fuel production, landfills, and agriculture.

  • Nitrous oxide (N2O) is released through land use, agriculture and industrial activities, and treatment of wastewater.

  • Fluorinated gases include chlorofluorocarbon-12, hydrofluorocarbon-23, and sulfur hexafluoride. They are produced by industrial processes such as refrigeration and electricity transmission.

According to the US Congress-backed Global Change Research Program, “the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased more than 20% in less than 40 years, owing largely to human activities”. 

As more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, more heat is trapped. This is causing the current global warming crisis.

Global warming is changing the earth’s climate. The changes include extreme weather conditions such as floods, heatwaves and droughts, as well as more acidic oceans, rising sea levels and the extinction of species.

What is the Paris Agreement?

On 12 December 2015, 196 countries signed a legally binding international treaty known as the Paris Agreement. This treaty aims to limit the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. Pre-industrial generally refers to the period between 1720 and 1800, or before the industrial revolution

The agreement also aims to provide support to developing and more vulnerable countries so that they are able to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change.  

It aims to reach “global peaking” of carbon emissions as soon as possible with the recognition that this process will take longer for developing countries.

All countries in the treaty have to put forward nationally determined contributions, ors NDCs. For example, South Africa has aimed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to between 398 to 510 tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2025 and reduce it further to between 398 to 440 tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030.

Climate Action Tracker is an online database that tracks how many countries have fulfilled their NDCs and are on track towards the globally agreed aim of keeping warming below 2°C. According to the tracker only two countries, Morocco and the Gambia, are on track to comply with the Paris Agreement. 

How are greenhouse gases measured? 

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a US-based climate change policy think tank, two factors determine a greenhouse gas’s global warming effect. 

The first is the gas’s “ability to absorb energy and radiate it”. Second is its “atmospheric lifetime”, which measures how long the gas stays in the atmosphere before it is naturally removed. 

Global warming potential (GWP) measures the strength of a gas’s greenhouse effect by each unit of gas over a specified period of time – usually 100 years. It uses CO2 as a reference point. It has a GWP of one over 100 years.

Dr Rachel Cleetus is the policy director of the climate and energy programme at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit that conducts scientific research in order to advocate for solutions.

She told Africa Check that emissions are calculated using a number of tools. These include calculating the embedded CO2 in fossil fuels such as coal and gas, and using self-reported datasets provided by countries to the UN.

“There’s also lots of ways to check this data remotely so we can have a fairly accurate idea of the emissions,” she said. 

GWPs are used to compare the warming effect of different greenhouse gases, and express them as CO2 equivalents. When calculating total greenhouse gas emissions the measurement used is CO2 equivalent, or CO2e. This measures the presence – and potential to trap heat – of different greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by converting those gases into the equivalent amount of heat trapped by CO2

This allows for all greenhouse gases to be grouped together into one unit. 

What are per capita, annual and historical emissions?

Annual emissions refer to the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted each year by a country. According to Climate Watch, an online database that tracks annual emissions by country, managed by the World Research Institute, the top emitting countries in 2018 were China at 11,705.81 tonnes CO2e, the US at 5,794.35 tonnes CO2e, and India at 3,346.63 tonnes CO2e

According to the independent energy and climate research consultancy Rhodium Group, China alone accounts for 27% of global emissions. The US accounts for 11%

Dr Andrew Marquard is a senior researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Energy Systems Research Group Center. He told Africa Check that a better tool to compare countries’ emissions is per capita emissions. 

Per capita or per person emissions measure the average emissions for each person in a country. This is calculated by dividing the country’s total emissions by its population. According to Climate Watch, top per capita emitting countries include oil producers such as Brunei at 39.51 tonnes CO2e, Qatar at 35.89 tonnes CO2e and Bahrain at 31.19 tonnes CO2e. In comparison, China’s per capita emissions are 8.40 tonnes CO2e, the US’s are 17.74 tonnes CO2e and India’s are 2.47 tonnes CO2e. 

Historical emissions, also known as cumulative emissions, measure each country’s total contribution to global emissions over time. Current data, which measured CO2 emissions from 1751 until 2017, indicates that the US alone has contributed 25% of total cumulative carbon dioxide emissions. 

According to Climate Watch, the three countries with the highest cumulative emissions are the US at 462,048.40 tonnes CO2e, China at 222,702.94 tonnes CO2e and Russia at 119,209.08 tonnes CO2e

“From a climate change perspective, what’s really important is cumulative emissions, not just the annual emissions,” said Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

“When we think about responsibility for these impacts it is predominantly on richer nations like the United States and the European Union.”

How do African countries compare?

African countries emit relatively little carbon compared to the rest of the world. The entire continent has contributed just 3% of historical emissions. 

According to the African Development Bank Group, a regional development lender, most of sub-Saharan Africa’s total emissions are from land use and forestry. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo had the highest total emissions in Africa in 2018 at 681.67 tonnes CO2e but just over 80% of this came from deforestation and land use. Its per capita emissions stood at 8.11 tonnes CO2e

According to Climate Watch, other major contributors include South Africa at 520.50 tonnes CO2e and Nigeria at 357.52 tonnes CO2e. South Africa’s per capita emissions are 9.01 tonnes CO2e and Nigeria’s 1.83 tonnes CO2e.

South Africa’s carbon emissions are relatively high. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that in 2018 South Africa was the world’s 13th biggest emitter of C02, and the largest in Africa, with 0.46 gigatonnes of C02, or 460 million tonnes CO2. (Note: A gigatonne is 1 billion tonnes.)

Africa Check previously found that according to a report released by the department of environment, forestry, and fisheries, South Africa produced 555,663.2 gigagrams of greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, excluding emissions from forestry and land use. This is approximately 0.56 gigatonnes. Of the figure, 84.75% was from carbon dioxide, 9.28% from methane, 4.81% from nitrous oxide and 1.16% from fluorinated gases. (Note: A gigagram is 1 million kilograms or 1,000 tonnes.)

Further Reading

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