‘Women in Africa are real climate change champions ...’

“It is estimated that the waste sector in South Africa contributes 4.4% to the total greenhouse gas emissions. However, the nexus of waste and climate change is not explicitly quantified nor addressed in current policies at national and-or at local levels.”

This is according to Cristina Trois, professor in environmental engineering and currently the National Research Foundation (NRF)-Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) South African Research Chair Initiative in Waste and Climate Change (SARChI) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa.

The figure she quotes comes from the National GHG [greenhouse gas] Inventory Report published by the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment in 2017.

Trois, who is also the interim acting director of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Research and Development (WASH R&D) Centre and the coordinator of the first South African masters in waste and resources management at UKZN, said in an interview with University World News that regional collaboration in waste management is crucial as African research groups, despite producing quality research in sustainable waste management, are often marginalised in the international arena.

UWN: What is your main field of expertise and how does it relate to the field of climate change?

CT: I graduated as an environmental engineer with a focus on waste and resource management from the University of Cagliari, Italy. I have a PhD in geo and environmental engineering, specialising in environmental technologies for the rehabilitation of abandoned mines. However, I dedicated my academic career to researching the control, management and treatment of solid waste emissions, zero waste and sustainable African cities.

UWN: As the South African Research Chair in Waste and Climate Change, what are some of the key issues you have been focusing on?

CT: The common key issue lies in this question: In transitioning towards a decarbonised and climate-resilient waste management sector, how can we transition our African cities from resilient to smart, to wise, and finally to sustainable?

My chair focuses on the nexus ‘waste management and climate change’, with particular focus on mitigating the impact of the waste sector on global warming, as well as the impact that climate change has on the waste sector and on the ability of our waste infrastructure and our municipalities to adapt to extreme climatic conditions.

The chair also focuses on developing climate-resilient waste management systems and articulates around three key areas. Firstly, correcting quantification of carbon emissions from the waste sector, then on technology assessment of various scenarios and waste management mitigation strategies that could achieve climate change stabilisation and sustained carbon emission reduction and, finally, addressing drivers and barriers in the localisation of appropriate technologies or strategies.

UWN: What can universities and researchers do to contribute toward more sustainable waste management systems, particularly within the African context?

CT: African science and scientists are at the forefront of waste management research. There are many excellent research groups in South Africa and in Africa that produce high-quality research in the wider field of sustainable waste management. South Africa can certainly become an example to other African countries (in terms of knowledge production in waste management) and, indeed, also other emerging economies across the world.

However, we are often marginalised in the international arena as waste scientists struggle to publish in high-impact factor journals. I believe that waste management researchers in Africa should collaborate more and use existing international and continental platforms of collaboration (for example, the African Union, UN Environment Programme, UN Industrial Development Organisation, and NRF) that can help propel our research globally.

UWN: Given the broad challenges the African region is facing due to climate change, what could be the importance of climate education and environmental literacy, particularly at university level?

CT: Climate education and environmental literacy should be a compulsory feature in every [relevant] university curriculum, and at high-school level, where, sadly, there is limited focus on sustainability and on the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Climate change is affecting all spheres of our lives, and our society and will shape our future ecosystems. Climate and environmental education are essential to foster the necessary change of behaviour that is needed to collectively achieve the SDGs.

UWN: The Paris agreement has challenged regions to keep a global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius. What can African researchers and universities do to contribute?

CT: It is estimated that the waste sector in SA contributes around 4.4% with greenhouse gas emissions to global warming. However, the nexus waste and climate change is not explicitly quantified nor is it addressed in current policies at national and-or local level.

Municipalities and the private sector have generally limited know-how in evaluating technology options. There is a need to create a realistic inventory of greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector and a comprehensive mitigation strategy for South Africa.

Current research at UKZN is aimed at the development of the WROSE (Waste to Resource Optimisation Scenario Evaluation) model, a decision-support tool to serve municipalities as well as industry to develop a suitably integrated waste management system addressed to maximise waste diversion from landfills and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

If this example of evidence-based decision or policy-making support from academia directly to the ‘engine room’ could be replicated across the African continent, followed by a greater focus on skills development and climate education, universities and researchers could contribute more effectively to fighting this global challenge.

UWN: What are some of the challenges and opportunities for women in climate science in Africa? What can be done to bring more women into the climatology fields?

CT: It is essential that climate education, as well as environmental sustainability, are introduced in the high-school curriculum in South Africa to entice more female school leavers to enrol in university courses that focus on sustainability.

Only about 30%-40% of students in STEM subjects in South African universities are women, suggesting that there are still many barriers to break to have more equitable access to the applied sciences.

However, I believe that the climate change challenge is so universal and climate science so multidisciplinary that women can make a difference by simply choosing a course of study that prioritises sustainability, whether in social and humanistic sciences, law and political studies, health science or in engineering and applied sciences.

Climate change is now affecting all spheres of our society, of our ecosystem, and will shape the future of our planet. African women are real climate change champions in their communities, as they must cope and adapt daily to the impacts of climate change.

These immense pools of talent and determination must translate into research, knowledge transfer, behavioural change and new skills that can be realised by enabling more women to access higher degrees and become future role models.

I have dedicated my academic career of over 20 years to mentoring young women to become leaders in environmental engineering by pursuing an academic career. Together with the deans of education, mathematics or statistics, and computer science, built environment and health science, I currently coordinate the WiSTEM2D (Women in STEM and Design) programme of Johnson & Johnson.

UWN: The 4th Industrial Revolution has seen several digital tools (artificial intelligence or AI, machine learning, remote sensing, and data science) being deployed to mitigate the effects of climate change. What is your perspective on the use of digital tools in climate action and how can African communities also benefit?

CT: I believe that remote sensing, AI and IoT [the Internet of Things] are incredible tools that are still grossly underutilised in our country, although they are extremely powerful in the decision- or policy-making process. We are investigating waste and climate change issues using a variety of remote sensing and digital tools that span from the use of satellite images to drone images, digital platforms for data analytics, and environmental sensors.

We are experimenting with remote sensing for monitoring urban growth, infrastructure and the sprawl of informal communities; spatial assessments of urban areas; location, and mapping of informal settlements or services; for conducting research on waste production drivers, informal dumping, and landfills which are regarded as super-emitters (together with SANSA [the South African National Space Agency] and Placemarks).

The chair hosts a seminar series titled ‘Rethinking Urban Futures’ which focuses on how remote sensing, satellite imagery, participatory mapping and future ecosystems modelling can assist in building the African city of the future in a time of climate change.

UWN: The African region has an opportunity to host the Conference of Parties 27 (COP27) in Egypt this year. What are some of the critical issues around climate change in Africa that you expect to be addressed?

CT: The adoption of clear and effective climate financing mechanics and incentivisation schemes in support of rolling out sustainable climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions in Africa are, in my mind, among the most critical issues that should be discussed and finalised at the COP27 (like the EU Green Deal, but for Africa) followed by greater focus on climate education and skills development in the climate change space.