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Study spurs action on climate change in Southern Africa

On a continent that has been found by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, to be one of the most vulnerable to climate change, the Southern African Regional Universities Association – SARUA – has produced a comprehensive climate change mapping study that is the first of its kind in Southern Africa, with a focus on universities and higher education institutions.

It brings together information from 12 countries across a multiplicity of disciplines and ministries.

“By responding in a real way to climate change impacts in the region, SARUA is contributing to the strengthening of higher education, in order for Southern African universities to become known as producers of scientific knowledge, which can inform and influence the region’s climate change policy responses,” says the CEO of SARUA, Piyushi Kotecha.

Mapping study

The “Climate Change Counts” mapping study led to the production of a document entitled Knowledge Co-Production Framework, which is available in English and Portuguese on the SARUA website.

The initiative aims to significantly enhance the climate adaptive capacity and resilience of the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, region through the development of a collaborative network of higher education institutions capable of pooling resources, maximising the value of its intellectual capital and attracting significant investment into the region.

Kotecha affirmed that this first phase of the initiative had achieved what they had hoped for: “The mapping study has been an invaluable and necessary process for ownership, collaborative exchanges, and a result which is stronger, more robust than its individual components and which can lead to innovation by the region’s academics.”

Urgency for action

The mapping study has occurred in a year in which the urgency for action on climate change has been further emphasised.

A number of recent analyses have highlighted that the current window of opportunity for action to keep the global temperature increase to 2°C below pre-industrial levels, and to build resilience to current climate variability and projected changes, is rapidly closing.

The Africa Adaptation Gap Report, launched in October 2013, confirms that Africa faces huge financial challenges in adapting to climate change.

It outlines the costs faced by the continent if governments fail to close the ‘emissions gap’ between current 2020 emissions reduction pledges and what is needed to keep warming below 2°C. The study assigns a 40% chance that we will inhabit a ‘4°C World’ by 2100 if mitigation efforts are not stepped up from current levels.

This is confirmed by the recently completed IPCC Fifth Assessment Working Group I Report. Due to present and committed climate change caused by past emissions, Africa will already experience adaptation costs in the range of US$7 billion to US$15 billion per year by 2020. These costs will rise rapidly after 2020, since higher levels of warming result in higher costs and damages.

Successful response

“The SARUA initiative arose as a result of a meeting in 2010 of vice-chancellors at a SARUA leadership dialogue event in Mauritius to consider how universities in the region might respond to the challenge of climate change and adaption,” explained Professor Primrose Kurasha, chair of SARUA.

“At that stage we realised that this would be a very challenging and daunting project because of the nature of the topic – and here we are in 2014, having secured funding, having conducted this mapping study and having held workshops in 12 countries.”

“There were many firsts achieved with this project,” said Kurasha. “We had engagement at the highest level, with national ministers of both environment and education involved. We also achieved a cross-border approach, realising that if one pools expertise in this region, the impact of the response is likely to be amplified.”

Kotecha added: “While many of our regional universities are doing good work on aspects of climate change, a ‘non-siloed’ approach was required as universities are divided into disciplines and a trans-disciplinary approach is needed.”

The extensive study aimed to establish needs and existing institutional contributions to climate compatible development knowledge production, incorporating research, teaching and community engagement in Southern Africa, involving primarily the universities that are part of SARUA.

The study was based on questionnaire data, document analysis and consultations with universities and stakeholders involved in climate compatible development knowledge production in the region.

It provides the first ‘baseline’ analysis of the role of universities in knowledge co-production for climate compatible development. It is accompanied by a substantial database and a set of 12 country reports.

“The study is the result of extensive regional collaboration, including a regional team of 18 specialists and with 15 universities making direct contributions,” said Kotecha.

Primary funding was received from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, or CDKN, and additional contributions were provided by a number of others, including the SADC Regional Environmental Education Programme.

Previous SARUA research has shown the necessity of regional collaboration and especially the need for more South-South collaboration in research. The mapping study has reinforced this: while there is research being done in SADC countries, little of this is being published in the international arena by Southern African researchers.

There is also a shortage of doctoral graduates and supervisors in the region. “If Southern African countries wish to respond innovatively to climate change impacts, they need to prioritise new knowledge production,” said Kotecha.

The overall vision of the SARUA programme is to create a system of knowledge co-production that provides Southern African researchers opportunities for capacity building and relevant, high quality knowledge production.

Yet Kotecha warns that a system of knowledge co-production can only be effective if the individual institutions are well managed and can attract, develop and retain quality academic staff. For this reason, the project also focuses on the establishment of institutional and capacity development networks.

Feedback from universities

A leadership dialogue was held in Stellenbosch in May with representatives from 24 of SARUA’s member universities who received the results of the climate change mapping study and discussed the findings.

Kurasha was enthused by their response: “From the feedback we received at our May leadership dialogue and the excitement shown by university representatives to be part of a potentially groundbreaking initiative, we are confident that the SARUA member universities can make a substantive and long-lasting contribution to development in the region, as well as to the region’s response to one of the major threats to human development.”

“By making the study results available, SARUA is providing a platform for self-organised knowledge sharing and collaboration among universities on the issue of climate change,” said Kurasha.

“The mapping study signifies the completion of the first phase. SARUA will now be co-ordinating a formal process of network development and is currently collaborating with potential funders.”

SARUA will launch an expression of interest process for the establishment of four collaborative networks in the region, as recommended by the mapping study. These four networks will focus on:

  • Research across seven themed transdisciplinary clusters.
  • Curriculum innovation.
  • Institutional and policy development.
  • Capacity development.

The mapping study forms the basis for the realisation of a five-year programme on climate change, the SARUA Programme for Climate Change Capacity Development. The vision for taking action on climate change in Southern Africa is in place and its realisation will be achieved with high-level network formations and the requisite funding.
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