Climate action: The science is clear, but the progress slow

Much of the science that is needed for climate action is in place and the onus is on governments, corporates and civil society to make the mitigation of climate change an immediate priority.

But, in a dangerous post-truth age, where evidence is increasingly ignored, climate change scepticism is a real concern. This makes innovative science communication a priority.

This is according to Heidi-Jayne Hawkins, a research director and fellow at Conservation International (CI), an environmental non-profit organisation. Hawkins is also an honorary research associate at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

In an interview with University World News, Hawkins spoke about how her cross-cutting research focuses on natural climate solutions, which supports climate resilience and mitigation.

UWN: What is your main field of expertise and how did you start to work as a climate scientist?

HH: My expertise is in plants, specifically the ecological process of nutrient cycling between plants, soil and the atmosphere. Plants were and are, of course, pivotal in creating the relatively low carbon dioxide atmosphere on which current life on Earth depends, but my path to climate science was a circuitous one.

My interest in plants was sparked by the miracle of photosynthesis and I was also motivated to contribute to sustainable agriculture, so my PhD explored how underground networks of fungi, called mycorrhiza, contribute to plant nutrition (and save on fertilizers) in exchange for carbohydrates. This led to my postdoctoral work, and I later joined CI.

It was in seeing how resource-poor communities are the most vulnerable to climate change that I become involved in climate science.

UWN: What is the focus of your work at CI and how is it relevant to the climate action within the region?

HH: My main focus is on natural climate solutions. Nature can provide one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed to maintain warming below 1.5°C between now and 2030, as explained in papers by Bronson Griscom and colleagues.

Natural climate solutions may also provide Africa’s nations with ways to deliver on the Paris Climate Agreement, while also improving soil carbon, productivity, biodiversity and cleaning air and water.

My research team and I have been quantifying the potential of African savannas and grasslands (rangelands) to sequester carbon while maintaining biodiversity with improved practices of grazing and fire management.

This is built on prior fieldwork and modelling, including work exploring Africa-appropriate grazing approaches and the explicit inclusion of resource-poor rural communities in research. The outcome has been that we can improve practices and climate resilience, often enabling indigenous people to regain traditional knowledge, while challenging misinformation.

Recently, we produced a very high-resolution map of soil organic carbon and its drivers, and this, together with the modelling, helped to establish the first carbon credit project for South African savannas and its communities in 2022.

The map also informs climate-resilient land use across South African biomes. Working with other experts in CI, we are now pooling our knowledge to develop a strategy for climate resilience in African rangelands.

Using new paradigms in soil science, we are testing the relative contribution of wild and domestic animals to climate cooling.

UWN: Based on your fieldwork, what are some of the pressing climate change issues facing African communities in your region, in particular women and youths?

HH: Based on our fieldwork and surveys, the most commonly heard of issues for communities living on rangelands is degradation of land (increased bare ground, soil erosion, less forage for animals, and less or poor quality water) exacerbated by climate change. Underlying these problems are socioeconomic issues such as overuse of rangelands because of a lack of economic alternatives.

Poor education, especially for women, is also a barrier to land restoration. For this reason, we acknowledge and specifically target women and youths to increase their agency and inclusion in decision-making about land use.

Recent work with Coventry University has revealed that trade-offs on rangelands occur at three key levels: between people at national and local levels, between ecosystem services, and trade-offs between people at local level (eg, a village).

Generally, we find that more participatory approaches are needed (such as between national and local levels) but, as part of this, it is often vital to separate men, women and youths into focus groups to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.

UWN: What has been the impact of climate change on biodiversity in Africa? How can African universities and researchers contribute toward more sustainable ecosystems?

HH: Africa is estimated to contain one-fifth of all known species of plants, mammals and birds in diverse and biologically important ecosystems such as forests, savanna, grassland, wetlands and marine as well as freshwater habitats. This biodiversity is linked to ecosystem services as diverse as soil carbon, food, flood prevention and ecotourism.

However, as climate change accelerates over the next century, it is expected to be one of the major drivers of the loss of African biodiversity.

Warming in Africa is expected to accelerate to anything between 0.2°C to 0.5°C per decade. Precipitation has been unaffected in some areas (the arid areas of South Africa) but has increased in East and Central Africa.

Encouragingly, biodiversity could also mitigate climate change. For example, research by colleagues suggests that wilder rangelands and-or greater diversity in livestock types may be essential for carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse emissions and this is a key topic we are exploring further.

Another research area important to biodiversity is to test land use practices that may protect, maintain or restore existing ecosystems, for example, what specific practices of animal management and fire frequency will reduce or remove greenhouse gases in socially and ecologically appropriate ways, and how do we differ in various contexts?

Scientists across disciplines can also assess what barriers (political, land tenure) must be overcome to create landscape connectivity needed for various ecological and social processes to occur (animal movement and migration, pastoralism, water and carbon flow).

UWN: Only 3.8% of global climate change research funding has been allocated to Africa and only 1% to educational institutions. What could be some of the implications of this on climate change research output in the region?

HH: Insufficient funding to the Global South restricts researchers in creating locally appropriate solutions, as much data is based on the Global North. The lack of data means that various research products (global climate models, global maps of reforestation potential, global carbon maps) are highly inaccurate, and potentially damaging if used to advise [on] land use.

Data gaps in the Global South can be addressed through North-South research consortia where diverse expertise and local knowledge are combined to create research products that are relevant to Africa and other under-researched areas. Funders are increasingly aware of this and encourage this type of collaboration.

UWN: What can be done to bridge the gap between researchers, policymakers, and communities?

HH: The Sustainable Development Goal 17 (global partnerships for the goals) emphasises, not only that North-South scientists should collaborate, but also that all stakeholders should collaborate in solving global challenges, that is, in other words, communities, researchers and policymakers.

It is important that research design is explicitly informed by these stakeholders from the onset, that they are involved throughout via, for instance, data collection, discussion of results, and how results can be used on the ground, or to inform policy.

UWN: As Africa prepares to host the Conference of the Parties (COP27) in Egypt at the end of 2022, what are some of the pressing climate (mitigation and adaptation) issues that, as a researcher, you expect to be addressed?

HH: The science is clear, but progress on climate action is too slow. The evidence is that human activity is causing climate change due to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide relative to pre-industrial levels, and if we do not take action to create a net zero carbon world, rising temperature and erratic weather will continue to worsen.

Much of the science that is needed for action is in place and the onus is on governments, corporates and civil society to make mitigation of climate change an immediate priority. In a dangerous post-truth age, where evidence is increasingly ignored, climate change scepticism is a real concern. This makes innovative science communication a priority.

Most governments are already aware that nature can be 30% of the solution to climate change, but it is essential that scientists make their voices heard and motivate for additional financing towards protection, management and restoration of natural ecosystems.

Unlocking funds for climate science, especially in Africa, is also essential so that we can create context-specific and ecologically appropriate solutions.

Globally, researchers can look for innovative ways to turn the climate challenge into opportunity, such as economic development built on zero-carbon businesses. An example is sustainable land and livestock use to provide carbon credits and supplementary income for resource-poor people.

Another is green buildings that not only reduce emissions but have multiple benefits like green jobs and improved human health.

Besides climate mitigation, adaptation to climate change is a key theme for Africa. Fortunately, many actions that will help people adapt to climate change can also contribute to climate mitigation.

For example, in the Northern Cape of South Africa, CI is assisting livestock owners to procure climate-resilient sheep breeds that need less water, utilise forage efficiently and tolerate high temperatures.

This adaptation action likely also means that plant cover is maintained, soil erosion is minimised and soil carbon is retained.

This article was updated on 12 October 2022.