Networks of 7,000 universities declare climate emergency

July 17, 2019

Networks representing more than 7,000 higher and further education institutions from six continents have announced that they are declaring a ‘climate emergency’, and agreed to undertake a three-point plan to address the crisis through their work with students.

The three-point plan, published in an open letter on 10 July, includes:

  • Committing to going carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050 at the very latest.

  • Mobilising more resources for action-oriented climate change research and skills creation.

  • Increasing teaching and learning about environmental and sustainability education across curricula, campus and community outreach programmes.

The letter says: “The young minds that are shaped by our institutions must be equipped with the knowledge, skills and capability to respond to the ever-growing challenges of climate change. We all need to work together to nurture a habitable planet for future generations and to play our part in building a greener and cleaner future for all.”

Organisers of the open letter, the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, known as EAUC, the United States-based higher education climate action organisation Second Nature and UN Environment’s Youth and Education Alliance, say it marks the first time further and higher education establishments have come together to make a collective commitment to address the climate emergency. 

It is being shared with key ministers meeting in New York on 10 July at the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative Global Event

Signed by universities, including Strathmore University (Kenya), Tongji University (China), KEDGE Business School (France), University of Glasgow (United Kingdom), California State University (United States), Zayed University (UAE) and the University of Guadalajara (Mexico), the call is also backed by major global education networks such as the Global Alliance and the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative, which have made commitments to meeting the suggested carbon neutrality targets. 

‘What we teach shapes the future’

Inger Andersen, executive director of UN Environment, the leading global environment authority, said: “What we teach shapes the future. We welcome this commitment from universities to go climate neutral by 2030 and to scale-up their efforts on campus.

“Young people are increasingly at the forefront of calls for more action on climate and environmental challenges. Initiatives which directly involve the youth in this critical work are a valuable contribution to achieving environmental sustainability.”

Examples of best practices for sustainability on campus include Kenya’s Strathmore University, which runs on clean energy and has set up its own 600 kilowatt photovoltaic grid tie system, as well as Tongji University in China, which has significantly invested in delivering a sustainability education curriculum and is encouraging other education institutions to do the same. 

In the United States, the University of California has committed to the system-wide goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025, while others, such as the American University and Colgate University, have already achieved carbon neutrality.

Charlotte Bonner, a director for Students Organizing for Sustainability, said: “Young people around the world feel that schools, colleges and universities have been too slow to react to the crisis that is now bearing down on us. 

“We welcome the news that they are declaring a climate emergency; we have no time to lose. We will be calling on those who haven’t yet supported this initiative to come on board. Of course, the most important element is the action that follows.”

Ten thousand institutions ‘to sign up’

The expectation is that more than 10,000 institutions of higher and further education will come on board before the end of 2019, with governments invited to support their leadership with incentives to take action, the organisers of the letter said.

In addition to the three networks organising the declaration, networks that have signed up include the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, Global Alliance, Caribbean Youth Environment Network, Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative, US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, Nordic Sustainable Campus Network, World Environmental Education Congress Network, Red Ambiental de Universidades Sostenibles, China Green University Network, Asian Sustainable Campus Network and CAS-Net Japan.

The Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI), a partnership between United Nations departments and agencies – including UNESCO, UN Environment and the UN Global Compact’s Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative – provides a way for higher education to interface between higher education, science and policy-making across the UN. 

HESI was created in 2012 in the run-up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). With commitments from over 300 universities from around the world, HESI accounted for more than one-third of all the voluntary commitments that were launched at Rio+20.

The HESI Global Event for higher education institutions and stakeholders is being held on 10 July to coincide with the 2019 session of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development to explore how the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is changing the way higher education institutions are working and how they engage critically with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It will explore issues such as what more universities could be offering to build the skillset and work with the public and private sectors to create more green collar jobs; whether the private sector is hiring the right kind of young talent and the right skills for sustainability and energy transformation; whether universities are doing enough to influence students to adopt sustainable lifestyles throughout their life; and what incentives matter most to universities when it comes to engaging with the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs and investing in sustainability.

Struggling with concept of ‘greening’

In a report published on its website, UN Environment warned in May that although young people are driving a global wake-up call on climate change and the need to reduce our carbon footprint, many universities are struggling with the concept and agenda of ‘greening’. 

The report said some schools and universities are leading by example and reducing carbon emissions, promoting renewable energy and becoming “hotbeds of activism on the defining issue for a generation”.

But “while some noteworthy exemplars of university sustainability initiatives exist around the world, there is a need to maximise the potential benefits by encouraging their replication in as many universities as possible globally.” 

In Kenya, Strathmore University set out to become the first climate neutral university in the country and installed a 0.6 MW rooftop solar plant to provide energy and reduce its carbon footprint. 

The Strathmore Energy Research Centre is exporting the excess energy to the grid and a power purchase agreement was signed in 2015. 

The solar plant is additionally being used as a live laboratory to train technicians to design and maintain such installations.

Source: University World News, 17th July 2019



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