South African academics to lead a global physics initiative on climate action 🇿🇦

South African academics to lead a global physics initiative on climate action 🇿🇦

#climate and sustainability
#academic and education
African scholars are at the forefront of a global effort to combat climate change with science.

Bonface Orucho, bird story agency

Two scholars from the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) have taken the helm of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) Working Group on Physics for Climate Action and Sustainable Development. 

According to a press statement from the university, Professor Nithaya Chetty will lead the charge, with Professor Gledhill assuming the role of secretary.

"This is a multidisciplinary endeavour involving the basic sciences like physics, chemistry, mathematics, computing, engineering, human and social sciences, law, and health sciences," emphasised Chetty.

The appointments, confirmed during the IUPAP General Assembly in Geneva, signal a growing commitment to an interdisciplinary approach to addressing climate change and building resilience. African researchers and scholars are at the forefront of shaping these solutions.

Chetty underscored the critical link between climate change and broader societal challenges. 

"Issues around climate change are set to grow in the coming years. These challenges are intimately connected with the need for energy security and environmental sustainability. If left unaddressed, they will have detrimental impacts on poverty, inequality, mass migration, and the overall human condition," he explained.

“This terrain is fraught with political influences, and it is essential to carefully differentiate between academic discourse on the one hand and political discourse on the other, and between climate action and climate activism,” he added.

The working group's mission is to develop a comprehensive program bolstering physics in Pacific Island nations. Their goal is to harness various disciplines to create solutions to protect island nations and more vulnerable countries, especially those in Africa.

This initiative comes on the heels of the UN General Assembly's resolution designating 2024-2033 as the International Decade of Science for Sustainable Development. The call is for global stakeholders to lead the way in implementing the Decade, using scientific approaches to reduce emissions.

A 2021 study by the Royal Society, found that the world can achieve as much as 50% of the targets needed to cut carbon emissions by 2030, using existing technologies.

"But to go beyond and reach net zero by 2050 requires research, development and deployment of novel technologies," the Royal Society report explained.

Africa has already seen significant benefits from science-driven technologies combating climate change. Physics and science have played pivotal roles in reducing energy consumption in devices and appliances.

A 2021 study by Our World in Data, a research firm, revealed that over a decade, the cost of commercial solar power dropped by 89%, while onshore wind saw a 70% reduction. Building a solar farm in 2010 was 223% more expensive than constructing a new coal plant.

This cost reduction in renewable-sourced electricity deployment has led to a surge in clean energy capacities. Currently, solar-generated electricity exceeds 10 GW, while wind-generated electricity stands at 6.5 GW.

Africa holds an estimated 55% of global potential renewable energy, underscoring the need for continued science-led efforts to bridge the existing gap and tap into these resources to address energy shortfalls.

The African-led global working group, leveraging physics and science, is poised to generate science-driven ideas aligned with the region's immediate needs.

South Africa, long committed to advancing physics on the continent, has solidified partnerships with European nations to bolster the field. Initiatives like the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences' collaboration with Italy and agreements on nuclear physics with the European Organisation for Nuclear Research have bolstered South Africa's position.

The UK government is also initiating partnerships with five African countries, focusing on supporting young scientists - particularly in physics - in projects spanning Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and South Africa.

Physics initiatives like those at the Faculty of Science at Wits, as well as many others, including a partnership between the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) and an institute in Rwanda, are bringing scientific initiatives on the continent into the global spotlight - and are helping to elevate the quality of science research and education across Africa.

Rudolph Erasmus, President of the South African Institute of Physics, underscored a long history of science on the continent.

“South Africa is a founding member of the IUPAP, having been one of only 13 countries that formed the IUPAP 101 years ago, and has a record of being a strong voice in the IUPAP for the development of physics around the globe,” he shared.

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