Rio+20 coordinator hails role of HE in sustainable development

In an exclusive interview the executive coordinator of the Rio+20 conference on global sustainability, Elizabeth Thompson, told University World News why higher education is key to the international strategy she hopes will flow from agreements made at the event.

“Education is transformative. We must build learning societies around the concept of sustainable development and get people to transition from the brown economy to the green economy. And to change their practices and attitudes – that can only happen through education, both formal and informal.”

Speaking between events at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, nicknamed Rio+20, Thompson said the event’s higher education sustainability initiative was “a political step in the education effort”.

Targeted at universities and businesses schools, it has certain basic elements and strategies such as “to get universities and business schools to shrink their ecological footprint by greening their campuses, their buildings, developing strategies around water, energy, and waste management".

Also, the initiative aims to have institutions “greening their procurement and supply chains, not only for themselves but as an influence on the local economies where they are located; developing a body of literature information and research around sustainable development and green economy and sustainability issues”.

The initiative, according to Thompson, also focuses on “developing a body of case studies for the business sector and teaching sustainable development in the university and business school system across all disciplines, so that every graduate understands what sustainable development means in terms of their area of enterprise and activity – so that you build practitioners of sustainability".

Thompson said about 200 universities from 50 countries had already signed up to the initiative “and every day more and more universities are just buying into the concept and really giving it very good support and it has many endorsers across the UN system and beyond”.

Looking at the of the text of the conference declaration, The Future We Want, Thompson pointed out that language supporting the higher education sustainability initiative was in paragraphs 233, 234 and 235.

233. We resolve to promote education for sustainable development and to integrate sustainable development more actively into education beyond the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

234. We strongly encourage educational institutions to consider adopting good practices in sustainability management on their campuses and in their communities with the active participation of, inter alia, students, teachers and local partners, and teaching sustainable development as an integrated component across disciplines.

235. We underscore the importance of supporting educational institutions, especially higher educational institutions in developing countries, to carry out research and innovation for sustainable development, including in the field of education, to develop quality and innovative programmes, including entrepreneurship and business skills training, professional, technical and vocational training and lifelong learning, geared to bridging skills gaps for advancing national
sustainable development objectives.

“Education is therefore one of the critical issues addressed in the text, both formal and informal education.”

UWN: Are you happy with the three paragraphs that have ended up in the document? Would you have wanted or expected more?

Thompson: It’s actually eight paragraphs: from paragraphs 229 to 235 – all on education.

Would I have expected more? No. The general assembly resolution relating to this conference asked for a focused political document. It was not therefore in our interest to create a text that was so long that it was impractical and that nobody would read.

You needed text that captured the essence of the strategic issues that you wanted, looked at issues of implementation and spoke to some of the critical areas for sustainable development goals, for which development strategies were needed. Like education, like health, like water, like energy, and so on.

It would have been unrealistic to have expected that you could’ve gotten a much longer text. Clearly education is, in itself, such an important issue that a document of this size could be on education alone. But I’m satisfied that we’ve captured their imperatives.

UWN: Clause 234 strongly encourages educational institutions to adopt sustainability initiatives and so on. What does this actually mean?

Thompson: First of all, I think that the market and the means for sustainability and information on sustainability is driving what business schools and universities are going to do. So I think that there will be more and more forces on sustainability.

There is a higher education sustainability, which I mentioned is already in 50 countries and 200 universities, and that happened in three months. That shows there is tremendous will among universities to find an activity and a vision around which they can coalesce. I think that is happening with the higher education sustainability initiative.

And this language is fairly clear – adopting good practices, which means practising sustainability, greening campuses, reducing water energy consumption, minimising waste, sustainable management of campuses and in their communities.

And it means with the active participation of all the stakeholders on campus – teachers, students, local partners (which would be suppliers, businesses and so forth). And teaching sustainable development across all disciplines. The language is fairly clear.

UWN: There’s another point about support to education in developing countries. Could you elaborate?

Thompson: Education is transformative both of societies and in creating upward social mobility. It is important to ensure that there is education – proper education services, education standards – in developing countries to take people out of poverty, and [it must be] available to both boys and girls equally.

It also means that where there is technology available, that technology should be used in a way that it can be accessed by developing countries to learn more. And education through the internet is the fastest growing segment of education today.

UWN: Universities have been seen as instrumental in providing research that would help the world cope with sustainability challenges. Does the document sufficiently support the need for more research, for example, to feed into the indicators of sustainable development goals when they are developed?

Thompson: The text does speak to the issue of the role of science and I think the scientific community and research is going to be critical in helping us to understand what we call the era of the anthropocene.

And [as regards] our relationship with our natural environment, we need to change that going forward given the many social, economic and ecological challenges we have. I think that it is going to be important for research to inform the targets and time frames for the sustainable development goals and to flesh out the concepts.

A lot of people talk about tipping points, critical thresholds, planetary boundaries: that can only be understood or better understood through research, through the input of the scientific communities.

So these are areas in which I think research is going to be important and having a body of information, learning, literature, and case study that people can look to be authoritative on the issue.

UWN: Will governments be able to or prepared to provide more money for the research that needs to happen?

Governments are not the largest funders of university education and research. A lot of that comes from the private sector, from support through the United Nations sector – from the mobilising of private capital and the international foundations and think-tanks…

While I think governments will perhaps commit more resources for education, recognising the urgent need in the current environment it is likely to migrate to the education sector more from private capital and donor capital.

UWN: There is a feeling from the declaration that more focus is put on building students’ skills and competencies than in having universities conduct sustainability research. Are these conflicting?

Thompson: No, we underscore the importance of education institutions, especially higher education institutions in developing countries, carrying out research and innovation in sustainable development, including in the field of education to develop quality and innovative programmes, entrepreneurships, skills-building, lifelong learning, training, bridging gaps and so on – so the language is there.

UWN: What role did universities have in the build-up to Rio+20? What role during the conference and what role in implementing its outcomes?

Thompson: In the build-up, certainly in the higher education sustainability initiative and in the whole preparation of the process, through to the global compact…and its membership and the development of programmes and learning experiences – the education sector was very important. In act, Rio has been a conference in which the civil society has played a very significant role.

UWN: It has been said that the UN decade of education for sustainable development has had mixed success. Is there anything more universities should be doing, or doing differently?

Thompson: I think they need to move to a green platform in terms of their own practices and how they teach.

As to the success of the decade for education, these initiatives helped to mobilise and swell momentum in a particular direction. And you have to see them as steps – as a ladder that starts at the bottom and every step takes you to your ultimate goal.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any mechanism that can shoot us there in one go. So we’re on the ladder – we’re climbing upward, we are going forward.

You can always promote these things more – promotion, public education, information sharing, advertising, marketing, all of these things are important and you can always do more of them. That would be ideal. The issue is to what extent have we created a new framework and a step in the right direction in which further building must now take place?

* H Elizabeth Thompson is a former Barbados minister for energy and environment, former health minister, attorney, journalist and lecturer in ecology, economy, energy and politics. She graduated from the University of the West Indies and has an MBA, with distinction, from the University of Liverpool and a master of laws from Robert Gordon University in Scotland.