What you need to know:
- I wanted a profession that would accommodate my passion in environmental issues and urban planning, and design skills.
- JKUAT provided what I precisely needed. The course is interdisciplinary, focusing on application of scientific skills for practical solutions.
- The course combined diverse disciplines, including architecture, geography, and environmental science, which were my favourites.
Sharon Onyango, 28, is an urban climate scientist. Sharon has a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science and Landscape Technology from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), and a Master’s in Landscape Planning and Conservation from the same university.
She is currently a graduate fellow at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) – Africa Centre, Nairobi, where she is sharpening her research skills on environmental and urban climate change.
You are an urban climate scientist. What does this field entail?
An urban climate scientist specialises in factors that affect climate in urban areas such as changes in temperature, humidity, air quality, and surface temperatures, and also develops strategies to mitigate the negative impact of urbanisation to the environment.
It involves coming up with practical interventions. The scientist collaborates with other professionals such as government agencies, universities, research organisations, and private companies. To enter this field you need to be good in mathematics, English and kiswahili, geography, biology, chemistry and physics.
Why did you choose a career in urban climate?
I wanted a profession that would accommodate my passion in environmental issues and urban planning, and design skills. JKUAT provided what I precisely needed. The course is interdisciplinary, focusing on application of scientific skills for practical solutions. The course combined diverse disciplines, including architecture, geography, and environmental science, which were my favourites.
How is urban climate science relevant today?
As more people migrate to urban areas, they will certainly need well-planned cities and towns with settlements and social systems which offer modern ambience for comfort and a sense of belonging, while also mitigating climate change and its effects.
How can the national and county governments benefit from the skills of a climate change scientist?
The two governments will need clear strategies on how to manage resources such as water, land, energy sources, and open-spaces for public leisure and outdoor activities. They also need to know how to preserve urban forests which acts as “breathing lungs” of cities and towns by absorbing carbon dioxide and purifying the air by trapping impurities.
With a climate change scientist on board, governments will be able to plan better on how to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, beautify urban areas sustainably, protect biodiversity and cultural heritage, and plan for natural disasters such as floods and fires.
Which climate-related threats face the world’s urbanites today?
The threats include rising sea levels, leading to flooding, destruction of infrastructure, loss of lives and properties. The other threats are rising global temperatures, extreme weather conditions which can lead to increase in poverty, displacement of people, a health crisis and spread of infectious diseases, perennial food shortage, and depletion of fresh water sources.
What is Urban Microclimate Modeling and why should counties apply it as a climate change control measure?
Urban micro-climate modeling is a planning strategy meant to help counties understand how urban environments influence climate change, and how this influence affects urban dwellers.
Micro-climate modeling is useful in countering the general impact of climate change in the different counties, thereby creating healthier, much happier, and more sustainable communities.
You participated in the Kenya Climate Atlas Project. What was it all about?
This was a three-year study that probed the impact of climate change in Kenya. The study revealed that in Kenya, temperatures have increased by 1.2 degrees celsius since the 1960s, and that the warming has accelerated significantly in the past three decades. The increase in temperature has had a substantial impact on the ecosystem, leading to reduced accessibility to water, decreased crop yields, and an upsurge in the occurrence and intensity of extreme weather events.
What do the research findings mean for Kenyans?
If no meaningful action is taken to reduce harmful emissions and alleviate climate change, drought and famine in Kenya could become even more severe in the coming years. This could lead to further decline in water availability, more intense weather patterns, more food insecurity, further strain on natural resources and increased poverty.
What do you think our leaders should do about all this?
Modern city planners must prioritise green spaces such as urban parks and forests. This deliberate increase in vegetation has been proven to reduce urban heating effects by regulating air movement.
Similarly, microclimate modeling should be used to identify areas of the city that could benefit from additional green infrastructure and other cooling measures. Different tree species have already been identified as suitable in improving the micro-climate in Nairobi.
To collectively reduce carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases globally, everyone must participate in this battle by planting trees, avoiding all forms of pollution, and protecting the remaining biodiversity (both urban and rural). We should also be keen about punishing those who do not adhere to environmental conservation plans.
If you were to address the UN Summit on climate change, what would be your key statement?
I would say, ‘Protect the planet for current and future generations,’ and emphasise the urgency with which we all need to participate in securing a healthy planet.
How do you spend your free time?
I love painting. I have made a number of paintings to create awareness on environment and health issues such as on autism, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Cycling and table tennis are my other hobbies, and I find charity work to be so fulfilling.