HEIs sidelined at COP27 despite work on climate solutions

At a time when the scientific community has been hailed for its work in providing evidence and recommendations in the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impact of climate change on different communities, universities, as institutions, are absent in the COP27 framework and agenda.

Despite this, higher education institutions illuminated the pathway for policy-makers to achieve climate goals and were leading the way in decarbonisation and energy transition processes.

This was the notion shared by global university leaders and students during a round-table discussion at COP27 in Egypt on the theme, “Universities as key solution providers: Leveraging our local and global networks for innovation”.

In her opening remarks at an event attended by the academic community, Professor Annelise Riles, executive director of the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs and associate provost for global affairs at Northwestern University in Chicago, United States, pointed out that, despite developing thousands of technological, policy and societal innovations by working closely with local and global partners across sectors, universities were not fully acknowledged and present in the climate change discussions and debates at COP27.

The event, held on 17 November 2022, was convened by the U7+ Alliance of World Universities representing institutions in the Global South and Global North with representatives from the Worldwide Universities Network, the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), Second Nature, and the Italian University Network for Sustainable Development sharing concrete examples on the work done by universities to further the COP27 agenda. The climate conference ended on 20 November.

Students’ research a valuable contribution

Over a dozen masters and PhD students showcased how universities are uniquely poised to help advance climate action through studies and research projects in faculties such as environmental engineering, mechanical engineering and energy and environmental systems.

Universities provided training for the next generation of leaders and capacity-building for local communities, municipalities and policy-makers. In addition, through research activities, they helped to reduce the carbon footprint through sustainable technologies such as thermo-electric generators.

Energy and environmental systems masters student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, Luke Sperry highlighted the importance of future energy systems research in bridging the gap between net-zero ambitions and available solutions.

“I have been working to quantify this gap (net-zero and available solutions) with all associated costs and benefits. Local government has been very interested in our work and our energy models have been used to develop and illustrate pathways for policy-makers and have adapted regional models for other provinces to use as needed,” he said.

Sperry further highlighted that the energy model is a product of over a decade of research and development involving dozens of collaborators and contributors. “Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear to me that this scale of collaboration is essential to adequately plan and prepare for a net-zero GHG (greenhouse gases) future, which is why universities are poised to play such a significant role in energy transition.”

Young researchers work with cities

Brianna Gordon, A PhD student at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University in Canberra, also shared how her current research is crucial to climate action.

“When discussing climate change, I believe that we need to be discussing all aspects of man-made impacts to the environment, including mercury pollution, which is exacerbated by increasing global temperatures and its impact on people, the planet and the environment,” she said.

“Here at COP27, I hope to raise awareness about the issues of mercury pollution and how it is linked to increasing global temperatures and climate change. Additionally, as an indigenous woman, I want to raise the profile of indigenous people.”

Wei-Sheng Chen, from the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan in Taiwan, highlighted the work of his faculty. They deal with water quality problems and minimising the negative impact of ecology on drinking water systems.

“We keep enhancing the collaboration between university, government, and community – not only in Taiwan, but also overseas. This includes publishing the results of our studies, conducting workshops, and working on these issues together,” he said.

Collaborative observatory links science, society

Biology professor and expert in globalisation Cecile Sabourault announced the creation of an observatory for socio-ecological transition called Observatoire de la Transition Écologique et Citoyenne Côte d’Azur (OTECCA) at the Université Côte d’Azur (Côte d’Azur University) in Nice, France.

The project was composed of researchers, association representatives and student organisation representatives and involved a case study on the critical role of universities and science within climate action.

Sabourault stated that the mission of the collaborative observatory was to document and analyse the territory, gain multi-sector data, implement and promote science, and society research.

“The role of the observatory is to interface with scientific as well as civil communities to gather, produce and share knowledge of socio-ecological transition in a specific territory and to increase citizens’, decision-makers’ and other stakeholders’ actions through better collaboration,” she said.

“We want to foster and spread scientific culture and citizen science. The observatory addresses themes from agriculture, consumption and culture to energy, economy, education, environment, food and health.”

Global university collaboration is key

President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Alberta Bill Flanagan stressed the importance of uniting universities behind the common purpose of tackling global challenges such as climate change.

“As we all know, climate change is a global problem affecting the world very differently. No one university has the capacity to find solutions that the planet needs. The Worldwide Universities Network is a North-South collaboration, and our universities span the globe,” he said.

The network unites 24 universities – three in North America, one in South America, four in Africa, eight in Europe, four in Asia and two [each] in Australia and New Zealand, Flanagan said.

“This collaboration is key to addressing the kind of challenges the globe is facing and it is also important that universities be more present at COP27 because it is in universities that solutions will be found through the talent of our students and our faculties.”

Professor Patrizia Lombardi, an expert in sustainable urban development at Politecnico di Torino (Polytechnic University of Turin), also commented on the different ways universities have been working as key partners with cities and local communities, serving as laboratories for experimentation on new ways to achieving sustainability.

Cities cannot achieve neutrality alone

“Universities, cities, and communities play a crucial role in this transition towards carbon neutrality of our society and regeneration economy, therefore, partnershipping is a win-win and the only way to accelerate the transition,” she said.

“The only way I see this achieved is for educational communities to play an active role in the multi-level governance because there is a need for cities to speed up the transition to achieve neutrality by 2050. But statistics and targets say they will not be able to do so unless there are collaborative efforts.”

As president of the Italian network of universities for sustainable development, Lombardi highlighted that the organisation is developing an observatory with the support of university rectors to bring together universities, cities and communities towards the common goal of the transition to clean energy and decarbonisation.

“Our network has been built to be able to connect with municipalities, local communities, and regional governments to support this transition. Universities, particularly in Italy, are part of the cities and their laboratories and campuses are in the process of decarbonisation. This brings the opportunity to meet the two goals (clean energy transition and decarbonisation) by working together with local authorities to decarbonise the entire cities,” Lombardi said.