COP27: Universities in Africa are key to climate action

The urgency to fund universities in Africa to advance science for climate action has been highlighted by experts ahead of the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP27, which will be hosted by Egypt in the Red Sea city of Sharm el-Sheikh from 7 to 18 November.

Resources to do research that speak to the continent’s specific challenges, in particular in the areas of health, agriculture and food security, that have been affected by climate change, have emerged as a key theme at pre-conference events.

Patricia Nying’uro, a climate scientist at Kenya’s Meteorological Department, said at a recent gathering hosted by Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture: “Africa needs funding for knowledge, research and capacity-building.

“The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows that, between 1990 and 2020, only about 3.8% of global climate change research funding was spent on Africa, and less than 1% went to African learning institutions.” This is compared to 79% that was spent for Europe and North America.

Youssef Nassef, the director of the Adaptation Division at UNFCCC, in a workshop titled, ‘COP27 and the role of African universities’, also highlighted the deficit in resources needed for climate change research at African universities.

“Africa is underrepresented in climate change research and, hence, the input of African universities into the body of literature that is feeding into the international policy process is incommensurate with the importance of the continent and the role it plays in climate change vulnerability and adaptation,” he said.

He said, at the event at the American University of Cairo recently, that African universities could advance climate action in three key areas, including producing more of the scientific research that would be incorporated into the IPCC report. The sixth edition, involving three working groups, has released findings from August 2021 to April 2022.

In addition, universities also interfaced with local communities, which helped to bridge knowledge gaps, and they raised awareness to students on the implications of climate change in all disciplines, from physical sciences to engineering, social sciences and humanities.

He noted that universities in South Africa, Egypt and, particularly, Makerere University in Uganda had made strides in advancing climate research and education within their institutions.

“Between the top-level support systems and communities lie the universities and they can actually make sure that the existing knowledge gaps can be … brought up to decision-makers. The upcoming COP session will showcase as much as it can the context of the African continent, including [the role of] education,” he said.

“We need to build bridges between educational institutions and the upcoming COP27 session. Under the UNFCCC we have a universities’ network in which we try to catalyse research in the universities for graduate students to produce work that answers policy questions and we then showcase this research during our sessions.”

Looking ahead at COP27

Indeed, a key message ahead of COP27 is that African and international research, development and innovation leaders based at universities, science academies and research centres should unite and integrate their expertise to find ways to tackle climate change holistically.

More than 100 hybrid workshops and events are expected to promote engagement between the climate community, practitioners and relevant stakeholders on conference themes built around finance, science, youth and future generations, decarbonisation, adaptation and agriculture, water, civil society, energy and biodiversity.

A number of key initiatives will also be launched by the COP Presidency during the conference under the banner ‘Innovation for Climate’ and ‘Action for Water Adaptation and Resilience’ initiative, or AWARE, in partnership with the World Meteorological Organization.

The ‘Innovation for Climate’ initiative aims to bring together Egyptian, African and international leaders of research, development and innovation from universities, science academies, research institutions, international organisations and non-governmental organisations to mobilise and integrate their capabilities and efforts in achieving Sustainable Development Goals under climate change.

The science community and academia are also expected to engage in discussions and events on the importance of technology transfer and knowledge sharing in providing transformative solutions to climate change.

COP27 is expected to focus on several key sub-themes, including the latest IPCC report, Uniting Global Scientific Research, Health and Climate change, COP27 Global Stocktake Datathon and the role of research, development and innovation in addressing climate change.

‘Africa’s changing environments’ and ‘Global and regional environmental conventions, assessments and outlooks’ will also be discussed as sub-themes under the science day.

The IPCC report and resources

Nying’uro, who is also the IPCC focal point for Kenya, at the recent science media café hosted by Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture, highlighted the importance of the IPCC report in setting the tone for COP27 discussions.

She said the latest IPCC report, said to provide the ‘strongest-ever assessment of evidence’ on how climate change is impacting the African continent, highlights the vulnerability of communities and the widespread loss and damage.

Climate change threatened ecosystems and biodiversity while affecting health, agriculture and food security across the region. Adaptation, therefore, would be a key theme during the conference with an urgent call for the ‘global goal for adaptation’ established under the Paris Agreement to be operationalised.

However, the region faced drawbacks in funding for research and lack of infrastructure to support environmental sciences at African universities.

“When climate funding comes in, it must aim to benefit African institutions. We are advocating for African solutions to African problems. Therefore our research must be led by our own academic institutions in the region and African researchers,” she said.

African universities must lead

According to Dr Noha Donia, a professor of environmental hydraulics at Ain Shams University in Egypt, COP27 provides a unique opportunity for African universities to position themselves as leaders in finding innovative ways to tackle the impact of climate change.

During an interview with University World News, she challenged academic institutions to be at the forefront of creating awareness, training students and developing climate curriculums that can address global challenges such as the transition from fossil fuels to clean forms of energy.

“African universities must lead in the transfer to green universities through water and energy saving, waste recycling and minimising the carbon footprint to be carbon-neutral,” she said.

“As an academic institution, we will be contributing to climate change [mitigation] and COP27 in different ways. In order to create awareness in anticipation of the conference, our university established a climate change ambassador initiative which has trained 3,000 Egyptian and 100 African students in 2022.

“These students will be our ambassadors who will raise awareness on climate change concepts, effects, causes, mitigation and adaptation measures in Africa at COP27 and beyond.”

“We are also working on a crucial initiative with African universities to develop a climate change curriculum for undergraduate students. An e-learning platform has been established and the initiative will be presented in the science day of COP27”.

She also highlighted that Ain Shams University established a green transition unit on waste recycling, using energy and solar wind. The project will be presented at COP27 as a unique initiative as it has demonstrated water- and energy-saving strategies.