Skills to tackle climate change should be on agenda at COP27

The capacity-building aspect of climate change should be addressed when climate science activists, researchers and politicians gather for the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27, in Egypt from 6-18 November.

Developed countries have pledged to assist African countries to transition towards a net-zero society. However, it is important to establish what resources and skills are being transferred.

This is the view of Dr Nomhle Ngwenya, a climate risk analyst and academic tutor and researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, in South Africa.

During an interview with University World News, Ngwenya discussed issues such as the importance of climate finance, carbon offsetting and the upcoming Conference of the Parties, or COP27, in Egypt.

UWN: How did your work as a climate risk analyst begin and what were some of the challenges you faced as a climate researcher?

NN: My first degree at Wits was a Bachelor of Arts. I majored in sociology and geography. Thereafter, I specialised in environmental sciences and sustainable development and conducted a small research project which looked at the role of public participation and stakeholder engagement on carbon capture and storage in South Africa.

My third degree was a DPhil in Science (major in geography). My main focus was on climate finance. In particular, how green bonds could finance a low-carbon transition in South Africa.

A large section of my PhD research was reliant on the role of the private sector in mobilising financial resources for climate adaptation and mitigation projects. Upon concluding my PhD, I embarked on some research projects in the financial sector as a climate researcher and climate risk analyst.

I did not know how climate change influences the financial sector. For example, how extreme weather events can affect lending activities. These are some of the issues that require further research and comprehension.

UWN: Based on your work as a climate risk analyst, what would you say are some of the pressing issues facing African communities?

NN: Definitely the impact of climate change. Climate change is projected to affect the African continent far worse than the rest of the world. This has major implications for African communities on many levels, from environmental to social and ecological.

There is also a lack of knowledge and awareness around climate change. For example, small-scale farmers need to be equipped with green skills and green farming techniques. These are some of the important factors that still need to be comprehensively developed.

Broadly, green skills are the knowledge and the attitude we need as a society to develop and support a sustainable and low-carbon economy. For example, if we look at traditional types of engineering, there was never a green component to it. Over the years, engineering has encapsulated green skills by having environmental engineers as well as engineers who are green building consultants.

Green farming techniques include the setting up of hydroponics and aquaponics and this allows for plants to grow without soil and get nourished through specialised nutrients that are added into the water. Another example is polyculture farming whereby multiple crop species grow in one area, contributing to biodiversity.

UWN: What are the research opportunities in the field of climate finance? What are some of the challenges in accessing climate finance?

NN: This is a fascinating and growing space with massive opportunities to understand, not only the opportunities that climate finance brings, but also the barriers. These include African climate researchers and graduates engaging in groundbreaking research on factors such as policy barriers which include uncertain permitting processes; investment environment barriers such as a lack of liquid financial markets; and bankability barriers such as creditworthiness and high debt costs. These are all noteworthy challenges that will be present in the continent for a while and will need some experts tackling this.

Some of the opportunities that I have especially leveraged on the African continent are green bonds (fixed-income financing instruments issued to fund projects with a materially positive impact on the environment and climate change). These are typically earmarked for relatively high-return/low-risk projects, such as green energy. According to the latest International Energy Agency [information], green energy is expected to grow exponentially in Africa and climate finance opportunities such as green bonds offer a platform to finance the low-carbon transition in Africa.

There is a large space for contributing to climate awareness and knowledge through research. This includes publishing around new concepts such as climate risk, but ensuring that research is scalable.

For example, how climate change affects lending activities and how this affects small-scale farmers who want to get a loan from the bank but are [situated] in semi-arid areas. These are crucial conversations that need to be had.

African researchers and universities should also leverage partnerships. This becomes particularly important in ensuring that all stakeholders collectively work towards one goal.

UWN: What role does climate finance play within the transition to clean energy, particularly in the African context?

NN: Since the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, industrialised countries have supported mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing nations through finance. Climate finance is one of the principal means of supporting developing countries in dealing with climate change and has been renewed as one of the highest priorities in international climate negotiations.

Specifically, climate finance refers to capital flows for low-carbon and climate-resilient development, which has a direct or indirect GHG (greenhouse gases) mitigation or adaptation outcome, consequently meeting the net-zero carbon targets of the Paris Agreement and driving environmentally sustainable development.

Through the implementation of climate finance, donor countries distribute multipurpose aid to recipient developing nations to finance low-emissions and environmental protection projects and programmes.

Based on its aim, climate finance can be divided into two categories: adaptation finance supports adjustment to actual or expected climate change and its effects, while mitigation finance mainly focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as by investing in renewable energy or reducing deforestation.

In the context of Africa, climate finance has a critical role to play in ensuring that African countries are able to achieve their goals towards a net-zero society and economy.

Many African countries do not have sufficient public financial resources as government places emphasis on socio-economic development, health-care as well as other pressing national objectives. Climate finance from the private sector will be crucial to fund adaptation and mitigation projects.

UWN: What is the significance of carbon offsetting in the whole climate change debate?

NN: Carbon offsetting offers a way to neutralise the emissions impact of activities that produce greenhouse gases through investing in projects that either remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere directly or prevent future emissions from occurring.

It’s used by businesses and individuals alike to reduce the environmental impact of their activities by purchasing or contributing towards carbon-offsetting projects.

The World Bank Group supports a number of projects in Africa that lower greenhouse gas emissions and earn carbon credits. Many of these projects and programmes are located in least-developed countries and have an important impact on poor communities, creating jobs and improving health and education through the use of carbon revenue for the benefit of communities.

UWN: In your own perspective, what could be the ripple effect of the recent American climate and tax bill on Africa? What can African policymakers take from this?

NN: The recent bill is interesting because it definitely will place an emphasis on African countries to follow a similar trend.

For example, the American climate and tax bill is aimed at slashing massive greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning towards net zero. This targets high-emitting countries which will now be forced to adhere to regulation.

In Africa, there are already similar taxes and bills such as the Climate Change Bill and-or Carbon Tax Bill which aim at holding high-emitting companies responsible for their emissions. Again, this also goes hand in hand with political will and determination to ensure there is regulation around these topics.

Currently, there is international law or regional law that regulates climate change bills or the carbon tax bill. It is hoped that the upcoming Conference of the Parties, or COP27, will deal with the question of regulation.

South Africa, for instance, has its own tailored Carbon Tax Act and Climate Change Bill.

UWN: As Africa prepares to host the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27) in Egypt this year, what are some of the pressing climate issues that you, as a researcher, expect to be addressed?

NN: Definitely to understand the capacity-building aspect of climate change. Developed countries have pledged to assist African countries to transition towards a net-zero society. However, it is important to establish what resources and skills are being transferred.

Secondly, with regard to climate finance, what component of that is green financing and what component of it is grants? It is important to distinguish, as each of these comes with its own terms and conditions.