Wits: Climate leadership

Position statement on the climate change response of Wits University for the Wits 2033 Strategic Framework: vision, principled leadership, and opportunity

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Please note that this campaign is led by Wits academic staff. Fossil Free SA is providing support and resources.

Institutions that continue to invest in fossil fuels despite all the evidence of their effect on accelerating climate change are furthering environmental, economic and social injustice.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu addresses a crowd in Durban during the lead-up to the 2011 COP 17 global climate summit.
Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Peace laureate
As a leading university in Africa, Wits must lead by example and use its influence to transform society through its leadership, education, and research.
Prof. Zeblon Vilakazi
Zeblon Vilakazi
Wits Vice Chancellor

Wits and the climate crisisThis Position Statement was drafted in response to a request by the Wits leadership for inputs from staff and students on its new 10 year strategy.  

Summary of the statement

The mean global temperature has risen 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. The principal cause of global warming is the burning of fossil fuels: coal, gas and oil. South Africa is the world’s 12th largest emitter of carbon dioxide; and faces a warming rate approximately twice the global average. Without major intervention, temperatures may increase by 4-6°C in Southern Africa by 2100, as Wits researchers have shown.

Divestment from South African companies played a major role in the struggle against Apartheid. As much as it was unethical for international corporations to profit from investments in Apartheid South Africa, it is unethical for institutions like Wits University to profit from the fossil fuel industry which damages the planet, actively distorts science and subverts efforts to control its harms. The fossil fuel industry causes major environmental damages, yet bears few, if any, of the ‘hidden’ costs of air pollution and carbon emissions, leaving these for affected communities and future generations. Moreover, corrupt relations between the South African government, and coal companies and other fossil fuel interests have meant that the government have obstructed any meaningful shifts to renewable energy in the country. 

Wits should join a global divestment movement that includes over 1300 institutions, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, cities like eThekwini and Cape Town, Paris, New York, Melbourne, the whole of Ireland, and over 200 universities worldwide.

Divestment by Wits would begin with an agreement in principle to divest. Then, by 2033 the University would divest its financial reserves such as stocks that are connected to companies involved in extracting fossil fuels. Divestment only concerns the university’s investments and is not linked to the receipt of research funding from the fossil fuel industryWhile the University has made important strides in reducing carbon emissions on its campuses, clear time bound commitments are needed towards rapid decarbonisation. Additionally, it is essential that the University apply its resources to ensure that climate change is placed at the forefront of teaching and research at the University.  

Wits’s Strategic Vision 2022 notes that the ‘distinctive character of Wits includes our value system and legacy of visibly committed academics, and a socially engaged and independent-minded institution’. Indeed, taking a principled stand in the climate crisis is consistent with Wits’s proud tradition of social and scientific leadership. 

We propose the following priorities for the Wits 2033 Strategic Framework:

  1. Adopt the principle of fossil fuel divestment and commit to a time-bound path towards full divestment by 2033
  2. Offer University staff options for retirement funds that exclude fossil fuel investments
  3. Pursue rapid decarbonisation on campus by 2033, including through supporting sustainable, low-emission infrastructure and waste reduction on campus.
  4. Commit the University to climate justice, including through drawing attention to heavily affected population groups, as well as endorsing key national and international climate change initiatives
  5. Intensify teaching activities on climate change, including encouraging departments to integrate climate change topics into all relevant curricula 
  6. Amplify the university’s capacity to address critical research gaps in Africa, including in climate change adaptation and mitigation, and a Just Transition to renewable energy, and to access the emerging global financing mechanisms for climate change research and programmes

Staff, student and alumni can endorse the Position Statement via the form lower down this page. The statement and names of those who have endorsed it will be submitted to the Wits leadership for consideration by the Wits 2033 Strategic Framework committee.  Please send comments or suggestions for promoting the statement to Nomhle Ngwenya (PhD student) (1043519@students.wits.ac.za) Dr Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon (wilhelmsolomon@gmail.com) or Prof. Matthew Chersich (mchersich@wrhi.ac.za).

For full background and our FAQ, click the text toggles here:

Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing the Wits University community. Unless decisive action is taken to curtail carbon emissions, global temperatures will increase by several degrees more over the lifetime of the current Wits students. Mean global temperature is already 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. Modelling studies by Wits researchers show that temperatures in South Africa are likely to rise at twice the global rate, accompanied by more frequent and intense droughts and wildfires, as well as major storms. The African continent is hardest hit by climate change and has the fewest resources to respond. Already many of the temperatures being recorded on the continent are close to the limits of ‘liveability’, and physical labour or ‘workability’ is not possible for parts of the year. Without interventions, the impact of climate change on crop failure, food insecurity, mass migration, conflict and poverty will continue to escalate. As temperatures, so do rates of mortality, mental health conditions, including violence and suicide, and adverse birth outcomes. Moreover, we are destroying biodiversity, and affecting all parts of the natural world, with phenomena like marine heat waves causing mass mortality of marine life and permanent loss of coral reefs, for example.  

South Africa is the 12th highest emitter of carbon dioxide worldwide, primarily from coal burning. Several cities in Mpumalanga are among the most polluted worldwide. Our shameful position in these global rankings, and our inability thus far to shift our carbon trajectory is inextricably linked to our individual, institutional and political vested interests in securing profits from the fossil fuel industry. 

Globally, divestment from fossil fuels signals whether a University is committed to addressing climate change. Historically, divestment has been used as a strategy to exert moral, social, political and financial pressure against an industry or government viewed as illegitimate. Divestment from South African companies was central to the struggle against Apartheid. Profiting from an economy built on racial exploitation was deemed unethical. In this position paper we argue that it is equally unethical for Wits University to willingly profit from an industry that damages the planet, actively distorts science, and subverts efforts to control its harms. The fossil fuel industry has spent billions on deliberately perpetuating denialism around climate change. Opportunities for corruption in contracts such as the $225 billion emergency 20 years ‘Powerships’ deal mean government actively stacks the odds against renewable energy producers and impose years-long delays in permissions. But, perhaps most importantly, Wits University and its staff through their pension funds draw profits from the fossil fuel industry, while the industry’s hidden harms are borne by communities surrounding power stations and future generations.  

The fossil fuel divestment movement now encompasses over $14 trillion in assets, and includes over 1300 institutions, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as cities like Cape Town, eThekwini, Paris, New York, and Melbourne, 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. After years of engagement between staff and students activists, and the leadership of the University of Cape Town, the university’s Council will consider divestment proposals in September 2021. The university’s Convocation has voted three times for divestment.  

While much progress has been made, rapid ambitious decarbonisation by 2033 will shore up the credibility of the University’s teaching and research on climate change. ‘Greening’’ the campus presents multiple opportunities to showcase the University’s ground-breaking research on renewable energy and related technologies. Decarbonising initiatives open up research opportunities, from the science faculty that is developing the actual technologies, to the policy and legal frameworks, and the sociology of actually implementation. Extending our ‘Green footprint’ into Braamfontein, through solar charging stations for electric cars, for example, is a valuable opportunity for broader social engagement on climate change. 

Strong leadership by influential institutions is key to preventing the climate crisis from becoming a full climate catastrophe. Yet, South Africa lacks high-profile credible leadership on this topic. Wits is one of few institutions viewed as holding legitimacy in the country and bears a grave responsibility to wield its influence wisely. The responsibility extends, in this instance, to protecting the climate and ecosystems against further irreversible destruction. By setting ethical standards and taking leadership, the University will influence other universities, public opinion, the private sector and national policymakers, and help to guide South Africa’s future on “a pathway towards low greenhouse emissions and climate-resilient development’’. 

As Professor Vilakazi noted during his installation as Vice Chancellor and Principal, Wits has the opportunity to transcend many latitudes and ultimately to impact on society for good. The climate crisis calls for visionary, principled leadership by the University, a path which will inevitably involve trade-offs. This moment echoes a period in the 1960s when the University was confronted with a decision about whether to challenge the Apartheid government, knowing well that such a move would mean a loss of state funding. There was by no means consensus among the University leadership about which path to take, but ultimately the University’s Vice Chancellor and leadership team chose to impact on society for good. The University’s moral imperatives trumped their financial interests. Divestment from fossil fuels would be a natural extension of the University’s historical activism, ethics, and stewardship of critical social issues.

Priorities for the Wits 2033 Strategic Framework:

  1. Adopt the principle of fossil fuel divestment and commit to a time-bound path towards full divestment by 2033s
  2. Offer University staff options for retirement funds that exclude fossil fuel investments
  3. Pursue rapid decarbonisation on campus by 2033, including through supporting sustainable, low-emission infrastructure and waste reduction on campus.
  4. Commit the University to climate justice, including through drawing attention to heavily affected population groups, as well as endorsing key national and international climate change initiatives
  5. Intensify teaching activities on climate change, including encouraging departments to integrate climate change topics into all relevant curricula 
  6. Amplify the university’s capacity to address critical research gaps in Africa, including in climate change adaptation and mitigation, and a Just Transition to renewable energy, and to access the emerging global financing mechanisms for climate change research and programmes  

A decision to divest is not taken lightly. Potential financial losses for a university are a major concern. The fossil fuel industry is, however, facing major financial and legitimacy crises on multiple fronts. Many mining companies are themselves shedding fossil fuel assets. Anglo American recently did so, electing ‘to act responsibly’ as ‘the world transitions towards a low carbon economy’. Divestment is a carefully managed process. Universities begin by adopting the principle of divestment, and then typically allow about five years to disentangle their investments, guided by a panel tasked with implementing the divestment commitment. Moreover, divestment is a continuum, ranging from divestment from companies doing new explorations for fossil fuels, to divestment from those involved in ‘thermal coal’ and finally to a complete withdraw of funds from any company linked with fossil fuels. Divestment can be linked to whether companies meet their emission targets; aiming to incentivize compliance, rather than being punitive. To come full circle, funds withdrawn from fossil fuel investments would be reinvested into clean energy companies and other climate solutions. 

Divestment of financial assets and receipt of research funding from industry are two distinct issues. Universities globally have make a clear distinction between divestment of financial stocks, funds and pension funds on the one hand and research funding on the other. Research funding from industry and engagement is critical for rapidly expanding the knowledge base needed for decarbonisation. Of note, divestment is an opportunity to firmly establish the University as a pioneer in climate change, placing us at the forefront of initiatives such as the Green Climate Fund.   

Many academics at Wits are already at the leaders in climate change science and social engagement, setting the stage, but also providing resources for climate action by the University. Professor Vishvas Satgar, for example, led the development of South Africa’s Climate Justice Charter, which, to date, has been endorsed by more than 200 organisations. In 2016, about 8,000 people signed the ‘Climate Justice Together’ petition to Wits, which included a call for fossil fuel divestment. The remarkable Professor Bob Scholes understood the machinations of the fossil fuel industry well, describing a recent oil find in Southern Africa as ‘The ‘wildcatters’ are coming — oil exploration ‘techies’ — hundreds of them will arrive and I don’t know how to put this politely, but these are not saints, they are going to be setting themselves up… and then they go away… post-gas exploration landscapes you are left with — and all of their social problems, people in the wrong places, expectations dashed, [infrastructure] which suddenly disappears”. 

In conclusion, a visionary commitment for divestment in principle and for advancing research and teaching on climate change would make a major contribution to securing the lives of current and future students, as well all South Africans and citizens of the world. Our students deserve the opportunity to graduate into a future not defined by the climate crisis. These actions will advance the growing momentum in civil society to mainstream renewable energy and send an unambiguous message that willingly desiring the profits of a lethal industry is no longer acceptable, and that the University rejects a business model where polluters and shareholders draw profits, leaving local communities, and future generations to bear the environmental and social costs thereof. 

Ultimately, we the undersigned hope that the leadership of the University of the Witwatersrand will heed the wisdom of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who noted that: ‘Institutions that continue to invest in fossil fuels despite all the evidence of their effect on accelerating climate change are furthering environmental, economic and social injustice.’

This position statement was prepared together with members of staff and students at the University of the Witwatersrand, namely:

Lucy Allais, Personal Professor, Philosophy department

Lenore Manderson, Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology, School of Public Health

Tracy-Lynn Field, Professor, School of Law

Sally Archibald, Professor, Animal Plant and Environmental Sciences

Vishwas Satgar, Associate professor, International Relations

David Everatt, Professor, Wits School of Governance 

Francois Venter, Professor, Ezintsha, School of Public Health

Matthew Chersich, Research Professor, Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute

Jane Goudge, Professor, Centre for Health Policy, School of Public Health

Robyn Hetem, Associate Professor, School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences

Wayne Twine, Associate Professor, School of Animal, Plant & Environmental Sciences, Director of Wits Rural Knowledge Hub

Beth Vale, Lecturer, Anthropology

Elmari Briedenhann, Senior Programme Manager, Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute

Fiona Scorgie, Senior Researcher, Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute

Marlise Richter, Visiting Researcher, African Centre for Migration and Society

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, Lecturer, Anthropology

Melissa Strydom, Doctoral Student, School of Law

Nomhle Ngwenya, Doctoral Student, School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Sciences

Zunaida Moosa Wadiwala, Doctoral Student, School of Law

David Le Page, Fossil Free South Africa

Greg Simpson, Managing Director at Wildlife Forensic Academy

Peter Knox, Former Catholic chaplain of Wits University and current Associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa

Melanie Kee, Students Organising for Sustainability, United Kingdom

We are grateful for critical input from several other staff and have tried to incorporate their views wherever possible. 

Contact Nomhle Ngwenya (PhD student) (1043519@students.wits.ac.za) Dr Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon (wilhelmsolomon@gmail.com) or Prof. Matthew Chersich (mchersich@wrhi.ac.za) for more information or suggestions on promoting the Position Statement. 

A version of this resource with references and footnotes is available on request.

Argument 1: Is divestment a radical fringe movement?

Response: Policy in climate change evolves at a very rapid pace – what may have seemed radical a few years back is now mainstream. More than half of universities in the United Kingdom have divested, for example (88/165).

Argument 2: Are financial investments and retirement funds too complex to divest from fossil fuels?

Response: A number of ‘Green Funds’ have emerged in response to high demand and impressive yields from investments in the ‘’Green Revolution’’. Having a five-ten year divestment plan allows apply time for implementing divestment commitments. 

Argument 3: Does divestment mean that the University will lose money? 

Response: Financial imperatives in these very challenging times are clearly legitimate, but need to be balanced against ethical and social interests. Divestment is becoming financially prudent. Fossil fuel asset values are declining, with high likelihood of stranded assets and a carbon bubble. Conversely, financial returns from the global renewable energy market are growing rapidly. Moreover, positioning Wits as a pioneering ethical ‘Green University’ with major research strengths in climate change may facilitate access to climate change financing mechanisms, such as the Green Climate Fund to which the ‘’G7 nations’’ recently reiterated its commitment of $100 billion per year. 

Argument 4: Will divesting from fossil fuels impacts on the profits of the fossil fuel industry and negatively affect jobs in the coal and related sectors?

Response: Without doubt, it is important to ensure a ‘’Just Transition’’ for workers and communities involved in coal and other extractive mining, and to secure their livelihoods. Compared with the coal mining sector, renewable energy is more labour-intensive, and provides safer work conditions and more opportunities for skill building. There are costed plans for a transition to renewable energy in South Africa. Moreover, the world is learning fast that a robust environment is essential for a robust economy. Paradoxically, by protecting the fossil fuel industry, we are accelerating climate change and thereby destroying livelihoods, especially those of subsistence farmers throughout Africa who are among the population groups most affected by intensifying droughts, floods and temperature extremes. Indeed, ”Environmental racism’’, driven by the fossil fuel and other polluting industries, makes mostly low-income, Black and other communities of colour victims of the pollution from elite, wealthy communities. 

Argument 5. Is a fossil fuel intensive economy still necessary and cost-effective for solving development problems in South Africa? 

Response: This argument is used to justify new explorations of fossil fuels, to stack the odds against renewable energy producers and to block any substantive carbon pricing or taxation. There is much evidence, however, that the interests of fossil fuels are actually at the root of many of South Africa’s developmental problems, rather than setting a path towards development. The fossil fuel industry has fomented corruption, inequality, deadly pollution and land degradation, all with heavy economic and social costs. The corruption around power stations at ESKOM, and the recent Powerships ’emergency’ leasing over 20 years at R225 billion are but two examples. The multiple constraints, arduous regulatory approvals and lengthy delays in licensing that renewable energy producers face in South Africa are designed to serve the coal lobby, proponents of nuclear energy and corrupt officials. Renewable energy, generated by multiple small-to-medium sized producers, is less amenable to the large-scale corruption or price fixing that characterises contracts with the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, by pursuing a fossil fuel-intensive development model, we are ignoring the fact that this is no longer the most effective way to build an equitable, stable and thriving economy. The government’s failure to promulgate policies compatible with our long-term best interests threatens the attainment of our commitments to the Paris Agreement, and sets the stage for a climate catastrophe. 

Importantly, the operating costs of renewable energy are now cost-comparative with coal-based energy, especially given the solar and wind resources in the country. The hidden costs of fossil fuels – air pollution and carbon emissions – are not accounted for in these calculations. Existing carbon pricing or carbon taxation in South Africa does little to offset the true costs of air pollution and carbon emissions, which instead are borne by communities surrounding power plants and future generations. If costs of pollution and carbon emissions were taken into account, the fossil fuel industry would be unable to compete with renewables, and funds from carbon taxation would be available to assist vulnerable groups to cope with the sequalae of CO2.. Accepting the principal of divestment sends a strong signal that the fossil fuel industry business model is illegitimate, unjust. Delegitimising the industry is a key step towards creating a policy climate which facilitates expansion of renewable energy. 

Argument 6. Will divestment of university financial reserves will jeopardise research funding from the fossil fuel industry? 

Response: Divestment of financial assets and pension funds is NOT tied to receipt of research funding from industry or engagement with industry through participation in company boards, for example. Universities globally have make a clear distinction between divestment of financial stocks, investment funds and pension funds on the one hand and research funding on the other. Industry obtains major benefits from research partnerships with Wits University and oftentimes rely heavily on academics at the University to provide critical technical and other inputs into their work, especially during this period of major flux in the industry. Many companies are requesting assistance in decarbonisation, and are well aware of the need for rapid reform. There are few specialist research groups and experts in South Africa and an industry partner would struggle to find another university in South Africa that is able to provide the research expertise that is available at Wits University. Divestment can also be used as a lever in these interactions, where companies who achieve their targets for reducing emissions are then not divested from.  Divestment in a considered manner, that is accompanied by engagement with affected companies, is unlikely to affect research funding. Ultimately, decisions of a University around divestment must centre on ethical principles primarily, and only secondarily on relations with industry. 

  

 

Background

Video: Wits' response to the climate crisis

View the July 2021 presentation by Professor Matthew Chersich to Wits RHI. Download the slides here.

More about this campaign

This page hosts resources and materials relating to efforts to persuade Wits University to become a true climate leader, by:

  • Committing itself fully to a just transition to a zero carbon economy and climate justice for South Africa, not least by committing to a path for divestment from climate-breaking fossil fuels, as have hundreds of other universities around the world, including Oxford and Cambridge.
  • Ending activities that fund or facilitate the fossil fuel economy.

This campaign is supported by Fossil Free SA but is led by Wits academic staff.

In the media

Web resource

Youtube explainer on divestment from students at the University of Cape Town.

More about Wits

The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Wits) is a multi-campus South African public research university situated in the northern part of central Johannesburg. It is ranked among the top 1.3% of universities globally, and includes four Nobel Prize winners amongst its 180,000 alumni.

The University, originally called the South African School of Mines, has deep roots in the country’s mining industry, an industry that has been a pillar of the country’s economy, but also responsible, at least part, for the economic inequality, corruption, environmental degradation and health crises that mark the country. 

Wits has strong past and current links to the coal and mining industries in South Africa, including through investments in fossil fuel companies via the university endowment and staff pension funds. Given these roots and links, it would be immensely significant for the University to adopt the principle of divestment and spearhead leadership of the climate crisis in South Africa. 

Africa is the continent hardest hit by climate change. Wits’s unique position and resources on the continent give the University the opportunity to become a global lead in tackling the epicentre of climate change. Showing principled leadership is a first step towards taking up that opportunity.  

SA Constitution: Section 24

Everyone has the right:
(a)  to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing; and
(b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations