Reflections from COP28: navigating equitable north-south university collaborations

Dr Ephias Mugari Speaking At ACU COP28 Side Event
Ephias Mugari
Dr Ephias Mugari

Dr Ephias Mugari is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the South Africa/Flanders Climate Adaptation Research and Training Partnership (SAF-ADAPT) Project at the University of Venda, South Africa, and a Fellow in the 2023-24 Commonwealth Futures Climate Research Cohort

Greetings from COP28 in Dubai! As a first-time attendee, the past two weeks have been a whirlwind of discussions, insights, and eye-opening moments. One particular highlight for me was participating in a high-level discussion titled ‘Empowering Equitable North-South University Collaborations: Unpacking the Education Sector's Role in Climate Action for a Sustainable Future.’ Together with my esteemed co-panellists from Kenyatta University (Kenya), South-Eastern University (Sri Lanka), and SouthSouthNorth (South Africa) we explored the nuances of fostering meaningful partnerships.

Emphasising genuine collaboration

In this session, my colleagues and I delved into the critical role of the education sector in advancing climate action. I stressed the need for equitable collaborations, not just on paper, but as a genuine practice. Moving beyond symbolic partnerships to authentic, reciprocal engagement is critical to bringing diverse knowledge systems and experiences, especially the local context of the global south that is critical to informing locally-led actions.

Drawing from my experiences in the South Africa/Flanders Climate Adaptation Research and Training Partnership (SAF-ADAPT) project at the University of Venda as well as my Fellowship in the Commonwealth Futures Climate Research Cohort (2023-24), I underscored the value of South-South collaborations and the crucial role of engaging non-academic stakeholders, including vulnerable communities, in co-producing relevant climate knowledge, solutions and actions.

However, financial challenges stand out as the main challenge to the effective engagement of non-academic stakeholders by universities in the Global South. Thus, partnerships with Global North universities can be crucial in plugging this resource gap.

I drew an example from the Knowledge Exchange Project under the Commonwealth Futures Climate Research Cohort. It provided me with a grant to undertake stakeholder engagement and a consultative workshop to establish the current knowledge and capacity gaps in flood risk management in the Vhembe District in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. Insights gathered from this exercise have the potential to foster demand-driven, action-oriented research that contributes to evidence-based decisions and actions.

Bridging gaps in representation and access

In another related and engaging panel discussion, ’The Role of Universities at COP and Implications for Evidence-Based Policymaking and Climate Justice,’ the dialogue centred on bridging the gap between universities in the global North and South while offering concrete takeaways.

The panel, featuring luminaries from the Edinburgh Earth Initiative, University of the Witwatersrand, The Association of Commonwealth Universities and other early career researchers from the Global South, brought to light practical steps for fostering collaboration. The dialogue yielded actionable insights aimed at fostering more inclusive and collaborative partnerships. The emphasis on making climate change awareness a part of all curricula and promoting coordination between universities on climate change research and advocacy resonated strongly with the audience.

Some of the key takeaways from this exciting discussion bordered around providing badges and funding to universities in the Global South, inviting them to participate in panels and present their research, and encouraging partnerships in hosting pavilions. Whilst the absence of Global South universities at the Higher Education Institutions Pavilion was very loud it was soothing to see some of the Global South universities showcasing at their respective country pavilions. This to me was mainly due to the lack of financial resources by these universities to host separate pavilions. The panel discussion also highlighted the need for more unconditional grant finance to support climate justice initiatives in Global South universities and countries, to allow them to participate more in future COPs.

Paving the way forward: towards a collaborative future

Reflecting on these impactful sessions, it's clear that there's a growing recognition of the importance of genuine collaboration and inclusivity in addressing climate challenges, and a clear call to action emerged. It is imperative to transcend geographical boundaries and cultivate authentic collaborations. Initiatives such as the Network of Networks can help to further more inclusive and collaborative partnerships among Higher Education institutions engaged in climate action.

As a fellow in the Commonwealth Futures Climate Research Cohort representing a university in the global south, it was a great honour to be invited to the ‘COP28 Network of Higher Education Networks Roundtable‘ or ’Network of Networks‘ in short. This high-level roundtable discussion featured leaders and representatives from higher education networks and key partners in the United Nations.

The Network of Networks is an initiative towards fostering Higher Education Institutions working together for improved coordination and action on climate. During this event, there was a brief presentation of the network mapping project, which was followed by a roundtable discussion by network representatives on critical opportunities and priorities for the higher education network community. It was evident that a lot of work was happening within the networks despite some obvious duplications that could be addressed by this new initiative.

As I navigate beyond COP28, I carry with me the optimism fuelled by these discussions and the commitment to translating research into action. The commitment to making climate change awareness an integral part of curricula and fostering coordinated efforts between universities for research and advocacy is a promising step toward a more inclusive future.

Stay tuned for more updates as I continue to explore and contribute to more dialogue on climate action by the education sector, which has excellent potential to shift the needle. Let's unite, act, and deliver!

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