Universities crucial in fight against climate change

This year will be an important one for climate change policy in Europe and the world. In late February, the European Commission released a first communication on the ‘Energy Union’ – the ambitious project to make Europe a leader in sustainable energy technology and deployment of renewable energy sources.

In December in Paris, world leaders will meet to discuss the future of the Kyoto Protocol in a highly anticipated COP21 summit whose outcomes might determine the global answer to tackling climate change for the coming years.

But what role should universities play in the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable society?

One role can be found in the research and innovation activities of academics and researchers who work on different aspects of the energy systems – be it energy technology, economics, politics, environmental impacts of energy production and consumption or other issues.

Universities have huge potential for research and innovation along the whole value chain. A 2009 study by the European University Association, or EUA, showed that at least 1,400 groups consisting of 20,000 people were working on energy research at 171 European universities.

Given the limited scope of the study, this is only the tip of the iceberg – and the EUA’s ongoing UNI-SET project will chart the university landscape in even more detail this year.

In addition to research and innovation, there is more that universities are doing to tackle the ‘energy challenge’. Education and training of professionals is crucial for delivering the large-scale deployment of energy technology, managing and integrating smart energy grids, identifying new policies, business and financing models and engaging with the public.

According to estimates – see the Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan Roadmap on Education and Training – the creation of a sustainable energy system will create several million green employment opportunities in the coming years across Europe, many of which will require the knowledge, skills and competencies which institutions of higher education can offer.

A holistic approach

Policy-makers are realising that a holistic approach is vital. The European Commission included education, finance and consumer behaviour as topics in its Strategic Energy Technology Plan.

The framework document has grown to include much more than technological solutions over the past years thanks to the work of EUA, which highlighted the role of multidisciplinary research, education and training.

Universities are not only equipping their students with the skills and abilities for setting up a sustainable energy system, but also creating the necessary conditions to foster change on a larger scale.

In many countries, teacher education is carried out in higher education institutions and they need to include sustainability and energy in their curricula to enable teachers to instil knowledge about sustainable lifestyles in young people. Large-scale behavioural change and more sustainable consumption patterns can be nurtured in this way.

Universities could, for example, ask doctoral candidates to visit local schools and teach pupils about sustainability and energy usage. This is a good example of raising awareness outside of the university context and will also hone the graduate students’ skills in explaining complex problems in simple terms to a public, non-expert audience. Some doctoral training centres are already putting this into practice.

Many universities also know the pivotal role they are playing – sustainable campus projects are proliferating and students increasingly engage in debates about the sustainability and the environmental footprints of their institutions. This spirit and the bottom-up approach driven forward by staff and students exemplifies the role they can play as ‘change agents’ in tackling climate change.

Students are at the very heart of a university and having them advancing the changes needed for a sustainable future is a good precursor of what they can do as graduates, making an impact in their communities or in their workplaces.

EUA mapping exercise

In light of these developments and challenges, the EUA inaugurated a platform for universities on energy research and education – EUA-EPUE – at Delft University of Technology in 2012.

Last year, the EUA launched the UNI-SET project, supported by the European Commission and in partnership with KIC InnoEnergy, KU Leuven and several other major research universities, aiming to mobilise the university sector in the energy research field.

The ongoing mapping exercise of masters, doctoral and research programmes undertaken in the UNI-SET project will provide a unique, powerful picture of the research and innovation contributions of universities, as well as their important work in education and training.

The knowledge generated will be useful in multiple ways, for example, as a resource for interested students or researchers, but also as a tool for university management and policy-makers to identify strengths and gaps in energy research and education.

In several events during 2016 and 2017, the first ones to take place at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and Politecnico di Torino in Italy, the EUA will follow up on the survey results and gather the academic community together to discuss novel and interdisciplinary approaches in energy research and education.

If universities recognise their role in the global fight against climate change, much can be achieved. They are in a prime position to generate scientific breakthroughs, technological and societal innovation, as well as achieve knowledge transfer to society.

And for Europe to become, as the European Commission says, “the world leader in renewable energy”, it needs to encourage and harness the potential of graduates, researchers and students to sit in the driver’s seat of the energy transition.

Lidia Borrell-Damian is director for research and innovation at the European University Association. She can be contacted at