ACDI 3rd Annual Conference for Early Career Researchers and Students: the movement towards a multilateral and multidisciplinary approach to climate change and development

By Casey Lyttle, ACDI Master's Class, 2017

Before the final gravel that signalled the adoption of the Paris agreement fell on the 12th of December 2015, Laurent Fabius, the president of the COP 21 UN Climate Change conference and the French Foreign minister, passionately stated that “our collective effort is worth more than the sum of our individual effort.” What followed were sounds of praise and gratitude for bringing nearly 200 countries together to agree to achieve universal climate change and development targets for the first time in history. While I agree with the sceptical view that we still have a long way to go, I believe that a vast collective effort is a major step in the right direction with regards to combating climate change and development issues.

For years before the Paris agreement, climate change action had been rather slow, stagnant, and believed to be solely a “developed countries”  responsibility but now, all countries are expected to work together, with  varying  commitments (dependent on conditions), to cut back on emissions. Additionally, only recently have academics and scientists realised the importance of combining disciplines to work on these multidimensional issues, particularly because it has been realised that climate change is not solely an environmental issue. All of which give rise to characterising climate change as being a “wicked problem”. This ‘collective effort’ and multidisciplinary approach to combating climate change and development issues was echoed in this year’s annual ACDI student conference.

Conference coordination’s:

The conference, held at the UCT Health Science faculty in March, provided a platform for students, early career researchers, and professionals to come together and share ideas and goals about current efforts to resolve climate change and development actions in South Africa (specifically) and Africa. Not only did it bring together different levels of experience but also diverse backgrounds – engineers, journalists, biologists, climate change scientists – that further enhanced this much-needed multilateral and interdisciplinary global momentum.

The conference involved a series of presentations and posters by the students and early career researchers, as well as more advanced talks by academics such as Kevin Winter (head of the Future Water Institute) and Mark New (director of the African Climate & Development Institute). Both spoke about current pressing issues of climate change in the local (the Cape Town water crisis) and global (the future of climate change with Donald Trump as the US president) spheres of our lives as South Africans. Mark New introduced Kevin Winter by emphasising the fact that they may come from different institutions with different focus areas, but they have many overlapping common interests. Furthermore, even though the presentations were divided up into sessions of ‘vulnerability, impact and adaptation’, ‘sustainable development and communication’ and ‘mitigation and climate science’, neither session had specific fields of studies attached. These aspects of the conference further highlighted the very complex and interdisciplinary subject that is climate change.

Breaking the ice:

While the conference is formally known for sharing work on current research in and around South Africa amongst peers, it also had informal elements with ice breakers such as ‘speed dating’ and ‘climate bingo’. During the breaks and ice breaker sessions, the students had the opportunity to talk privately to academics about their research, as well as an opportunity for experienced academics to provide constructive criticism and feedback on the posters and students work.  Not only does this conference introduce “new blood” into the climate change network, but also exposes the international students to current Southern Africa research, as well as providing a safe place for advice on the journey ahead. 

An ACDI student, Nivedita Joshi, said that “for me as an international student, it was a great way to understand the “greening” scenario in South Africa, specifically, and Africa, generally. Apart from that I was able to talk to people from different backgrounds and know more about their work. Coming from a background in economics and business, my views about sustainable development are mostly skewed towards those topics but seeing how other disciples incorporate sustainable development blew my mind.”

Two is better than one:

Not only was there an opportunity to present current work, but also a bit of healthy competitiveness involved with the opportunity to win some funding. After the large impressive spectrum of talks and posters, the panel of judges had the difficult task of choosing the 1st and 2nd places for the best oral presentation and poster. And as a result, also continuing with the running theme of this conference to enhance the multidisciplinary and multilateral approaches, it seems fitting that the 1st place for the best oral presentation prize went to two speakers in completely different fields.

While Gregory Ireland gave an impressive talk on “A Techno Economic Renewable Mini Grid Simulation and Costing Model for Off-Grid Rural Electrification Planning in sub-Saharan Africa”, Roy Bouwer gave an enlightening talk on “The Capacity of Local Governments to Build Flood Resilience in informal Settlements: A Social Network Approach”. Second place went to Paul Currie for his talk on, “Investigating urban metabolism as a way to envision and design sustainable cities: lessons from a Cape Town metabolic baseline.”

The 1st place best poster went to one of the current ACDI students, Makeya Karlie, who presented her findings on the “Post- fire fine sediment dispersal and storage in the Lower Silvermine Wetland.” Second prize for best poster was Modathir Zaroug, who looked at “The impact of 1.5°C and 2.0 °C above pre-industrial levels of global warming in semi-arid hot-spots at Africa and India.”

Moving forward:

Even though we may have a different view on climate change, or background, or lifestyle, we all are impacted by the climate and all the possible changes that are predicted to occur. It is therefore obvious that to combat climate change and development issues, interdisciplinary and multilateral approaches are the only way forward. This was again highlighted by Jana Hofmann from the University of East Anglia, who ended off the afternoon. She spoke about how carbon-offsetting projects were effective at delivering sustainable livelihood benefits in South Africa. She went on to explain that unless South Africa takes actions to mitigate climate change, there will be large negative consequences for their socio-economic. This highlights the need for more disciplines to come together to solve this “wicked problem” while the momentum for more unified action to combat climate change is still occurring, post the Paris Agreement. 

Thumbnail image: authors own

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity