– A growing awareness exists among universities of the need to work towards net zero
– Two recent net-zero initiatives aim to create a network of climate-focused higher education institutions
– Universities can take the lead in terms of best practice and generating research
– Examples from around the world show different approaches to championing net zero
Higher education institutions have a leading role to play in helping emerging economies adapt to the effects of climate change, as well as to meet their net-zero goals. This role can be roughly divided into two key areas: implementing best practices and leading on research.
At the end of October, as part of the Times Higher Education Climate Impact Forum, 1050 universities from 68 countries made a series of commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Over the course of the preceding year, many of these institutions – which together represent nearly 10m students, or 4.5% of the world’s total – had made pledges in support of the Race to Zero, an initiative coordinated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Since the forum, further universities have signed up, with more expected to join.
Emerging economies are notably well represented in the list. The country with the most signatories is the US, with 336 institutions, but India is second, with 216. In addition, emerging economies are often better represented than more developed nations; for instance, while there are 14 French universities in the list, there are 15 from Chile.
Within the framework of the forum, the University of Oxford also launched a new initiative called Nature Positive Universities.
Supported by a range of universities from around the world – among them IPB Indonesia, the University of Cape Town, University of São Paulo (USP) and University of Ghana – this initiative will lead the way in guiding higher education institutions in reducing their impact on the environment, for example by shifting supply chains and working to restore the local landscape.
As the Nature Positive Universities initiative suggests, higher education institutions can support the transition to net zero by implementing best practices as part of their own operations.
Latin America furnishes some representative examples in this regard.
For example, Mexico’s National Autonomous University (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, UNAM) in 2018 inaugurated a University Coordination for Sustainability, the goal of which is to make sustainability a central element of UNAM’s identity, establishing it as a national and international reference point in the field.
Meanwhile, the USP – Brazil’s leading university – has implemented a range of measures to cut its carbon footprint, among them a reduction in the use of official vehicles and virtual thesis defences. The USP also recently instituted an Interdisciplinary Climate Investigation Centre, which brings together researchers from different subject areas.
Indeed, in Latin America in general there is a growing awareness of the importance of climate change education. In March this year Argentina’s government approved a law mandating the implementation of a national strategy on environmental education at all levels.
By contrast, other regions’ education systems still do not have a sufficient focus on climate change.
A recent UNESCO report found that in South-east Asia – a region that is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change – the subject remains “a peripheral topic in both educational research and practice”.
As OBG has detailed, universities played a key role in emerging economies’ response to Covid-19.
Similarly, as well as establishing themselves as paradigms of sustainability, universities can play a key role in the transition to net zero – and climate-related questions more generally – by being at the forefront of research.
This research can have a broader, global focus, but can also be oriented towards adapting general principles to a specific national or local context, such as by devising knowledge-based strategies to develop mitigation and adaptation measures. This is something that universities – both local and global in their outlook – are uniquely well placed to do.
In the context of Africa, South African universities are spearheading climate change research.
Stellenbosch University (SU), to take an example, boasts a range of courses in the field. At the undergraduate level, the SU offers courses in Development and Environment, Geoinformatics, and Conservation Ecology. Postgraduates may take courses in either Environmental Management or Sustainable Development, while there are also master’s and PhD options in Water and Environmental Engineering as well as Environmental Education.
In addition, earlier this year the SU inaugurated a School for Climate Studies. The groundbreaking initiative aims to combine public and private sector climate strategies to support the transition towards a sustainable, low-carbon economy.
Elsewhere in the country, the University of South Africa in Pretoria has produced a range of research related to climate change, for example on how to strengthen water security in order to reduce conflict in Africa.
However, notwithstanding these and other pioneering initiatives across the continent, recent studies have identified a range of issues that prevent many African higher education institutions from becoming climate change leaders. These issues include limited expertise among staff; high poverty rates, which limit enrolment; and poor research infrastructure among African countries.