Our Burning Planet


Climate crisis: Decarbonising window will close for universities like Wits if they don’t lead the way

Climate crisis: Decarbonising window will close for universities like Wits if they don’t lead the way
Almost 200 universities have divested from fossil fuels, including Oxford, Cambridge, Soas and Yale. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

Almost 200 universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Soas and Yale, have divested from fossil fuels. On home soil, Wits would only be the third university thus far in low- and middle-income countries to divest. Wits must step up and lead.

Cathi Albertyn, Professor of Law and South African Research Chair in Equality, Law and Social Justice; Lucy Allais, Professor of Philosophy; Sally Archibald, Professor of Ecology; Matthew Chersich, Research Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences; David Everatt, Professor, Professor of Urban Governance at Wits School of Governance; Lenore Manderson, Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology; Achille Mbembe, Research Professor, Faculty of Humanities; Vishwas Satgar, Associate Professor of International Relations.

As the second-biggest fire in Californian history continues to rage; as parts of Europe flood and others are on fire; as Mozambique struggles to recover from tropical cyclone Idai, the United Nations released a climate report making clear just how dire the climate emergency is. 

The report, the product of hundreds of scientists from around the world, including South Africa, surveys all the relevant science and shows that disastrous, extreme weather events like fires, floods, cyclones, deadly heatwaves and droughts will continue to increase if we do not urgently reduce the heating of our planet’s atmosphere. 

Together with rising sea levels, famine, mass extinction and other catastrophes, this will lead to displacement, conflict, misery and death for millions if not billions of people. 

But the report contains room for hope. There is still a small window of opportunity for humanity to collectively step up and mitigate the situation. A window that is rapidly closing.

Universities are well positioned to play an essential leadership role in addressing this crisis, and major universities around the world have begun developing detailed plans and acting to address climate change. 

Wits University must urgently take up a similar leadership role in South Africa. With its diverse expertise, metropolitan position and core social mission, Wits is positioned to take a lead by reducing its dependency on energy produced by the burning of carbon, disinvesting from fossil fuels, and prioritising teaching and research to mitigate the climate emergency. 

The problem and our part in it

We know that human activity has caused global temperatures to rise. We know that this is already causing a dangerous increase in extreme weather events. And we know that with every 0.5 degree rise in global temperatures the situation dramatically worsens; conversely, every 0.5 degree increase we can avoid will leave us better off. 

We also know that the primary driver of this warming is the burning of carbon in cars and the grid-derived electricity that powers our lives and economies. Reducing the burning of carbon is the most significant lever we have to slow the temperature increase. 

The good news is that reducing society’s burning of carbon really will help – that it is not too late, and that much of the technology needed to achieve this already exists. The bad news is that we are currently not reducing carbon emissions and are on course for truly catastrophic climate destabilisation. 

Most of the historical carbon emissions responsible for the current emergency were caused by the world’s highly industrialised, rich, developed countries. It is tempting to think that the burden of reducing carbon emissions should be primarily carried by them, and that those of us in poorer and less developed countries should have the chance to follow their course of development before we cut back on carbon: that it is our turn to pollute. It is tempting to think that environmental issues are a luxury that rich countries can focus on, while countries like South Africa need to focus on such things as unemployment as our first priority. 

These tempting thoughts are completely wrong, for many reasons. Here are some: 

Countries like ours have an enormous amount to lose from the climate destabilisation that further global warming will cause. We are unfortunately in an extremely vulnerable “climate hotspot”: for every 2 degrees the average global temperature rises, parts of South Africa are predicted to heat up by up to 6 degrees. 

This will lead to worsening droughts, deadly heatwaves, increased food insecurity and the mass displacement of people, with resulting escalation of poverty and conflict. The economic disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic are nothing compared to those projected by the effects of unmitigated climate instability, and we cannot afford to face them. 

We are in fact a significant part of the problem: South Africa is the 12th highest emitter of carbon dioxide worldwide, primarily from coal burning, and several cities in Mpumalanga are among the most polluted in the world. Alongside countries like Iraq, India and Australia, we rely on a very carbon-intensive energy production – double the global average. Our economy is more carbon-heavy than China’s. 

Whether or not it is fair that rich industrialised countries got where they are by burning more than their share of carbon, decarbonising our lives and economies is now an inescapable necessity for everyone. 

Decarbonising need not be a burden on the South African economy, but rather an opportunity. Investing in and developing new technologies will create jobs and increase productivity. There is already concern in the US that climate denial in that country has enabled China to get ahead in the development, manufacture and production of renewable energy technology in ways that will harm the US economy. 

Similarly, if leading nations decarbonise and we do not, South Africa will be left behind, if not actually penalised.

Lurching between denial and despair

Relative to the speed of carbon emissions, it is clear that most of humanity is doing far too little, continuing with business as usual as if the problem didn’t exist. When we do think about it, the magnitude of the problem and the apparent insignificance of anything we can do as individuals is liable to lead to despair. 

For example, we have an abundance of natural energy from the sun, and so almost every house and most businesses in South Africa should have solar panels to provide most of their water heating and electricity needs. This could also charge electric cars from solar panels, almost never needing petrol. The technology exists right now to do this. Yet very few have switched to solar energy. 

The small actions of individuals do make a difference. An essential part of the solution is every single person reducing the extent to which their life involves the burning of carbon. 

In the 2018 drought in Cape Town, Day Zero was avoided by the sum of the reductions in water consumption made by thousands of individuals; all those small contributions were necessary. For many individuals and businesses, the expense of investment in renewable energy will eventually pay for itself. More importantly, the expense of decarbonising our energy supply now will be trivial in comparison to the expense of the disruptions and devastation caused by drought, famine, flood, fires and millions of displaced people. And we are all currently getting energy that is cheaper than the resources of our world can afford it to be, with enormous costs in its effects on the atmosphere and human health.  

Those of us who can, need to pay for this – as individuals, as institutions, as businesses and as countries. Yet we all seem to be waiting for someone else to act first.

Who will lead?

In South Africa it seems unlikely that the lead will come from government or from business, or that many individuals on their own will act (of course, many in South Africa do not have any resources to invest in decarbonising). It is our major institutions that must urgently lead the way, and none is better equipped than our universities. 

Wits University has expertise in multiple fields that position it to be a game-changer. Indeed, its scientists have played key roles in compiling the UN report. From research on renewable technologies, to policy work on rolling these out in communities, to studies on how to resolve the very collective action problems we face when no one wants to act first, as well as many other areas, universities are rich resources for the knowledge base required to initiate action. 

Unlike businesses, universities – as research and educational institutions – have a core social mission. Wits is currently developing a strategic framework for the next 10 years, and it is clear that leadership in the climate emergency must be a key part of this. By developing and committing itself to clear goals and a timetable for decarbonising, and committing to climate justice, Wits can provide a model for the country and show how this can be done.


Wits must begin by putting its own house in order. 

We need to act urgently to decarbonise our own energy use. Other universities have done this. Every rooftop on campus could be providing electricity, and every outside parking bay could be charging electric cars and nearby buildings. The Wits buses must be electrified. 

Of course, universities like Wits operate under enormous financial constraints, but this is something we cannot afford not to do, and we cannot wait for the perfect moment to act. The window is closing and we need to act now. And there are enormous scientific and technological opportunities in which our innovation is a future source of income for the university and the country. 

Wits can make itself into a model for the rest of South Africa, starting with its own campuses and then developing models to decarbonise its surrounding areas such as Braamfontein, and eventually the greater metropolitan area of Johannesburg.


A large number of Wits staff are calling for the university to divest from fossil fuels (alumni, staff and students can follow this link to support the call). As they argue, disinvestment from fossil fuels globally forms the cornerstone of institutional strategies on climate change. The fossil fuel divestment movement now encompasses over $14-trillion in assets, and includes over 1,300 institutions, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Amnesty International, as well as cities like Paris, New York, Melbourne, eThekwini and Cape Town, and even a whole country: Ireland

Almost 200 universities have divested from fossil fuels, including Oxford, Cambridge, SOAS and Yale. Wits would only be the third university thus far in low- and middle-income countries to divest. But the fossil fuel industry is, in fact, facing major financial and legitimacy crises on multiple fronts. Adopting the principle of divestment does not necessarily translate into financial losses for a university. 

Teaching and research

Decarbonising and disinvesting from carbon are actions that we all – universities, businesses, governments, institutions and individuals – need to take as a matter of urgency. In addition, as centres of research and teaching, universities have unique ways to contribute: prioritising the climate emergency in teaching and research. 

Research can focus on how to restructure our carbon-intensive energy sector; on transport and other aspects of our economy; on developing new technologies; and understanding the action needed to roll out and implement these, from social policies to incentives for those who can afford to decarbonise and to support those who cannot. 

Wits can make sustainability central to its curriculum. Wits scientists have played key roles in generating the science that enables us to understand, track and model climate change, and must act on what its own scientists are saying.

If universities do not act, who will?

At the current rates of emissions, the world has 10 years before warming becomes catastrophic. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is still within reach but requires immediate, large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – it will soon be beyond reach. 

It is still possible for collective action to slow global warming and avert climate catastrophe, but the window is closing rapidly. 

Strong leadership by influential institutions is key to preventing the climate crisis from becoming a full-blown climate catastrophe. 

Wits must step up and lead.

“Every decade is consequential in its own way, but the 2020s will be consequential in a more or less permanent way. Global C02 emissions are now so high – in 2019, they hit a new record of 43 billion metric tons – that 10 more years of the same will be nothing short of cataclysmic. 

“Unless emissions are reduced, and radically, a rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) will be pretty much unavoidable by 2030. This will make the demise of the world’s coral reefs, the inundation of most low-lying island nations, incessant heatwaves and fires and misery for millions – perhaps billions – of people unavoidable.” – Elizabeth Kolbert, 2020. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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