Universities ‘essential’ to climate action, says UN chief

The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, has called on the world to take urgent action to combat climate change and has praised the work of universities as “essential to our success”.

But his wide-ranging call to action also challenges all organisations to examine their own contribution to carbon neutrality and in the case of universities this means not just through researching solutions, but also through cutting their own carbon footprint and divesting from fossil fuels as much as they can.

Speaking at a World Leaders Forum on climate change at Columbia University, New York, on 2 December, he said humanity is waging a suicidal “war on nature”.

“We are facing a devastating pandemic, new heights of global heating, new lows of ecological degradation and new setbacks in our work towards global goals for more equitable, inclusive and sustainable development.

“To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken.”

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He was speaking on the day that two new authoritative reports from the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme spelled out how close we are to climate catastrophe.

“2020 is on track to be one of the three warmest years on record globally – even with the cooling effect of this year’s La Nina. The past decade was the hottest in human history. Ocean heat is at record levels. Arctic sea ice in October was the lowest on record – and now re-freezing has been the slowest on record. Permafrost is melting and so releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” he said.

“Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are increasingly the new normal. The North Atlantic hurricane season has seen 30 storms, more than double the long-term average and breaking the record for a full season. Central America is still reeling from two back-to-back hurricanes, part of the most intense period for such storms in recent years.

He added that biodiversity is collapsing with one million species at risk of extinction and ecosystems are disappearing and deserts spreading. “Every year, we lose 10 million hectares of forests.”

Oceans are overfished – and choking with plastic waste. Air and water pollution are killing nine million people annually – more than six times the current toll of the pandemic, yet emissions are 62% higher now than when international climate negotiations began in 1990.

Last year global-warming related disasters cost the world US$150 billion, yet we are heading for a “thundering temperature rise” of three to five degrees Celsius this century, he warned.

Blueprint for action

He said there is a blueprint for the action that needs to be taken, the 2030 Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“The solutions are there. Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world – and with each other. And we must do so together. Solidarity is humanity. Solidarity is survival. That is the lesson of 2020.”

He said climate policies have yet to rise to the challenge, but universities have a key part to play in the finding the solutions.

Guterres remarked that the United Nations Academic Impact initiative is working with institutions of higher education across the globe and that “the contributions of universities are essential to our success”.

He said he was pleased therefore that so many members of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network or SDSN, were gathered to hear his speech as special guests – university presidents, chancellors, deans, faculty and other scholars.

He was also pleased to learn from President Lee Bollinger that Columbia University has launched a trans-disciplinary Climate School, the first new school in Columbia in a quarter of a century, which was a “wonderful demonstration of scholarship and leadership”.

On climate change, Guterres warned that to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6% every year between now and 2030.

“Instead, the world is going in the opposite direction – planning an annual increase of 2%. The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperilling food security.

“And it is making our work for peace even more difficult, as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict.”

Avert climate cataclysm

He said in overcoming the pandemic, we can also avert climate cataclysm and restore our planet. It is time to flick the ‘green switch’, to not simply reset the world economy but to transform it. A sustainable economy driven by renewable energies will create new jobs, cleaner infrastructure and a resilient future.

“COVID recovery and our planet’s repair must be the two sides of the same coin.”

On the climate emergency, he said the world faces three imperatives:

• First, we need to achieve global carbon neutrality within the next three decades.

• Second, we have to align global finance behind the Paris Agreement, the world’s blueprint for climate action.

• Third, we must deliver a breakthrough on adaptation to protect the world – and especially the most vulnerable people and countries – from climate impacts.

He addressed these in turn.

First, carbon neutrality – net zero emissions of greenhouse gases. In recent weeks, there have been important positive developments, with the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and the Republic of Korea among more than 110 countries committing to carbon neutrality by 2050 and China committing to get there by 2060.

But this momentum must be turned into a movement, with the central objective of the UN for 2021 to build a truly Global Coalition for Carbon Neutrality. This is something in which every country, city, company, institution and organisation can play a part by taking decisive action to cut emissions by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels.

Toward a just transition

“Every individual must also do their part – as consumers, as producers, as investors,” the UN secretary general said. He is seeking a “just” transition to renewable energy.

On 12 December, along with France and the UK, Guterres is convening a Climate Ambition Summit to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, and in November next year the UK will host COP26 (the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties) in Glasgow.

Guterres warned that it is time to phase out fossil fuel finance and end fossil fuel subsidies and invest in adaptation and resilience.

“Early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dry land agriculture, mangrove protection and other steps can give the world a double dividend: avoiding future losses and generating economic gains and other benefits.

“We need to move to large-scale, preventive and systematic adaptation support.”

More and more people are understanding the need for their own daily choices to reduce their carbon footprint and respect planetary boundaries, he added.

“And we see inspiring waves of social mobilisation by young people. From protests in the streets to advocacy online... From classroom education to community engagement... From voting booths to places of work…

“Young people are pushing their elders to do what is right. This is a moment of truth for people and planet alike. COVID and climate have brought us to a threshold.

“We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth,” he said.

Recognition of universities’ role

Universities have welcomed the UN secretary general’s recognition of the key role they play in tackling climate change and addressing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed internationally as the framework for the UN Agenda to 2030.

Responding to Guterres’ speech, Joanna Newman, chief executive and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and a member of the Leadership Council of SDSN, told University World News: “I am so pleased he acknowledged universities’ role because often this has not been the case when we are talking about solving global challenges and it should be, because all the responses lie within universities, whether it is through educating students or through producing knowledge.

“It is universities working with industry and governments that will make the difference to solving climate change.”

She explained that the SDSN harvests data on the action being taken to achieve the SDGs.

Many universities are already committed to reducing their carbon footprint and divesting in fossil fuels, and most students are committed to doing what they can as citizens and through research, but also by holding their university to account, Newman said.

But the work that has been going on in virtual mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions about the benefits of not having to travel to another country for every international conference or collaboration, she added, although vice-chancellors warn that for early career researchers, for whom conferences and networking are so crucial, it is a problem.

She argued that universities have a crucial role to play not only in taking climate action but in tackling all the SDGs, whether this involves the education they provide or the work they do to create sustainable cities and provide clean water and clean energy. Along with the International Association of Universities and the Francophone University Agency, ACU has been pushing for greater recognition of universities’ critical role among high level delegates at the UN.

One barrier to strengthening action by universities is the way they are structured by discipline, which creates silos. The Columbia Climate School is a good example of a university trying to address this problem through a trans-disciplinary approach.

“At present, we do not have central, strategically focused coordinating structures and mechanisms for developing education, research, technology and policy hubs linked to climate. The Climate School will provide that,” said Alex Halliday, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in a blog post.

He said the Climate School will bring together many of Columbia’s “world-leading capabilities in climate” that currently are based in centres of the Earth Institute, such as the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, the Center for Climate Systems Research, the Center for International Earth Science Information Network and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“However, much of Columbia’s expertise sits elsewhere, inside existing schools. Therefore, the grand prize, recognised by the Climate Change Task Force, is to form a school like no other, with a hub and spokes structure that networks and supports diverse activities across the institution.”

Working with communities

Newman says beyond producing knowledge for solutions, there is an important role for universities to play by working in equitable partnerships with the communities they are rooted in.

“Universities have strong connections with local communities and are most successful when they bring the community into the work they doing and work with them in equitable partnerships for local solutions,” Newman said.

“Many universities have outreach programmes to work with the local population and work for local solutions, and these involve not just staff but students as well. The latter will quite often self-organise.”

But she said the long-term impact universities can make also comes down to their core mission of educating young people.

“Education at higher level has social impact because the people going to that university go on to take up jobs that will impact on their local community, whether it is as primary or secondary teachers, working in NGOs or in local businesses.”

The problem is that “there are just not enough people going to university in many countries” at the moment.