No green economy without green skills: HE’s critical role

As global economies shift from linear to circular economies, the need to build on green skills and competencies becomes critical across sectors and industries, and the role of universities in developing these skills becomes more evident, participants at the recent COP27 summit held in Egypt heard.

During an event themed “Capacity building on green skills to enable local, regional and international climate action” on 17 November, global climate actors from researchers to university leaders, policymakers and civic society representatives met to discuss the urgent need to build on skills relevant in the transition to low carbon economies.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), green skills are “skills needed in a low-carbon economy [and] will be required in all sectors and at all levels in the workforce as emerging economic activities create new (or renewed) occupations”.

Executive director at Ampak Nigeria Limited Oluwakemi Ajakaiye, who conducted a study on the challenges and opportunities of green skills programmes and development in Nigeria and Western Africa, found that green skills and environmental competencies are not widespread in the educational systems of West Africa, particularly Nigeria.

The research was substantiated by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) which is a global organisation supporting environment and sustainability professionals.

Skills deficit

Ajakaiye said that between 2018 and 2019, data collected across universities showed that of the 1.8 million students in tertiary institutions, just 2.49% enrolled and undertook undergraduate level studies in environmental sciences.

At postgraduate level, only 1.49% of students pursued environmental studies. She added that the figure decreased further with only 0.9% of students at the PhD level opting for environmental sciences.

As a result, a huge deficit and skills gaps in the labour force was created, with industry captains and business leaders unable to build green skills teams needed for environmental or climate-related projects.

Some of the gaps in West Africa include a rudimentary awareness of green skills at basic education to university levels, a shortage of demand for green skills and a shortage of jobs in need of green skills in the career space. In addition, the rise of the informal sector lured a majority of youths away from acquiring skills in environmental areas.

Ajakaiye called on COP to help drive Sustainable Development Goals 8 and 9 (to promote economic growth and decent work for all) and to push the development of green skills in developing regions, particularly Africa.

She underscored some of the opportunities available to youths with green skills in areas such as recycling, geo-engineering and waste management.

However, to achieve low carbon economies, regional leaders across sectors needed to support a theory of change, uphold a systems approach, invest in human capital, promote skills acquisition programmes and the training of various industry leaders.

The role of higher education

During his presentation on the role of higher education in the fight against climate change, Professor Ali Hassan from the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Environmental Research at Ain Shams University in Egypt, said the world urgently needed more educated and green-skilled human capital in all sectors and job families of the decarbonised economy.

“Education is in the frontline of the fight against climate change and every economy depends on the education system to generate the human capital needed for its sustainable growth,” he said.

“With the transition to from linear to low carbon economies, higher education needs to adapt fast and lead the way to combating climate change. Climate change innovation is almost exclusively accomplished by those with advanced degrees.”

Universities need to adopt holistic, multidisciplinary and transformational approaches that address learning content and outcomes, pedagogy and learning environments.

He said Egypt currently has over 67 universities and a majority of them have been tailored to specialise in solving problems, or enhancing the resources within the area in which they function, for example, oil and gas, marine biology and geology.

Recently, the Egyptian educational system has enhanced its functions and introduced new curricula and programmes to include community and environmental services. This promoted a cross-disciplinary approach, with environmental sciences as the basis of studies across different areas such as law, engineering, agriculture and economics. Academic institutions also embarked on programmes to upskill and reskill staff and faculty members to match curriculum development.

A sectoral approach

Hassan said some of the focus of the Community Service and Environmental Development Sector at Ain Shams University has been on assisting government, industry and businesses through different models of advisory and consultancy roles to develop new policies, regulations and action plans to facilitate the transition to net zero.

“We also raise climate change and sustainability awareness at all organisational levels for public and private entities, non-governmental organisations and the general public. We also work closely with ministries and run several projects on the ground to showcase how to transform and transfer into renewable energy,” he said.

“One of our current projects with our students is to calculate the carbon footprint of our faculty and develop strategies. We are also working to design courses that can develop green skills required by specific high priority sectors and job families.

“We design strategic targeted research tracks and topics that generate new knowledge and foster practical cost-effective solutions for policy in mitigation, adaptation and resilience. We make available research findings and data to stakeholders and decision makers to enable evidence-based solutions”, he said.

University professors and researchers also collaborated with policymakers and business leaders on projects that support low-carbon transition, for example, a recent partnership with Sanofi Specialty Care which promotes the use of telemedicine for a lower carbon footprint.

A collaboration between the university and IEMA to develop a new master’s programme on climate change, environmental consultancy and sustainability was also announced during the workshop.

Green skills toolkit

A green skills toolkit and COP27 report, developed by IEMA and Deloitte in collaboration with the COP27 presidency in Egypt, were launched during a summit side event. Laila Takeh, head of Net Zero Transformation at Deloitte UK, said the toolkit would help to shift organisations towards adopting strategic mindsets for climate resilient economies.

“One of the things we found while doing our research is the lack of a shared language and structure to help organisations think in a strategic way. There has been a huge amount of really valuable content shared throughout the last two weeks on jobs and skills and good examples of initiatives in different countries being done locally,” she said.

IEMA CEO Sarah Mukherjee also stressed the importance of green skills in supporting regional and international economies with educational institutions playing key roles in this transformation.

“Without the skills and training and without the education, there will be no green economy to make the transition. These skills are not just for office workers but they are for our technicians, engineers, those doing first and secondary jobs. These are vital in terms of achieving a fast-moving agenda to get to net zero by 2040-2050.”