Galvanising the world’s universities to tackle change

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, or UNEP, to rope in universities and scientists in search of environmental sustainability solutions.

Mahesh Pradhan, head of the environmental education and training unit at UNEP, says the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the increasing magnitude and probably irreversible impacts of climate change has made it more urgent to galvanise global university systems as agents of environmental change.

“Through the Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability, or GUPES, the programme is helping prepare the world for the projected impacts of climate change,” Pradhan said. “It is also creating pathways for reversing and mitigating some of the negative environmental trends.”

A unified university network

Officially launched at China’s Tongji University in Shanghai in 2012, ahead of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, that was held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, GUPES is a strategic platform for the mainstreaming of environment and sustainability initiatives into university systems across the world.

According to Pradhan, GUPES is part of the larger UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, called HESI, that was created in 2012 by UN partners that included the Executive Coordinator of Rio+20, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UNEP, UNESCO, the UN Global Compact and United Nations University.

Pradhan noted that the idea of having a unified university network on environmental issues emerged during a consultative forum organised by UNEP in Nairobi on 19 November 2010 to establish the way forward on how to engage systematically with universities worldwide.

So far, 430 universities are members of GUPES and 80 of them are from Africa.

“UNEP is making deliberate attempts to focus on as many universities as possible,” said Pradhan.

The crux of the matter is that many of the world’s environmental reports and other crucial scientific assessments stem from university academics. For instance in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, key universities such as the University of Nairobi, University of Dar es Salaam, Addis Ababa University and the University of Ghana in Legon had been collaborating with national governments regarding environmental protection.

Besides, GUPES had been promoting inter-university networking on sustainability matters with emphasis on South-South and North-South tertiary education partnerships.


According to Professor David Mungai, the deputy-director of Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi, Tongji University and the University of Nairobi had been working together on clean water projects in Kenya.

“Our collaborative partnership with UNEP-Tongji Institute for Environment and Sustainable Development at Tongji University is on waste-water reuse and water harvesting,” Mungai, the GUPES coordinator at the University of Nairobi, told University World News in an interview.

Amid efforts to reduce ecosystem vulnerability and strengthen resilience against climate change in semi-arid areas in West Africa, the University of Ghana had been engaged in an adaptation programme in collaboration with University of Tokyo and Kyoto University.

“The focal point of this collaboration is mainly to conduct research and capacity building on adaptation planning and mitigation strategies,” said Pradhan.

In order to reduce Sub-Saharan Africa’s emissions from deforestation, Yale University is hosting the REDD+ Academy which is currently developing a curriculum source book on how to cut carbon footprint through the initiative of the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD, Programme.

Building capacity

In a nutshell, GUPES intends to build, through tertiary education, a professional capacity and the leadership needed for the prevention of sustainable development challenges.

Nevertheless, GUPES’ mandate extends beyond providing environment protection education and training to communities and government officials to its institutions also becoming centres of the green economy revolution through institutional design, sustainable use of resources and creation of green jobs. Selected areas of concern include waste management, energy management, water management and the economical use of resources.

Other areas of interest encompass noise evaluation and control, indoor air quality and emergency prevention and preparedness. Universities are also required to establish internal comprehensive environmental policies across their education departments.

Green universities toolkit

In this regard, the University of New South Wales in Australia had been developing a greening universities toolkit in collaboration with Cadi Ayyad University of Marrakech in Morocco.

“The intention of the toolkit is to encourage universities that are members of GUPES to build green campuses on the platform of the Rio+20 call – 'The future we want',” says Dr Paul Osmond, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales and one of the key experts developing the toolkit.

According to Professor Wu Jiang, chair of the GUPES steering committee, universities are encouraged to conduct research on greenhouse gas emissions, water cycle biodiversity, desertification, sustainable land management and climate modelling.

Jiang is also the vice president of Tongji University and dean of the UNEP-Tongji Institute for Environment and Sustainable Development.

Taking into account that most universities are major employers and consumers of goods and services, another element of GUPES’ agenda is to promote a green jobs initiative through alternative options of changing lifestyles by doing more with minimal resources, eco-literacy and green education.

“Universities must assume leadership towards reflecting afresh on issues related to global efficient resources consumption, production and sufficiency,” states the GUPES briefing position paper.

According to the paper entitled “Role and Contributions of Higher Education in Sustainable Development”, universities can provide a roadmap from business as usual environmental worries to a transformational paradigm shift of sustainability and development agenda.

The issue is that the current environmental and economic crisis facing the planet is prompting the agency to develop and equip a cadre of experts and leaders who are familiar with the prevailing threats of climate change.

A new kind of thinking

Commenting on the issue, Pradhan explained the need for a new kind of critical thinking to engage with the current environmental uncertainty, and to craft sustainable development models which will reduce human ecological footprints, promote social equity and reduce poverty.

“Unless action is taken now, the planet will succumb to pressure from the impacts of climate change and unsustainable depletion of natural resources,” said Pradhan.

Such sentiments were also highlighted by Mungai when he told University World News of the need for African universities to try and resolve the crisis of convergence of climate change and rapid urbanisation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

He noted that over 60 percent of people in urban areas in Sub-Saharan Africa live in slums that are characterised by some of the most deplorable environmental conditions.

“Quality of life is too low in Africa’s urban slums due to inadequate water supply, poor sanitation and indoor pollution caused by overcrowded and dilapidated housing, frequent flooding, lack of proper protection from high temperatures, hazardous locations, insecurity of tenure and vulnerability to preventable health risks,” said Mungai.

Quoting a recent technical report from UNEP entitled Africa’s Adaptation Gap Mungai said that life in urban slums across Sub-Saharan Africa will increasingly deteriorate if the emissions gap is not closed and mitigation and adaptation challenges are ignored.

Consequently, universities under the GUPES network should urgently strive to graduate the next generation of green leadership instilled with awareness and responsibility for conserving the Earth.

Undoubtedly, in the words of Ibrahim Thiaw, the UNEP’s deputy executive director, “Universities, as the pinnacle of formal, organised education, have a responsibility to define and also to become exemplars of environmental best practice.”