UCT’s ‘unique’ climate-change master’s degree

20 February 2019 | Story Jorisna Bonthuys. Read time 7 min.
The UCT climate change master’s class of 2017 out on a field trip. <b>Photo</b>&nbsp;ACDI.
The UCT climate change master’s class of 2017 out on a field trip. Photo ACDI.

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) climate-change master’s programme, which addresses the issue of climate change in the context of sustainable development with a specifically African focus, is geared at boosting the relatively small community of professionals and researchers working in this field on the continent.

Responding to the reality that Africa’s existing developmental challenges will be greatly compounded by the impacts of climate change, especially since it is estimated that the continent’s population of 1.1 billion will double by 2050, much more expertise is needed across a wide range of disciplines.

UCT’s African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI), which offers the master’s programme, is considered one of the continent’s foremost climate-change institutes. It generates cutting-edge knowledge to inform both mitigation and adaptation policies and decisions, all grounded in the best available science.

Master’s course convener Dr Marieke Norton said the programme is unique in that it merges the study of climate change with that of sustainable development, and for its specifically African focus.

This empowers a new generation of climate leaders to guide African societies on an equitable, sustainable, low-carbon and climate-resilient trajectory, she explained.

Creating new climate leaders

“The focus [at the ACDI] is on creating capacitated, effective citizens and employable professionals. It is not just about being researchers, teachers or lecturers. It is about being effective citizens within the academic world and outside of it.”


“The focus [at the ACDI] is on creating capacitated, effective citizens and employable professionals … It is about being effective citizens within the academic world and outside of it.”

Norton believes the master’s curriculum and other academic courses offered by the ACDI’s climate academy can empower students in this personal transition.

The full-time master’s programme accommodates 20 to 25 students annually. Many graduates go on to influence policy within the government or to work as consultants in contexts where they can effect meaningful change. Others regard the programme as an important step in building the necessary knowledge and academic discipline to pursue a PhD in the field.

The master's student body is compiled of roughly equal numbers of South African, African and international students.

“It used to be that we would mostly get applications from southern Africa, but we have increasingly been getting applications from further afield,” said Norton, adding that this indicated that the reputation of the ACDI is “spreading north”.

There is also increased interest from applicants from within African and South African governments.

“There is clearly a push from the governments on the continent. They are looking for staff members, particularly in the agricultural and conservation sectors, who are trained in climate change.”

Most of the students have been previously employed and cover their own study costs. Those who are married and have children often leave their families behind in other towns, countries or even continents to embrace this opportunity in Cape Town.

Mayosi remembered
Tiro Nkemelang is hooded by Deputy Registrar Dr Karen van Heerden. After completing the ACDI masters programme he enrolled in a PhD, funded by the AXA Chair in African Climate Risk Photo Romaric Odoulami.

Although some students come from Europe or the United States, the programme is focused on climate change from a global south perspective, with an emphasis on African views on climate change.

Strength in diversity

While students may specialise in their own field or discipline, they work together in groups representing the various natural sciences, economics, law and the social sciences. Students are lectured and supported by experts from different departments and faculties across the UCT campus.

The programme is also not limited to students from particular disciplines; the only prerequisite is a South African honours degree (with an average mark of 65% or above) or equivalent, such as a National Qualifications Framework (NQF) Level 8 qualification.

“Students are exposed to people from very diverse backgrounds, very diverse academic experiences and very diverse work experiences,” Norton explained.

Tshepo Phakisi, for instance, has a background in public health. His current master’s research project focuses on how climate change affects public health and health policy. He is specifically interested in water pollution and the impact that climate change has on the air quality and on (possibly resultant) asthma cases in Cape Town.

“It’s an interesting topic and it’s important for policy and awareness,” Phakisi said.


“Students are exposed to people from very diverse backgrounds, very diverse academic experiences and very diverse work experiences.”

“Think about the concept of public health. Now imagine how that intersects with climate change. The programme has opened my eyes to things I didn't see before. I can now reflect on my knowledge of health policy and planning from a different perspective.”

The programme’s mentors and lecturers comprise scientists, economists and lawyers with a shared interest in interdisciplinary research and solutions to the continentʼs climate-change challenges.

“There is a reason why the ACDI is one of the hosts of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence in Climate and Development. Our students have access to some of the leading minds working on climate change and development in Africa,” Norton said.

Generation change

The application of climate-change information is no longer restricted to climate modelling alone.

Norton pointed out that the knowledge generated by the ACDI’s master’s programme is necessary for planning and implementation processes across a wide range of sectors, and that its relevance will only increase in future.

She said the call to take action against climate change had, for a long time, come from only a few lone scientists, and was mostly ignored.

Now, however, the message is coming from a much wider range of activists, notably climate-change students.

“We are calling it ‘Generation Change’.

“If [change] doesn’t happen now, when will it? Not only is this the generation [of students] that still has the capacity to make a positive change, they will also be the ones living with the consequences,” Norton concluded.

Read more about the ACDI’s master's programme.

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Climate change


The University of Cape Town is an internationally renowned hub for climate change research and training. Our work is a strategic response to urgent knowledge and capacity needs on the African continent – climate change impacts have severe implications for economic and social development, and Africa is particularly vulnerable. Greater expertise is needed to understand the challenges and to design, evaluate and sustain solutions. Engaged research can help society innovate and support effective climate policies and strategies.

This series of articles shows how UCT researchers are working with governments, civil society and the private sector to co-produce knowledge that is impactful, moving us towards a more resilient African society.


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