Universities are tackling climate change with zest

May 21, 2014
Universities are tackling climate change with zest

On a planet and a continent increasingly aware of its eco-frailty, South African universities are ramping up their green initiatives and sustainability efforts. ‘Green’ campuses are being established countrywide, and numerous student groups are joining the fight to conserve and protect their environment and the wider world.

Climate change research features at nearly all South African institutions, as do impressive and vigorous efforts to reduce their carbon footprints.

“We recognise the role universities play in research undertaken to inform policies and address what appear to be intractable problems linked to the environmental impact of climate change,” said the University of Pretoria’s Professor Annel van Aswegen, senior manager in the Office of the Principal.

Pretoria’s sustainability initiatives

Pretoria contributes in various ways to greening and sustainability initiatives on campus, including biogas digesters installed on its experimental farm and also planned for the veterinary science campus at Onderstepoort, using animal manure to generate methane gas for use in food preparation on the campuses.

Rain harvesting, indigenous gardens as well as roof gardens and green building designs all feature prominently, while various research programmes and academic activities tackle climate change from different dimensions.

The University of Pretoria Water Institute undertakes a number of water-related studies. It is well regarded by many, including the Water Research Commission, for its prolific and high-quality research output on finding solutions to Africa’s water challenges.

The institute has established strong links with European Union leaders in wastewater treatment technology through the Eureka programme. This is also supported by South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology and the Water Research Commission.

Pretoria is also the only university in Southern Africa offering degree programmes in meteorology and has close ties with the South African Weather Service and the World Meteorological Organization.

Because weather variability appears to be an important factor associated with climate change, research projects by postgraduate students are focusing on the prediction of climate variability, or weather. The institution is also represented on the scientific committee of the Department of Science and Technology’s Global Change Grand Challenge, which ensures the university’s input in national and global change research strategies, including its involvement in Future Earth.

“There is a growing realisation that globally we are confronted with novel, unpredictable futures, both ecologically and socially, and that these are interconnected,” the university said in a statement. “Our long term strategic plan, UP 2025, places social, environmental and financial sustainability at the core of our future viability. It focuses on making knowledge work by concentrating on solutions-oriented research and sustainable science, and to overcome the division of nature and society that affects our thinking, research and policies.”

Western Cape – green campus of the year

Also focusing intently on the issue is the University of the Western Cape. Two years ago, the university scooped the national Green Campus of the Year award at the inaugural African Green Campus Initiative conference.

The initiative is a strategic response to climate change challenges facing universities, colleges and communities, based on the premise that campuses tackling climate change by reducing gas emission and integrating sustainability into their curriculums will benefit students and contribute to a thriving, moral and civil society.

The historic old university’s new IT building in Stellenbosch, apart from other initiatives, is totally green, boasting solar power, vertical gardens, rainwater harvesting, bicycle store and various other efficiency elements to make it more energy-efficient and sustainable than other buildings of its type.

Green campus action plan in Cape Town

In Cape Town itself, the University of Cape Town, or UCT, established a green campus action plan five years ago, aimed mainly at the greening of the design, planning, operation and maintenance of facilities. An audit of progress was completed in 2011, and a list of priority actions updated. In terms of international commitments, the most significant relates to the ISCN-GULF Sustainable Campus Charter.

UCT is a participant in the Global University Leaders Forum, or GULF, a small group of 25 chief executives of leading universities that contributes to shaping the agenda of the World Economic Forum.

UCT is the only African university invited to join this group whose community has helped advance programmes such as the International Sustainable Campus Network, ISCN, which provides a global forum to support universities in the exchange of information and best practices for achieving sustainable campus operations, as well as integrating sustainability in research and teaching.

In 2012, the university submitted its first report under the ISCN-GULF Sustainable Campus Charter and a follow-up report for 2012 and 2013 is in progress, said Sandra Rippon, sustainability consultant to UCT Properties.

“We produced our second carbon footprint report in 2012 – the first was produced by the UCT Energy Research Centre in 2009 for the year 2007 – and these will be produced annually at UCT,” Rippon said.

The research centre was the result of a merger of activities of the energy research institute and the energy development research centre. The multi-disciplinary centre pursues excellence in technology, policy and sustainable development research, education and capacity building programmes at a local and international level.

Rippon added there was a strong student environmental movement on campus, called the Green Campus Initiative, or GCI. This had grown rapidly from 2008 to become one of the largest student groups on campus.

KwaZulu-Natal’s focus on climate change

Still on the coast, the impact of climate change in South and Southern Africa has been an intense focus of research for the University of KwaZulu-Natal since the 1980s. Extensive experience and knowledge have been gained through projects funded by the Water Research Commission of South Africa, the National Research Foundation, the International Development Research Centre, and through many international projects, like the International Dialogue on Water and Climate.

The university has implemented several major energy management initiatives. In addition, it is planning a number of energy efficiency projects over the next two to three years.

Greg Diana, head of the university’s energy management programme, said that in 2011, at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCC, COP 17, the university was identified as the site for COP 17’s alternative space, known as ‘People’s Space’, a forum where national and international civil society came together on issues of climate change.

KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society and school of development studies were key players in managing the space. Members of the group developed very strong critiques of the failures of the UN and carbon trading systems.

The college of agriculture, engineering and science offers various undergraduate and postgraduate programmes incorporating the varied aspects and disciplines relating to and affecting climate change, while the college of law offers a coursework masters programme in environmental law on both the Howard College and the Pietermaritzburg campuses. The course aims to develop an expert knowledge of South African environmental law, and to provide students with the opportunity to make extensive use of comparative materials. Modules are also available on ocean and coastal law and wildlife law.

Two of the university’s campuses are situated within nature conservancies, one also having an artificial wetland.

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