Academics see research potential of ‘loss and damage’ fund

Individual academics around the world have welcomed the agreement made at the United Nations’ COP27 climate summit to establish a ‘loss and damage’ fund to assist developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, and have called for part of the funds to be earmarked for universities and research centres geared towards climate change research.

“I welcome the decision to establish a loss and damage fund and to operationalise it in the coming period,” said Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general in a 20 November video message issued at the 27th session of the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP27) which took place recently in the Egyptian Red Sea city of Sharm El-Sheikh.

Guterres said the fund was “an important step towards justice” for poor countries that have done little to cause the climate crisis, but are suffering its worst impacts.

“The issue of loss and damage was, for the first time, central to the agenda at COP and progress on its financing is a pivotal part of COP27’s success,” according to a COP27 press release issued on 20 November.

It is likely to take at least a year, until the next climate conference of the parties in the United Arab Emirates in November 2023, to sort through some of the details of how the fund will work, when it will become operational and how it will be funded.

For academics, the creation of the fund acknowledges, in part, the strength of the evidence about climate change produced by academics in developing countries.

Universities’ key role in ‘loss and damage’ talks

Victor Ongoma, a professor of climate change adaptation at Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco, told University World News the approved fund is “an acknowledgement of the existing evidence of climate change and the associated loss and damage that has been tabled by many higher education institutions as well as governments and associations in developing countries.

“Higher education institutions and universities, along with science centres, have been involved in research that provides evidence of climate change, and climate change attributions which are key in shaping climate ‘loss and damage’ discussions prioritised during COP27,” Ongoma said.

Professor Walter Leal, head of the Research and Transfer Centre, Sustainability and Climate Change Management at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, also welcomed news of the fund but said it was “urgent” that the allocation and disbursement of the loss and damage funds is quickly made.

“As research is fundamental in identifying areas of action, it would be a good idea to earmark some funding to be made available to universities in developing countries, so that they may be able to fund some projects,” Leal told University World News.

For example, research efforts to tackle the impacts of climate change on agriculture must be increased, since enhancing food production is related to poverty alleviation.

“At the moment, there are some sources of research funds but the application procedures are so complex that some universities are unable to access them,” Leal said.

“Some of the loss and damage funds should also be targeted to adjust, repair or otherwise provide a research infrastructure as well as fostering the training of students, especially at the masters and doctoral levels.

“It is a wise use of financial resources to direct some of the loss and damage fund to establish an observatory of climate change loss and damage in the Global South in order to monitor climate change-related damages taking place in developing countries.

“The observatory will also carry out research on ways to protect communities from climate vulnerability and provide evidence-based consultancy services to decision-makers in developing countries,” said Leal.

Biosaline agriculture research

UNESCO Science Prize laureate Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, agreed. He told University World News the loss and damage fund should be used to strengthen research capabilities in universities in developing countries to counter the effects of climate change on frequency, intensity and geographical distribution of extreme weather events such as storms, floods and heat waves, and slow-onset events such as sea-level rise, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity and desertification.

Atta-ur-Rahman, who is the former coordinator-general of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and former federal minister of science and technology in Pakistan, suggested the establishment of centres of excellence in biosaline agriculture to conduct research on new varieties of edible crops that are stress- and salt-tolerant and can be grown in deserts and in coastal areas using sea water.

“There is no shortage of water on our planet, but it is mostly sea water. Such research will help humanity to prepare itself against a huge human disaster involving mass famines caused by accelerated desertification and climate change.

“The funds should also be used to fund research on applications of gene editing technologies in order to be able to develop new varieties of wheat, rice and other edible crops with minimum use of water and under extreme temperatures,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.

“In order to compete and survive, developing nations need to transition to strong technology-driven knowledge economies.

“The fund should, therefore, be used to promote education, science, technology and innovation through scholarships, the creation of research facilities in new and emerging fields of science and technology such as artificial intelligence, genomics, nanobiotechnology, and so on, and for the establishment of linkages with industry and agriculture,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.

Gender equality and climate

Dr Birgit Schreiber, vice-president of the International Association of Student Affairs and Services, told University World News that part of the approved fund could usefully be directed towards establishing a unit for gender equality and climate change at universities in developing countries.

Such a unit could focus on conducting research and studies on the impact of climate change on women as well as monitoring best practices and identifying transformative innovations and practical tools to protect from climate change impact, Schreiber said.

“The brunt of any crisis, as we saw in COVID-19, is carried disproportionately by women, especially in developing countries … So too, then, do the environmental crises impact women, children and other vulnerable groups disproportionately.

“We must do all we can to avoid their rights being further driven back into the previous century,” said Schreiber, who is also a member of the Africa Centre for Transregional Research at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg in Germany.

Building research capacity

Salwa Thabet Mekky, professor of public administration and the director of international affairs at the Future University in Egypt, told University World News she believed the approved fund should be used to support institutional reforms of higher education institutions in developing countries, especially in vulnerable communities, in order to address the multifaceted causes and consequences of climate change and to contribute to developing a “greener, more resilient and sustainable society”.

“Campus sustainability and curriculum development are indispensable strategic goals,” Mekky said. “Most importantly, research capacity building is one of the key drivers to develop innovative capacities to create more resilient and sustainable societies.

“Renewable energy, smart cities, technology-based solutions to reduce carbon emissions, green buildings, and so on, are significant areas of research that call for both financial and technical support,” Mekky said.

In addition, universities in developing countries must follow a “value-driven approach” while engaging with actors in the industrial sector, she said.

“They should identify strategic opportunities that articulate sustainability in achieving their corporate social responsibility [goals] and focus on implementing sustainable business incubators to contribute to the development of green industrial parks and promote sustainable local production,” Mekky added.