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Q&A: Walter Leal, professor of environment and technology

Tell us about yourself and your work.

I am a professor of environment and technology at MMU as well as at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. My work involves the coordination of research projects, the organisation of scientific events and supervision of PhD students. I’m particularly interested in sustainable development and climate change.

What are you currently researching?

Right now we are doing research on climate change adaptation in Africa. We have a project called AFRHINET which looks at how to maximise use of rainwater in African countries.

Another project I’m working on currently is exploring the issue of sustainable development in small island states, such as Mauritius and parts of the Caribbean. These countries have great potential as far as the use of renewable energy is concerned, however they are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. You see these huge tankards carrying oil and fuel, and it discounts the vast potential of using renewable energy. If they develop the use of renewable energy, they could instead invest the money spent on oil in health or education. I’m really interested in looking at how these countries can be more sustainable. 

Tell me about your work with the International Climate Change Information Programme.

I am the founding director of the programme, which was created in 2008. The aim is to collect information but also to foster communication and education about climate change.

It’s a very complex issue that isn’t widely understood. So we’re trying to foster a better awareness of climate change, and what it means to people. To this end, we’ve created a book series on climate change adaptation, we regularly organise information events and have now a journal which specifically focuses on climate change adaptation.

You’re coordinating the World Symposium on Climate Change Adaptation, which is taking place in Manchester this month. The focus of the symposium is on innovative approaches to implementing climate change adaptation. Could you give us a few examples of these approaches?

One example again is in African countries. They tend to be very dry yet rely heavily on agriculture. It rains as much in sub-Saharan Africa as it rains in Europe. The difference is that, in Europe, we have rain throughout the year whereas in sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a lot of rain in a short time, ie in the monsoon season. So we thought: what about trying to find a way to capture this rain and store it to use in the dry season? It is one of the innovations we’ll be promoting during a workshop at the symposium: how to capture, store and use rainwater for agriculture purposes.

Another example is a new approach to crops. Obviously as the climate changes, and as the temperature increases, many of the current crops will not survive or the yields will be low. We have to find resistant alternatives to maize. Maize is a staple of many diets, but these crops are dying in the heat. But a clever growth of crops such as chick peas or sorghum may provide good alternatives.

We should also consider moving agriculture to higher ground, where temperatures aren’t so high. This is happening in South Africa for instance, where wine producers are moving up the hill where it’s cooler.

The innovation we’re trying to promote isn’t rocket science, it’s not huge or expensive – these are little, smart changes.

What do you hope will be the outcome of the symposium?

We hope that the UN agencies [involved in the symposium] will come together to work on climate change. There are plenty of resources and much innovation but I really want to see more cooperation. Secondly I want to see good cooperation between scientists and government agencies. Science alone will not solve the problem; they have to work together and I want to foster that.

The other thing I want to do is document and share experiences, because there are a lot of things happening, a lot of wonderful projects – but not all of them are documented. We’re producing three books to document what’s going on, what worked, what could be done better.

You’ve spoken quite a bit about developing countries. In your view, what countries are responding well to climate change adaptation?

The UK, Germany, Netherlands… they’re taking climate change adaptation seriously. We can’t say the same for countries like Greece and Italy… they’re not doing so well. There’s a discrepancy in Europe, where the northern countries are investing a lot on climate change technologies and adaptation, whereas in the south one can still notice a “wait and see” approach.

In what areas is the challenge of adaptation most acute?

There are two areas – firstly agriculture, since it is essential for food production. This year, for instance, we’ve had a very dry summer. Farmers everywhere are complaining about the low yield this summer. This is certainly an example of how climate change affects us.

The second area is cities – cities need to become more resilient and adapt. They can also overheat; cities are becoming very hot since there are fewer and fewer green areas, and buildings are being built very close to each other.  Life in cities can thus become quite uncomfortable, and we need to do something about it.

Those are some of the areas to which we need to pay urgent attention.

We need to speed up climate change adaptation – what is the best approach?

By reaching more synergy – we have a lot of resources but the work is separate. The second thing is to promote and disseminate best practice. People don’t have to start from scratch, there are many well-tried experiences and methods, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.