02 August 2013

Antonio Bombelli: Africa’s carbon cycle under scrutiny

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Estimating the contribution of greenhouse gases from Africa is key in ensuring our picture of global warming is accurate. But this would require constant monitoring that has not been sustained.

The results of climate change are going to have more impact in Africa than other regions due both to ecological and socio-economic factors. However, little is known about the role of Africa with regard to greenhouse gases emissions. Antonio Bombelli of the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change, headquatered in Lecce, Italy, has been the project manager of the first research project that built a greenhouse gasses monitoring network in Sub-Saharan Africa. The project, CARBOAFRICA, completed in 2010, was designed to respond to a specific interest at European level in better understanding carbon cycle in that area. Bombelli tells youris.com about progress in Sub-Saharan African since the project was completed.

What are the main achievements of the project?
There has been different kind of achievements. The first, and maybe the most important, is that we succeeded in building and coordinating a monitoring network for greenhouse gases in Sub-Saharan Africa. Before the beginning of the project there were just a few monitoring stations and their measures were not integrated. The network was a specific request from the European Commission, but it was obvious that we could make it happen. At the end we had 19 stations in 11 different countries. Moreover, in Ghana we built the first carbon monitoring station within a forest in Africa. That has been important to better understand how a forest actually works as a carbon sink.

Have many problems arisen during the course of the project?
There have been different problems at different levels. To start a project in Africa you have to develop a good partnership with the right local institutions. This takes time and may causes delays in the early stages. Then, there are practical problems. For instance, the same instrumentation that works efficiently in temperate countries, like European ones, can have big problems in the extremely hot or humid conditions you can find in Africa. Moreover, often in the African context you cannot just apply the same research protocols and modelling approaches used for other regions.

What can we say about the role of Sub-Saharan Africa in relation to greenhouse gases emissions?
We already suspected from previous researches that Africa as a continent could be a net sink. It means that on average African ecosystems absorb more carbon than they release. The project confirmed our suspicion, but we cannot be 100% sure because the network was not wide enough to extend our results at a continental level with the required reliability. On this point, I think we would need more data coming from continuous measurements. Unfortunately today, after a couple of years since the project ended, many of the monitoring stations have been closed down because of lack of resources.

We tend to think that greenhouse gases emissions are a Western problem. Why is it important to study this subject in Africa?
First, it is important because we know very little about this kind of topics on Africa, especially Sub-Saharan region. Second, because if we really want to understand the global CO2 balance we cannot forget Africa. At the moment, with some exceptions like the Republic of South Africa, African countries are not important emitters, but they are among the most vulnerable to climate change.

Have these findings been beneficial for further research?
There has not been a proper follow up, because part of the network is not working any more. But the field data we collected have been used as a confirmation of greenhouse gases emission estimated from satellite information. And they are now used in another EU funded project called CLIMAFRICA. The latter is centred on making climate change previsions and assessing its impacts on the availability of natural resources and the evaluation of the vulnerability of ecosystems.

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