Universities pledge commitment to climate change action

More than 1,000 universities globally committed to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by 2050, ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. The United Nations University presented a report on the interconnectedness of disasters, and the University of Oxford announced a Nature-Positive Universities network to support institutions in reducing their impacts on nature.

There is barely a university to be found that has not launched environmental initiatives on campus and in their communities and countries. But strangely – amid a deluge of science and information, politics and posturing, activities and commitments – it has been tricky to get a handle on COP26. For many, it has been a social media whirl of disconnected one-liners.

Universities train the scientists and politicians who are at the centre of global climate change efforts, and many of the scientists are on their staff. But that is not enough and in the 2000s there has been growing commitment by many universities to make themselves more environmentally sustainable, chivvied along by students.

As COP26 opened in Glasgow, it was announced that 1,050 universities from 68 countries with some 10 million students had pledged to halve their emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050 at the latest. Among them are 334 institutions from the United States, 216 from India and 125 from the United Kingdom.

The institutions have signed up over the past year to the Race to Zero for Universities and Colleges, which is a “global campaign to rally leadership and action in the education sector” led by the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC) and Second Nature and supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

It is part of Race to Zero, which organises a coalition of net-zero initiatives representing 733 cities, 31 regions, 3,067 businesses and 173 big investors as well as universities.

Among the institutions highlighted were the University of Glasgow, which has set a net-zero target by 2030 and was the first UK university to pledge to divest from fossil fuels within a decade; and Chiba University of Commerce, which committed to become the first university in Japan to run exclusively on renewable energy by 2025, and to set up a Renewable Energy University League of Japan.

Universities that have made pledges must be consistent with criteria provided by Race to Zero’s Expert Peer Review Group, chaired by the University of Oxford. “It is expected that many more universities will join the initiative in the coming months with regular reporting and checks to ensure that they hold true to their promises,” said EAUC, Second Nature and UNEP at an event held at the Times Higher Education Climate Impact Forum.

Roles for universities

Their statement describes the substantial role of higher education in the Race to Zero. Universities set a good example for students and have the power to shift mindsets, influence lifestyle choices and instil sustainability values and green skills in tomorrow’s leaders.

“Universities and colleges can influence staff, faculty, students and the surrounding campus community. Setting progressive sustainability targets can have far-reaching impacts well beyond the walls of the institution. Universities are hubs for research and innovation, which could scale up the role of higher education in the green transition.”

Universities must be at the forefront of zero-carbon innovation, researching circular and clean production, teaching green skills and demonstrating innovative fossil-free campuses, said Iain Patton, CEO of EAUC.

“The profile of universities and colleges committing to emissions reduction and net zero has never been higher. But with commitment, comes accountability and the Race to Zero brings this – allowing students to hold their institutions to account.”

Beyond their commitments to net-zero goals, universities enable climate actions in other sectors that share their goals, through research, community engagement, student activity and advocacy, pointed out Tim Carter, president of Second Nature.

“It is through both acting and enabling action that the whole of higher education’s assets can be mobilised to address the challenge we are facing and why the participation of the higher education sector in the Race to Zero is so important,” he said.

A new survey from UNESCO and UNEP, which explored how education and environment ministries in 21 countries work together on the climate change agenda, revealed, among other things, little mention of universities – “a stronger focus on higher education is needed” – and insufficient youth engagement. Young people are consulted on environmental initiatives, but their role in implementing or developing further programmes is unclear.

The survey was discussed at a meeting with education and environment ministers at COP26 on 5 November, and the discussions and recommendations will support better integration of environmental education materials in schools and higher education in the coming months.

Nature-positive universities

Just ahead of COP26, UNEP and the University of Oxford announced that they would launch a global Alliance of Nature-Positive Universities. It plans to make a major contribution to the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, the post-2020 Biodiversity Framework and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Among institutions that have already signed up are IPB University in Indonesia, the University of Cape Town, Universidade de São Paulo, the University of Ghana and the University of Tasmania. The initiative will outline how universities can reduce their impact on nature by shifting supply chains and restoring landscapes in their local areas.

“The network’s aim is to prompt the prioritisation of nature and its restoration within the higher education sector, including in their operations and supply chains, on their campuses, and within the cities where they operate,” according to the Oxford announcement.

“We need to move urgently from degrading nature to restoring it. Universities have a substantial role to play in this quest for nature-positivity: They nurture the minds of future leaders, create knowledge and networks of thinkers, and directly impact the planet as land-holders and consumers of resources.”

The alliance will be formally launched next year. Meanwhile, interested universities have been invited to complete an expression of interest.

Interconnected Disaster Risks

This week at COP26, the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and the World Food Programme (WFP) called for a better integration of nature-based solutions into adaptation planning.

Weather-related disasters have increased fivefold in the past 50 years alone, they pointed out, and presented the recently launched UNU-EHS report Interconnected Disaster Risks. The report illustrates the interconnectivity of disasters and makes it apparent that interconnected solutions deserve more attention, the organisations said in a statement on 9 November.

“Science is clear on the fact that nature-based solutions not only address climate change, they also reduce disaster risk, biodiversity loss and food insecurity in an integrated way,” said Dr Jack O’Connor, senior scientist at UNU-EHS. He gave as an example projects to protect and restore coastal ecosystems in Bangladesh, one of the world’s most cyclone-affected countries.

WFP said nature-based solutions were also proving valuable in a humanitarian context. For five years until 2019 it helped vulnerable communities to rehabilitate 1.5 million hectares of degraded land and forests, and establish 54,000 ponds, wells and communal reservoirs.

“Nature itself is often the best way to protect both people and the planet,” said Gernot Laganda, chief of climate and disaster risk reduction programmes at WFP. “Rehabilitating ecosystems helps to reduce people’s vulnerability to climate shocks and stresses while also protecting biodiversity and promoting social cohesion.”

Despite there being widespread consensus that nature-based solutions need to be considered in adaptation planning, their potential is still largely untapped.

“Nature-based solution efforts today focus disproportionately on forest ecosystems and specifically on tree planting,” said Dr Zita Sebesvari, deputy director of UNU-EHS, giving as an example the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, adopted at COP26.

“While the declaration is a much-welcomed step, we need to go beyond forests and look also for example at grasslands, peatlands, marshes and marine ecosystems, all of which build on the rich diversity of ecosystems for adaptation, disaster risk reduction and biodiversity.”

In the long term, planting or protecting forests will only be effective if complemented by actions that relieve the pressures that led to their destruction in the first place.

To be truly effective, an integrated resilience programme would combine nature-based solutions with social and financial protections, the organisations said, urging leaders at COP26 to place integrated nature-based solutions into the overall adaptation strategy.