Research Objectives and Researcher Networks in African Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation

August 23, 2012

Reflections from the summer school, 'Post COP 17: Climate Change and Livelihoods in Africa'

Research objectives and researcher networks in African climate change mitigation and adaptation –

Reflections from the summer school, 'Post COP 17: Climate Change and Livelihoods in Africa'

Niko Humalisto, University of Turku

DocLinkshosted a summer school for PhD candidates in Gaborone, Botswana July 9-15th 2012. The topic of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa is important: extreme weather conditions have become more common in environments that are vulnerable to weather variations. Traditional livelihoods of pastoralism and non-irrigated farming have suffered from intensified droughts and floods. Though being amongst the regions most affected by climate change, Africa's share of global GHG emissions is only 3,7 percent of the world total; even less by using cumulative counting. Therefore, questions related to mitigation of climate change have less importance in Africa than the adaptation, which opens interesting views on the industrial North led discussions of climate change.

How should climate change research be approached in sub-Saharan Africa and what role can the researches of the North have in this, are the questions that I will answer through scrutinizing firstly the relation between science and policy making, and secondly, the relation between scientists and the affected communities.

Entangle with politics!

Global climate negotiations led by the UN have been disappointments for Africans partially because no rigorous mechanisms of climate change mitigation are implemented and the solutions and funding mechanisms for adaptation have been low on the agenda. Additionally, African countries have divided into five different blocks with different agendas, and consequently, Africa's capacity to influence the negotiations has remained small. However, Prof. J. Atlhopheng shared the perspective that the slow movement of negotiations might bring benefits for countries like Botswana, since there are fewer of the complex calculation requirements related to national emissions and also because the solutions created by the North, like biofuels, have created a multitude of risks to livelihoods in the global South.

There is much research to be done in Africa in relation to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Technologies developed in the industrial North cannot be directly applied in South. As an example, the solar cooking systems have not fit into peoples' dining rhythm, the next repair workshop for the cooker might be in another country, and the solar panels easily get stolen. Therefore, the solutions are also sought from indigenous knowledge systems, which seek to discover and apply functional 'forgotten' knowledge into solving problems of the contemporary world. A good example is the seeking of suitable species for cultivation in arid zones, such as the morama bean (Tylosema esculentumeaten), traditionally eaten by the indigenous San people, in order to adapt into the drier climate of the (near) future.

There is a strong push towards research that can either influence the implementation of better national and international policies, or can find suitable solutions, in particular to problems intensified by climate change. I would argue that this marks a differentiation between research orientations of the North and South, since it is not common in Finnish universities, for example, to encourage students to be politically active or to work with the NGO sector to enforce the relevance of the study.

Entangle with communities!

The two most relevant topics of research related to climate change from Africa's perspective are modeling future scenarios of climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa and working with communities that are expected to be in the most vulnerable positions in order to find mechanisms of adaptation. Due to the close relation with the communities, researchers have to create an atmosphere of trust in order to adapt the research results into community practices, or at least present the results of the research to participating communities. Establishing relationships between communities and researchers is challenging, since communities know how their indigenous knowledge has been used in a way that has not been beneficial for them.This is seen, for example, in the problems related to the seed industry patenting knowledge originating from communities.

Doing research with the communities is just the first step. A majority of research ends up in libraries to dust, and consequently, the valuable information rarely results in mitigation or adaptation to climate change. Therefore, the message given to PhD candidates was clear: 'Turn your research into concrete projects; otherwise, the research results will never have an impact in society'.

Role of North/South research co-operation

In order to be prepared for the future challenges catalysed by climate change, research networks between North and South should be tightened. In order to untie the knots of the COP negotiations, participants need to understand their perspectives better. Still, networking is not a one-size-fits-all solution. African researchers have too often been treated as assistants in the common research projects and the funding has steered the targets of joint research away from the needs of Africa. The problem can be addressed through open dialogue and treating all partners equally. The research of the North have crucial importance not only in providing laboratory and other infrastructural capacities but also in sharing knowledge on how Northern policies and practices affect the global South.