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@DukeAlumni Twitter under fire for tweet about reducing carbon emissions in Africa

Duke professor on the study "would have written a very different tweet"

A tweet from the official Duke Alumni account is under fire for seemingly implying the onus for reducing carbon emissions is on people living in Africa.

“Replacing traditional wood-burning stoves in sub-Saharan Africa with cleaner technology could offset carbon emissions—if people would use them,” the tweet reads. “A Duke team is addressing obstacles that prevent people from changing their practices.” The tweet then links to a story on the Duke Global Health Institute website.

As of 11:25 a.m. Wednesday, the tweet has been quote tweeted 730 times and has over 200 replies, with many users criticizing Duke for not acknowledging how much of carbon emissions come from the United States and other Western countries. The tweet has been liked only 23 times and retweeted three times—the high number of quote tweets compared to the small number of likes and retweets is referred to as being “ratioed.”

“What impact would a cessation of the West's insatiable appetite for war have on slashing carbon emissions? How many tons of CO2 were emitted during the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq? Bombing of Syria?,” wrote one user. “Shaming people whose carbon emissions is far less than ours just isn’t it.”

Others also noted Duke’s own role in carbon emissions, noting that the University still has not divested fully from fossil fuels. “What is the carbon footprint of [fraternity] houses at Duke,” one user asked.

Another user asked if all 54 countries in Africa were included in the study, if Sub-Saharan researchers were consulted and if a “discussion around the West’s contribution towards climate breakdown” was also included. Duke Alumni did not respond to the inquiry publicly.

The Chronicle asked Marc Jeuland, associate professor of public policy and global health, who contributed to the study and was quoted in the Global Health Institute piece, about whether African researchers were consulted. 

“In the field studies that my co-authors and I draw on to produce the estimates of costs, time and fuel savings, and emissions reductions, we work very closely with local researchers and implementing organizations promoting improved technologies,” he wrote. He added that he co-leads the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative that “explicitly tries to build local research capacity and engage with policy-makers on energy questions.”

The study is not open access—those who wish to read it must either pay $31.50 or subscribe to One Earth, the journal in which the study was published. The summary states that sub-Saharan Africa exceeds “the total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of a medium-sized European country.”

The Global Health Institute article says the shift could result in a reduction of emissions equivalent to Belgium or Florida.

“The most important takeaways [of the study] are 1) that technologies already exist that people in Africa like to use, but that they need to be affordable to the poor, and 2) that these are emissions that can be reduced at extremely low cost,” Jeuland wrote.

Jeuland added that people like to use these technologies “when they are locally-tailored and tested to meet people’s needs,” which reduces the burden of energy poverty by saving time and fuel. 

“The two above facts put together mean that the rich world should pay for these reductions such that the entire planet may benefit,” he wrote, noting that the article “makes a forceful case for subsidy and basically reducing the costs to zero” for people in African countries.

Recent findings support many users’ claims that the West’s use of carbon dioxide is far more concerning than in Africa. Data show that North America emitted 5,975.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2009 and 2019. Africa only emitted 1,308.5 million metric tons.

The findings also note that based on per capita emissions, “countries like the United States, Australia and Canada are the largest CO2 emitters in the world.”

Additionally, according to the Global Carbon Atlas, the U.S. emitted 5,285 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2) in 2019. All 54 countries in Africa combined emitted only 1,449 MtCO2 that same year.

Some users acknowledged that the adoption of cleaner technology may improve the health of residents but said the tweet was not framed in that way. The Global Health Institute article notes that the proposed solution, kettle-like “rocket” stoves, would not mitigate the risks of indoor air pollution but would be a “middle-ground” to cleaner solutions.

@DukeAlumni announced July 14 that they deleted the tweet, noting that it was not their intention to imply that "the burden for reducing carbon emissions lies with people living in sub-Saharan Africa."

Jeuland wrote that he “would have written a very different tweet” along the lines of his two main takeaways from the research. 

“The 'if people use them' in the tweet seems to put the onus on the poor in Africa, but that’s not the case the article makes. And that is clearly wrong,” he wrote. 

However, Jeuland feels that “people misunderstood the point that the tweet was trying to make, which is that if we continue with charging people full cost on these beneficial technologies, they will remain expensive for many people, their adoption will remain low, and many potential benefits—low hanging fruit for the climate and development—will be lost.”

He does not feel the reaction to the tweet is inappropriate but wrote that “but this does highlight the dangers of social media and of trying to distill things down to a very simple statement.”

He encouraged people to read the article and wrote that he is happy to share it and discuss it with anyone interested.

The Chronicle emailed Sterly Wilder, associate vice president for alumni affairs, and direct messaged the @DukeAlumni Twitter account asking them if they could respond to criticisms of the tweet and if they intended to acknowledge those who found the tweet insensitive. Neither responded in time for publication.

This article was updated to reflect that the tweet was deleted.

Nadia Bey | Digital Strategy Director

Nadia Bey is a Trinity senior and digital strategy director for The Chronicle’s 118th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 117.

Leah Boyd

Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.


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