Developing climate change action in Africa

Kirsty Scott

9 August 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

Developing a climate action plan is one thing but supporting local governments to work out how they need to embed it into their processes to implement it, that’s a really important part of that process. One of the most informative stages of that process for me was learning about how to do that.

Nicola Rule

Climate action plans form an important commitment by governments to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Also known as the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), each Party to the Paris Agreement is required to establish an action plan or NDC and update it every five years.

Climate change impacts every aspect of society and plans must balance commitments to climate action alongside other priorities, such as ending poverty and providing universal access to healthcare. It is therefore critical that national and local governments receive support to develop effective, future-thinking, and achievable plans.

In 2021, Commonwealth Alumnus Nicola Rule was appointed Professional Officer in the Climate Change, Energy and Resilience team at the ICLEI Africa, an organisation that supports sub-national governments in Africa on initiatives and projects related to sustainability.

The team works with sub-national governments in Africa to support their climate change planning. This covers a range of areas, including evaluating how they are contributing to climate change, how climate change may affect their municipalities, and helping local and regional governments to set targets and develop plans on how they can address the impacts of climate change, support access to sustainable energy and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Catalysing climate action

Nicola’s role is focused on supporting climate change mitigation and helping sub-national government set targets and plans to reduce GHG emissions in cities. Some of this work is delivered through the Covenant of Mayors in Sub-Saharan Africa (CoM SSA) initiative. ICLEI Africa hosts the CoM SSA Secretariat and Technical Helpdesk.

CoM SSA has over 360 local government signatories across Sub-Saharan Africa, which have committed to develop and implement a sustainable energy access and climate action plan.

In the last three years, Nicola and her team have supported 100 signatories to move ahead with appropriate energy and climate action planning. The type of support provided varies depending on the issue presented or level of input requested by the local government. Examples include facilitating connections between cities which have experienced similar issues and can share their solutions, delivering training on GHG emission inventories to help upskill local government employees on climate change, and conducting in-depth inventories to create mitigation targets and actions for implementation.

Nicola is please to share that through this work, she has contributed to the development of 5 completed Sustainable Energy Access and Climate Action Plans (SEACAPs) for local governments which had not previously undertaken climate action planning.

Thinking long term

Nicola shares that the size of the city or municipality can be a significant factor in the kind of support delivered through CoM SSA.

“Within those 360+ signatories of CoM SSA, it ranges from the massive cities like Lagos that are 15 million plus people to small fairly rural municipalities in Togo, for example, that have 5,000 people in them. There’s a very big range in terms of size and resource availability to the local governments. To some extent that determines whether they have capacity within the local government to think about climate change.”

She also notes that for most local governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change mitigation is not a high priority because, with a few exceptions, their GHG emissions are limited and therefore not contributing significantly to climate change. Adaptation to climate change and access to clean energy are often higher priorities.

Despite the lower contribution of GHGs amongst CoM SSA signatories, Nicola emphasises that there is significant value in local governments considering mitigation strategies now.

“Most cities aren’t emitting very much in the way of greenhouse gases now, but if they’re making decisions now that lock them into certain types of energy systems or transport systems in the long-term future, it might be that they’re stuck in systems that will increase their emissions over time.”

Based on this assessment, Nicola sees the role of her team in helping local governments to evaluate how decisions they are making now will affect their carbon trajectories in the future and how they can avoid committing to high carbon emitting pathways.

The importance of a multi-stakeholder approach

Through a partnership between ICLEI Africa and GIZ, under CoM SSA, Nicola has also been involved in more intensive work supporting local governments in developing climate action plans. In 2021, she worked with local government representatives in Nakuru County, Kenya to develop a climate action plan which covered all stages of development, from initial assessment and scoping to drafting and finalising the plan.

One highlight of this experience was working with a range of departments and sectors within the County Government of Nakuru, as well as national government representatives, and stakeholders from local community organisations and institutions.

“That was a really enriching process for me and for my colleagues. It involved running several workshops with the local government across various sector teams, and doing more intensive work to understand what the mandate of the local government is and what their responsibilities are in terms of the transport sector, for example.”

Nicola feels this multi-stakeholder approach has been crucial to the subsequent implementation and integration of the climate action plan in the county’s overall development strategy, as the actions planned to address climate change are based on the knowledge and experience of local actors and are specific to their context and needs.

“One of the achievements of that process with Nakuru County was that the county climate change team, with our support, could sit in on the process of developing a new integrated five-year county strategy and help to integrate the climate actions that have been identified into their mainstream plan. In this way, climate action becomes embedded into the county’s priorities moving forward. This means it’s more likely to be funded and implemented because it has the highest level of planning support within the county.


“Developing a climate action plan is one thing but supporting local governments to work out how they need to embed it into their processes to implement it, that’s a really important part of that process. One of the most informative stages of that process for me was learning about how to do that.”

This approach also addresses a common problem that can occur in contracting consultants and those outside of the local government to develop plans. While local governments often do not have the resources to develop climate action plans without external support, how this support is delivered is critical. If plans are developed without sufficient input from local government staff and other local actors, they often end up being contextually inappropriate and cannot be implemented in the way they were intended.

Going forward

In early 2023, Nicola commenced doctoral studies through the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Her research will focus on the intersection between urban mobility, crisis and institutional learning in African cities.

Nicola highlights that mobility is a critical component of urban communities’ access, inclusion and wellbeing, in ways that are not always quantifiable or easy to include in institutional knowledge systems. When mobility is disrupted, due to adverse weather, natural disasters, public health crises, political volatility, or any other cause, the impact of these disruptions is often most severe for people living on the periphery, with limited material resources, or who are marginalised in other ways. Her research will explore how, in times of crisis and when mobility is disrupted, this opens opportunities for learning between local institutions and urban communities about the importance of mobility for access, inclusion and wellbeing.

A particular focus of her research will be on how local governments in African cities are learning from and alongside urban communities.

“In a time of crisis when there’s impetus and strong need to solve a problem, I’m interested in whether and how a space for learning and knowledge exchange opens up between the everyday lives of urban dwellers and institutions. I’m specifically interested around mobility and how people are moving and why.”

Her current studies indirectly draw on her Master’s research, which focused more broadly on environmental science, climate change and food systems, with links to mobility.

She notes, however, that her Master’s helped drive her interest in this area and develop her understanding of climate science and urban systems.

“My Master’s fostered an interest in how city systems are generated by the people living in cities. Although that research was on food systems, that same interest I’ve taken through to my PhD. I’m applying it in a very different area, but it comes from the same point of curiosity within me.”

Nicola Rule is a 2017 Commonwealth Scholar from South Africa. She studied for a MSc Environmental Change and Management at the University of Oxford.

Headshot image credit: Canon Collins Trust