SOUTH AFRICA: COP17 - New climate research

Two of South Africa's top universities have launched high profile, multidisciplinary climate change research initiatives ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP17, which kicks off in Durban, South Africa, on Monday.

Together with other institutions the universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand are using the event - which brings together about 20,000 delegates representing the world's governments, international organisations and civil society - to showcase local research and expertise on climate change and sustainability.

The University of Cape Town formally introduced its African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI), a multidisciplinary cross-university research, teaching and outreach programme on 5 November.

In his launch speech, Vice-chancellor Max Price said the ACDI would pull together research being done across Africa and help to translate that research into policy proposals with a deep understanding of the development challenges facing countries on the continent. It would help to empower representatives negotiating international conventions with "science-based, locally relevant arguments", he said.

ACDI director and Cape Town's (UCT's) first pro vice-chancellor for climate change, Professor Mark New, said in a filmed interview posted on the university website that institutions like ACDI play a role in generating innovative ideas and research well in advance of meetings and events such as COP.

He said COP 17 offered a "real opportunity to emphasise African issues", particularly around the areas of adaptation, financing for adaptation and securing the Green Climate Fund, which will support low-carbon development in Africa.

The appointment of a pro vice-chancellor dedicated to climate change issues received endorsement from Britain's Prince of Wales, a long-standing advocate of green issues, in a speech delivered on the campus on same day that Cape Town formally introduced New and the ACDI.

Prince Charles said he had been "incredibly heartened by UCT's decision to appoint a pro vice-chancellor for climate change, an idea which I can only hope will catch on elsewhere".

Hot on the heels of UCT's ceremony was the launch on 8 November by the University of the Witwatersrand of its R28-million (US$3.3 million) Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute.

Acting Director Professor Andrew Crouch said in a statement that the institute was formed out of recognition that challenges of the future are complex and require a collective contribution.

He said the 21st century institute, which would be promoted to a global audience at COP17, would tackle problems related to global change, climate change and sustainability "in a revolutionary way".

"It will bring to bear the distinct capabilities of environmentalists, social scientists, researchers, academics, economists, biologists, innovators, strategists and energy experts as well as representatives from government, industry and civil society to resolve the complex issues we face today, and in the future," he said.

Crouch's comments were echoed by Dr Heidi Hackmann, secretary-general of the International Social Science Council and a South African, who said scientists "needed to get their act together".

"For the benefit of our common humanity and shared physical environment, working across traditional disciplinary and institutional boundaries, integrating multiple sources of expertise, and working with society in the co-production of solutions is not a choice but a simple necessity," she said in a press release.

Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape told University World News that it was sending a team of eight staff and students from the department of environmental science, five of whom are to sit in on COP17 negotiations in their capacity as members of a civil society observer delegation.

However, all eight are to participate in the various side events and educational activities such as Forest Day, Agricultural Day, tours of the climate change projects around Durban and the events led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

Rhodes staff and students are to co-host their own side event on "Gender, Justice, and Social Learning" as part of a World University Network Project led by Penn State University in collaboration with Monash University, the University of Cape Town and the University of Western Australia under the banner "Limits to Adaptation", said the university.

Senior lecturer in the department Dr Sheona Shackleton, who will deliver a keynote address during the Dry Forests Symposium on 1 December, said the side events presented the opportunity for NGOs, international organisations and university researchers to share their passion and work in the area of climate change. "People take this as an opportunity to showcase their work," she said.

Professor Cristina Trois from the School of Civil Engineering, Surveying and Construction told University World News that while the University of KwaZulu-Natal had not been accredited to take part in negotiations, it would be using the conference as an opportunity to profile five of its major environmental projects.

These included the Integrated Renewable Energy Advancement Programme, a partnership between the university, the Department of Trade and Industry and the National Research Foundation aimed at generating energy from biomass and waste. Other projects include sustainability solutions for Isimangaliso's St Lucia Estuarine Lake and the cryopreservation of plant germplasm as a means to protect biodiversity.

Stellenbosch University will be represented in various forums by Professor Oliver Ruppel of the department of mercantile law, who was the coordinating lead author for a chapter on Africa in the Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II (to be released in 2012).

He also contributed to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) guidebook for policy-makers, Addressing Climate Change Challenges for Africa, to be launched at COP17.

Also among the Stellenbosch representatives are Professor Wikus van Niekerk, director of the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies who will, among other responsibilities, participate as a panellist in the first solar resource efficiency technologies day, and a discussion on the role of banks in the low carbon economy; and Professor Alan Brent of the sustainable development programme of the School of Public Leadership, who will be involved in a presentation on the green economy plan for South Africa by the Department of Environmental Affairs and UNEP.

But it's not all about research. Civil society and various activists will also get a chance to express their views and ideas.

The Howard College campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which sits six kilometres away from the COP17 venue on a ridge overlooking the city of Durban, is the site of this year's COP17 alternative space, known as the 'People's Space'.

Activities in the alternative space are coordinated by C17, a group mandated by more than 80 South African civil society groups, and are intended to strengthen the climate justice movement in South Africa and consolidate international civil society actions.

According to the C17 website, the establishment of people's space at COP negotiations "responds to the marginalisation civil society frequently experiences at these events and the lack of progress that has been made by international governments in addressing climate change".


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