Education leaders have to stimulate critical climate debates

The University of the Free State (UFS) in South Africa is leading a new consortium which aims to strengthen the capacity of universities in Africa to contribute towards climate-resilient food systems.

Professor Linus Franke, the academic head of the department of soil, crop and climate sciences in the faculty of natural and agricultural sciences at UFS, spoke to University World News about raising a new generation of graduates with the analytical, critical thinking and entrepreneurial skills to contribute to the complex problems of climate change, particularly in building climate-resilient food systems.

Agriculture as a field of study, says Franke, is context-driven, requiring local solutions as universal solutions do not necessarily apply in local contexts in Africa.

Ahead of the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which will be held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from 30 November to 12 December, Franke says educational leaders have a key role to play in creating awareness about climate change and its impacts, the mechanisms to address them and some of the deeper societal issues and questions that are at stake.

UWN: The years 2020 to 2023 recorded some of the worst climatic events in decades, including devastating floods and extreme heatwaves. Heading to COP28 this year, how is this likely to be addressed? And what are some of the pressing issues you would want to see on the agenda of COP28, particularly for Sub-Saharan Africa?

LF: The extreme climatic events in the past year have highlighted, once again, how important climate change is and, unfortunately, what we are seeing now is probably just the beginning. In the future, extreme events are likely to be more frequent, more severe, even as we try to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions.

We need to enhance our collective efforts in reducing GHG emissions in order to stay within the 1.5°C temperature increase. Against the challenges we currently face, we must avoid temperature increases of four or five degrees by the end of the century.

COP has been there, basically, to make countries come together to set targets about reductions in GHG emissions and to provide an update on the progress each year. Now, behind these efforts, there are critical issues around the accounting of GHG emissions, inequality, and costs of mitigation and adaptation.

One major issue is that there’s a wide gap between what countries actually report in terms of emissions and the actual emissions, which are considered to be higher than what countries globally report.

I think issues around carbon inequality are very important. It’s a small fraction of the wealthiest countries and wealthiest people that have a very large share in the total GHG emissions.

There’s a lot underneath the central goal of reducing emissions, adaptation, carbon taxing and subsidies for fossil fuels that must be tabled.

Sub-Saharan Africa has contributed relatively little to GHG emissions in the past except for a few countries like South Africa that have a relatively high carbon footprint. However, a large part of this region is badly hit by the impacts of climate change. Therefore, there is a strong need to find adaptation and mitigation mechanisms to help these countries.

Currently, low-income countries should not economically develop in the same kind of carbon-intensive pathway used by a majority of developed countries because it will fuel bigger climate challenges. One of the key questions that global leaders must address at COP is how low-income countries, particularly in Africa, are going to economically develop themselves following low carbon pathways.

UWN: Looking at the outcomes from COP27, what progress do you think has been made and what needs to be done to prepare African leaders for COP28?

LF: Adaptation was a major focus at COP27 and it seemed there was some sort of an agreement, but it’s actually a bit disappointing that, in the past year, little progress has been made in respect of issues of climate justice and providing climate finance to the poorer countries, many of them being in Africa. They have contributed little to climate change and yet they face the burden from climate disasters and extreme weather events.

Issues around climate finance and how less-developed countries adapt to the impacts of climate are among major issues that have been difficult to solve at COP. It is difficult to get a large transfer of funds from developed countries to low-income countries, because some countries – for example, China – do not carry the responsibility and consider themselves as still developing.

African leaders need to come up with initiatives, and I think they need to show commitment to both climate change mitigation and adaptation, especially the economically more developed countries in Africa like South Africa. It is imperative for African leaders not to wait for [external] funds to rescue their countries. They must build on good initiatives using their vast natural resources.

UWN: What has been the role of science and innovation during COP processes? Would you say research from and about Africa is widely recognised and applied to decision-making?

LF: Science and innovation are crucial in addressing the climate crisis and has made a massive contribution by providing the science behind climate change and technologies that can help us to find solutions, particularly in the energy sector.

Science and innovation in Africa is recognised, but not sufficiently so. Looking at the size of the continent and the number of people, there is way too little science and innovation; the scientific outputs and the role of science and innovation from Africa are limited.

This is because our scientific research has a high dependency on donor funds from outside the region because our African governments do not invest sufficiently in science and innovation.

Historically looking at research and development in agriculture, in hindsight, some of the research has not been very effective or impactful, partly due to our dependency on donors from outside the region whose agendas do not always best serve the interests of African communities.

UWN: UFS is leading a consortium to build climate-resilient food systems in Africa. What is the importance of this initiative to the region?

LF: The key focus of the consortium is on building capacity and raising a new generation of graduates with the analytical, critical thinking and entrepreneurial skills to contribute to the complex problems of climate change, particularly in building climate-resilient food systems.

The project is a collaboration between universities to build capacity by training our academic staff, masters and PhD students in climate-resilient food and agricultural systems. We need local solutions to local problems, because agriculture is very context-driven and simple – universal solutions do not necessarily apply in local contexts in Africa.

Some projects will address carbon storage in agricultural soils and reducing GHG emissions from livestock and combining the more classical approaches in agriculture research with new digital technologies which have created a massive change in these fields. Digital technologies have been adopted in more large-scale commercial agriculture and there are increasingly new ways of monitoring and managing soils and lands.

This university network for capacity-building in agriculture is important because, traditionally, a lot of the high-level agriculture, research and development was done by international organisations, but African university networks are increasingly providing an alternative for this. It’s also important for universities to harmonise curricula and exchange knowledge in order to build more resilient food systems.

UWN: What are some of the new developments or breakthroughs in research or climate initiatives from your institution, and what is the significance of this work for the region?

LF: Our university is quite large and diverse and climate change cuts across many disciplines. For example, we have students in physics that work on building solar panels with improved efficiencies. We have students in engineering working on building solar cars and we have agriculturists looking at climate change mitigation and adaptation in food systems.

We have students studying weather patterns and the impacts of climate change on local weather conditions. The university works in many fields on climate change because it’s become such an important, cross-cutting issue.

Our department has been looking at how grazing management can improve the quality of grasslands and their ability to store carbon.

Nearly 70% of South Africa and large parts of Africa, in general, are managed as extensive grazing land, and if we can find ways to better manage these grasslands and improve their ability to store carbon, we will have a win-win situation where the grasslands are more productive and increase the ability to sequester carbon.

As education leaders, our key role is to share knowledge and stimulate critical, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking skills among the next generation. We must create awareness of climate change and the impacts, the mechanisms to address it and some of the deeper societal issues and questions that are at stake.

We’re often more focused on the scientific impact of our research, but the societal impact of our research is just as important in terms of technology development and steering, [as well as] societal debates on sustainable development.

UWN: What are some of the ways that universities can prepare students for a world of climate change and variability, and how is your university setting out to achieve this?

LF: There is a lot of teaching and research on climate change, but [we are] also involving our students in solving problems in these fields.

Students must understand the dilemmas around climate change – that it is not all black and white. There are lots of grey areas.

Apart from teaching our undergraduates, we also have a postgraduate degree in agro-meteorology and a structured masters on climate change which opens opportunities for professionals to deepen and sharpen their thinking skills in the field of climate change.

As universities, we want to produce students with the skills to understand issues from different perspectives. For example, students need to understand that agricultural solutions depend on the local, biophysical and socio-economic context of your agricultural systems.

Being able to quantify the complex issues around climate change, to think at different levels and scales … this is important for students.