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NEWSLETTERUniversities tackle climate change – Humankind’s greatest challenge
Our species is confronting its greatest challenge: ensuring the survival of humankind and that of a multitude of animals and plants.
Without united action by governments and their citizens across the globe, the consequences of a changing climate – largely caused by human activities – will lead to an upheaval in the lives of billions of people on a scale we have never experienced.
Researchers in the world’s universities are playing a key role in revealing what is happening and explaining what needs to be done to prevent the looming catastrophe.
In this Special Edition of University World News – the first given over entirely to one crucial global issue – our contributors describe what they and higher education institutions are doing to shift human attitudes from a focus on consumption to one of sustaining this precious planet so that the generations that follow will still have lives worth living.
Geoff Maslen – UWN Science Editor
SPECIAL REPORT: Climate change
GLOBALJacqueline McGlade, Chief Scientist, UNEP
The latest science cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides conclusive evidence that human activities are causing unprecedented changes in the Earth's climate. As many have stated, it is time to take immediate and robust action to mitigate the impacts of climate change against the risks of a greater than 2ºC temperature rise.
GLOBALJeffrey D Sachs
Tackling the great environmental problems will require an unprecedented integration of insights across various disciplines, including earth systems sciences, public health, civil engineering, information technologies, economics, politics and much more. Only universities bring together this range of knowledge and, to an unprecedented extent, they must partner with government, business and civil society to take on the challenges of sustainable development that lie ahead.
GLOBALJeffrey D Sachs
Our generation can end the ancient scourge of extreme poverty but it can also destroy the Earth’s life-support system through human-induced environmental devastation. By necessity, then, we have entered “the age of sustainable development”. So I was excited in January this year to launch a free, global online university course by the same name.
Two years ago, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched a new independent global network of research centres, universities and technical institutions to help find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing environmental, social and economic problems. Ban said the Sustainable Development Solutions Network would collaborate with stakeholders including universities, businesses, UN agencies and other international organisations to identify and share the best pathways to achieve sustainable development.
A former leading member of the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called for changes to the panel’s regular and increasingly long reports. In a provocative paper in Nature, Professor Dave Griggs says the IPCC has gained a justified reputation for producing the most up-to-date, comprehensive and authoritative statements of knowledge on climate change. But this has come at a cost to the scientific community.
Launched in 2012, the Monash Sustainability Institute's sustainable development goals project aims to lead input into and influence the national and international discussion on practical solutions to sustainability challenges, indicators and development goals and the green economy. The project is one initiative the institute carries out under the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network programme.
Around the world, academics in universities, other tertiary education organisations and students have joined forces to establish associations aimed at promoting and supporting sustainability within their own and other institutions.
Climate change deniers argue that there is uncertainty about what the impacts will be – but scientific uncertainty should be the spur for greater efforts as it means the risk is higher.
ASIAKo Nomura and Osamu Abe
Diversity and globalisation pose major challenges to sustainability in the Asia-Pacific region. The rich diversity of this region is reflected in each of the three pillars of sustainable development: environmental, economic and social sustainability. In such a situation, efforts to achieve sustainability – including education about it – require diverse action.
Universities are in a unique position in building a sustainable future for the world, not just because they bring together the different disciplines needed to combat climate change, but also because they give students the skills they will require for the future. Institutions need to work together to embed sustainability within their existing priorities.
Environmental boycotts, including those led by universities, are having successes – but the Australian government is looking to ban them. The stand-off between a pro-business government and free speech advocates is being watched around the world.
In December of 2015 the international community is set to adopt a comprehensive action plan to combat climate change. With Paris having been chosen as the meeting place, the French government is showing more interest in climate issues and trying to mobilise the European Union on rapid agreement of its 2030 climate objectives. At present, however, it looks extremely unlikely that the Paris conference next year will turn out to be a thrilling success.
The old German saying stadtluft macht frei – ‘urban air makes you free’ – is the defining injunction of modernity. Modern Western cities were launched as the vessels of liberation from a human era darkened by power and enchantment. The city was the escape raft from a life of servitude and grubbing. Modernisation has, however, failed miserably on many accounts and in many quarters.
More than half the world’s human population now lives in urban areas and cities are increasingly facing the challenge of ensuring decent standards of living for their inhabitants. Demand for a higher quality of life is increasing despite growing pressures on natural resources and ecosystems.
GLOBALCynthia Rosenz and Aromar Revi
There is widespread agreement on the importance of urbanisation and urban centres for sustainable development in rich and poor countries alike. There is less agreement on how they should be included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It seems there are two options: a dedicated urban sustainable development goal with targets focused on social, economic and environmental priorities; or urbanisation could be ‘mainstreamed’ into other goals and data could be disaggregated by urban and rural populations.
Preventing dangerous climate change is a strategic priority for the European Union. Europe is working hard to cut its greenhouse gas emissions substantially while encouraging other nations and regions to do likewise.
Never has humanity faced as many major challenges as it does today. Issues related to the relationship between energy and climate change, water, food, infectious diseases and demographic issues must all be addressed and resolved. Perhaps our greatest challenge, however, is to learn to live together in a globalised world – to be able to see the future in a perspective that tackles the impact of climate change and includes equity and fairness between cultures and generations.
German universities have made considerable contributions to the country’s energy transition policy. However, the policy has come in for a bit of a bashing recently concerning the economic viability of renewables. Also, non-governmental organisations and politicians have criticised the government for continuing to fund nuclear options.
EUROPEJan Petter Myklebust
Countries across Europe are increasingly becoming involved with Climate-KIC, one of the Knowledge and Innovation Communities created in 2010 by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. This is the European Union body tasked with creating sustainable growth while dealing with the global challenges of our time.
A deadline is looming in a competition open to young researchers around the world for achievements in making their societies more sustainable. The winners will enjoy fully-funded trips to Germany.
NORTH AMERICASarah King Head
There is no denying that the appeal of sustainability has become especially strong in our world of increasingly dramatic climate changeability. But is it feasible for a university to strive to implement this goal? The University of British Columbia on Canada’s west coast is proving that sustainability is more than just an idea: in fact, it has become very much a reality.
LATIN AMERICAMaría Elena Hurtado
Each new report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the impact of global warming on Latin America jolts the region’s universities into action. Droughts in Amazonía, increased flooding in other areas and temperature hikes of up to 3ºC in Central America are some of the scenarios predicted for the American continent in the 2014 IPCC assessment report.
UNITED KINGDOMNic Mitchell
In one of the most ambitious projects of its kind, the University of Greenwich, overlooking London’s dockland regeneration, will soon open its landmark US$128 million Stockwell Street development in a drive to become the United Kingdom’s greenest university. The project is one of the clearest physical signs yet that climate change and environmental concerns are moving up the British higher education agenda.
A British student-run organisation last year ranked Manchester Metropolitan University as the United Kingdom’s greenest university, having jumped nine places to take the top spot with the highest score ever achieved of 59.5 out of 70. But that was after failing the first Green League assessment in 2007.
Exceptional sustainability initiatives undertaken by universities and colleges across Britain are rewarded with Green Gown Awards. Organised by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, the awards are now in their 10th year.
Strapped by a lack of knowledge generation in Africa, researchers are using global paradigms from the north to study climate and other environmental change. “We take northern models and massage them – often beat them – to make them fit and try to trust the answers that come out,” says South African hydrologist Professor Graham Jewitt.
Based on the recent global assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the next six years 200 million people in Africa will be exposed to a scarcity of clean water because of the impacts of climate change. During the same period, agricultural production from rain-fed farming will drop by 50% while the prevalence of malaria will increase by 5% to 7% by the end of the 21st century. Between 25% and 40% of mammal species in national parks in Sub-Saharan Africa will become endangered.
The stark reality of global vulnerability to the vagaries of climate change presented by higher temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, rising sea levels and frequent weather-related disasters and conflicts has prompted the United Nations Environment Programme to rope in universities and scientists in search of environmental sustainability solutions.
The African Climate and Development Initiative is one of Africa’s biggest university-based climate change efforts. The three-year-old initiative at the University of Cape Town gathers together more than 100 academics from across disciplines to conduct research, train postgraduates and engage the community around climate and development issues.
SOUTH AFRICAPeta Lee
On a planet and a continent increasingly aware of its eco-frailty, South African universities are ramping up their green initiatives and sustainability efforts. ‘Green’ campuses are being established, climate change research features at nearly all institutions and numerous student groups are joining the fight to conserve and protect their environment and the wider world.
NORTH AFRICAWagdy Sawahel
To counter the negative impact of climate change in North Africa, several higher education initiatives and scientific programmes are producing scientific workforces with the required skills, as well as carrying out research for promoting renewable energy for sustainable development.
The Arab world has been late to join the ‘green’ universities movement, which strives for lower emissions and less water consumption. Only 12 out of about 500 universities implement environmentally friendly policies and programmes to reduce their carbon emissions and help to combat global climate change.
With the world’s ecosystems declining at an unprecedented rate, the United Nations has established an ‘Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’. Known as IPBES, the organisation is the leading intergovernmental body for assessing the state of the planet's biodiversity, its ecosystems and the essential services they provide to society.
An international team of earth and climate scientists from the United States, Korea and Australia estimates that up to half of the recent global warming in Greenland is caused by natural climate variations.
An international team of 20 researchers has found that the nutritional quality of major food crops will be depleted as atmospheric carbon dioxide rises to levels expected in 2050. Led by Dr Sam Myers at Harvard University, the study gathered data from seven locations across three continents for 40 cultivars of six crops.
The International Alliance of Research Universities is holding a sustainable universities conference at the University of Copenhagen to address key issues regarding university sustainability. Professionals from all alliance universities and throughout the university sustainability field will be attending.
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