Universities, climate change mitigation and adaptation

Each new report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, on the impact of global warming on Latin America jolts the region’s universities into action. Droughts in Amazonía, increased flooding in other areas of South America 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.

“We must now move from mitigation to adaptation because countries did not carry out the necessary mitigation strategies on time,” says Marcos Buckeridge, a professor at Sao Paulo University’s Biosciences Institute, one of three Brazilian academics who worked on the IPCC’s report on impacts of climate change in South and Central America.

Some Latin American universities have strengthened their capacity to study, research and disseminate their findings on climate change.

An example is Chile’s Centre for Global Change at the Pontifical Catholic University, where its faculties of agronomy and forestry engineering, biological sciences, history, geography and political sciences, engineering and economic and administrative science collaborate.

The centre’s remit is to do basic and applied research on the biophysical and human dimensions of climate change, in close connection with the public and private sector, as well as to influence national policies.

National university networks on teaching and research on the environment, such as the organisation REDFIA in Guatemala, links eight universities in Latin America, as do regional sustainable development networks.

Regional networks

Regional networks include the regional chapter of the Global Universities Partnership on Environment for Sustainability, GUPES, set up by the UN Environment Programme, the Alliance of Iberoamerican Universities for Sustainability and the Environment, known as ARIUSA, and the Andean University Network on Risk Assessment and Climate Change.

The ARIUSA alliance brings together 229 universities from 15 countries, including Spain. Some 60 universities from 12 countries that are members of the alliance have committed themselves to ‘greening’ their campuses by cutting water, paper and energy use and recycling.

ARIUSA’s flagship is the development of 100 environmental assessment indicators for voluntary use by Latin American universities.

The Andean network comprises universities from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú and Argentina. It carries out academic and scientific events and collaborative research projects as well as supporting the development of new joint academic programmes on risk assessment and climate change.

The CELA cooperation

A recent addition to regional environmental organisations is the Network of Climate Change Technology Transfer Centres, CELA in its Spanish acronym, spawned by ALFA, a cooperation programme between universities in Europe and Latin America.

The initiative is coordinated by Germany’s Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, while Bolivia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Perú in Latin America were chosen to host climate change research centres.

As a CELA member, Guatemala’s Galileo University is identifying research and knowledge transfer needs, whereas Bolivia’s Catholic University is focusing on capacity building.

Its CELA partners, the Commercial Sciences University of Nicaragua and Peru’s Pontifical Catholic University, are drawing up research and transfer of technology strategies.

They are also implementing pilot projects on monitoring the impact of climate change on river flows – the Catholic university with a river in the Amazon and Nicaragua with the Tamarindo river basin.

“In Nicaragua, the CELA project has also organised seminars and virtual courses on climate change for the public and private sectors and done a survey of entrepreneurs on clean production,” says Gilberto Bergman Padilla, the university’s rector.

A mixed record

Many, but not all, regional universities are responding to the climate change challenge. Academics and administrators surveyed in Guatemala and Nicaragua for CELA said that climate change was not a priority for their institutions.

In Bolivia, those interviewed pointed to the need to improve infrastructure, principally laboratories, for conducting climate change research and to strengthen higher education climate change activities.

Meanwhile, Peru’s academics said they lacked know-how on reusing water, renewable energies and climate change mitigation.

Greening universities

But enhancing sustainability is on the agenda of several universities and some have already taken action.

The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro built bicycle routes in College City, its main campus, to reduce motor vehicle emissions; it has a solid residues handling policy at its residence complex for undergraduates, a green fund for energy generation and use, and has introduced sustainability indicators plus a monitoring system for College City.

In 2011, México’s national university, UNAM, had criteria for low environmental impact purchases. Today, its website features a catalogue of environmentally-certified providers.

The university also awards environmental labels for institutions that approve an environmental assessment test on water use, residues, responsible consumption and other environmentally sound practices.

UNAM expects its 300 primary and secondary school associates to apply for a ‘sustainable development star’ so that they become an example of environmental responsibility in their communities.

This huge Mexican university is also building a database on its courses and research on the environment and sustainable development that will be posted on the university’s website.

Climate change projects

Most research universities in Latin America carry out climate change projects in their various faculties. Here is a selection of such projects:

Bolivia: Two researchers from the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and an expert from the NGO Sustainable Water studied the vulnerability of Andean agricultural communities that depend on water from the glaciers of the Nevado Inti-Illimani, the country’s second highest peak, and their adaptation strategies.

México: UNAM, with financial support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, worked on a project called Adaptation of Latin American cities to climate change by making better use of available bio-energy resources. The project published a technology guide for treating residual municipal waters in small and medium-sized cities.

Colombia: Architects and mechanical engineers from Northern University, or Uninorte, are doing pioneering research on the use of energy-saving materials for cooling buildings in tropical and humid climates.

Chile: The University of Santiago, Chile, or USACH, is taking part in an international project to evaluate the role Antarctica plays in climate change and how global warming is impacting on the frozen continent.

USACH set up a monitoring station in Isla Rey Jorge last year and is planning to install a second one in another spot. USACH researchers are also measuring UV radiation and supply the data to several health facilities for use in skin cancer prevention activities.

Chile: Universidad Mayor, together with the National Forestry Commission, is working on a carbon capture typology of Mediterranean forests. Though this type of forest grows more slowly and captures less CO2 than others located further south, it survives in arid and semi-arid areas where it becomes the last barrier against desertification.

Peru: The Pontifical Catholic University has carried out a public campaign on climate change. In 2010, it set up an environmental research institute with researchers who have been working for more than 20 years on topics such as renewable energies, biochemical analysis and climate change technologies.


Finally, several large conferences on climate change, either sponsored or organised by universities, take place each year in Latin America.

On 3-4 July the Private University of Tacna in Peru is hosting the fifth National University Forum on Environmental Management and Sustainable Development. The theme of the forum is “Our actions in regard to climate change”.

The first of these forums took place in 1999. Topics have included: incorporating the environment into higher education institutions; defining environmental commitments and reporting progress; intra- and inter-university coordination on a national environment policy; and how Peruvian universities can help implement public policies and strategies on adaptation to climate change.