Universities address climate governance – but barriers remain

Against the backdrop of the global pandemic and the enormous changes of the last century, climate change continues to be a global issue. All countries must address this challenge and participate in global climate governance in a proactive way.

The Paris Agreement is a crucial piece of legislation that strengthens and expands the legal framework for global climate governance based on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. China is an active participant in the execution of the Paris Agreement and has committed to ensuring its carbon dioxide emissions peak before 2030 and to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 (the dual carbon goal).

The world’s top universities can also contribute to global climate governance by pledging to achieve zero carbon emissions and by renovating their facilities to increase energy efficiency.

China’s world-class universities are actively engaged in reaching the ‘dual carbon’ goal and creating a clean and beautiful world, having been influenced by the global climate governance efforts of the Chinese government and the world’s top universities.

Role of China’s top universities in climate governance

China’s top universities have partnered with renowned academic institutions both domestically and internationally to launch academic research on the topic of climate governance. They are dedicated to sharing their knowledge to advance changes in the global system of climate governance and to support China’s active participation in international cooperation on climate change.

In 2019, Tsinghua University promoted the establishment of the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate (GAUC), an innovative project by Chinese universities to promote universities around the world coming together to build a global ecological alliance and promote international cooperation to address climate change.

The GAUC will create a platform for innovation and cooperation by combining the high-quality resources of different universities to conduct research on critical scientific, technological and environmental domains related to climate change and to promote scientific knowledge, technological innovation and policy development in the fight against climate change.

The ‘Belt and Road’ International Joint Laboratory, established by Fudan University in 2022, is primarily concerned with the crucial impact of climate change on the development of the Asia-Pacific region, global sustainable development and carbon neutrality.

In addition to establishing the Research Centre for Global Climate Governance, Huazhong University of Science and Technology set up the ninth Summit Forum on National Governance Systems and Capacity Building in 2022. The establishment of the research centre responds to the need to tackle climate change and meet China’s dual carbon objectives.

A green education system

To build a green education system involves creating ‘dual carbon’ curricula to train future climate governance leaders. A core knowledge system covering the climate system, industrial upgrading, urban and rural construction and energy transition needs to be established at the higher education level to strengthen the integration and coherence of various disciplines.

In order to improve the synergy between science and education and the integration of industry and education to train people and foster the kind of talent needed to lead future climate governance and green development, Zhejiang University has developed a green education system.

Its energy and environmental system engineering class aims to cultivate talent in the field of smart energy, which integrates information technology and low-carbon technology; its international training module for agribusiness management class aims to cultivate students who can go on to play a leading role in the field of agricultural science in the future; and its public management class aims to cultivate leadership talent for national and international governance.

The 2022 Global Summer School on Sustainable Development – which focuses on sustainable development issues, incorporates the benefits of teaching resources from China and abroad and offers top-notch professional courses and a variety of cultural experiences – was also introduced by Zhejiang University in August 2022.

Responding to the need for a green education system, Chinese universities have begun to develop their dual carbon abilities.

The past two years have seen the establishment of energy storage science and engineering majors at numerous leading universities, including Tianjin University, Xiamen University, Shandong University, Chongqing University and Harbin Institute of Technology.

Sustainable development has been incorporated into the curriculum of Tongji University. The Tsinghua University Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development has successfully carried out strategic research projects like the 2050 Low Carbon Transition and Climate and Environment Collaborative Governance programme, held the Climate Change Lecture programme online and broadcast it live throughout the world, and organised a number of training sessions on South-South climate cooperation.

A seminar on ‘Belt and Road’ Climate Finance 2019, hosted by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment and the United Nations Green Climate Fund, was held in September 2019 at the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development of Tsinghua University.

Nearly 30 developing nations and countries along the ‘Belt and Road’ sent representatives, specialists and technicians in the field of climate change to Tsinghua for training to improve the climate finance abilities of developing countries.

The National Higher Education Smart Education Platform of China has a focus on carbon neutrality and the online course “Green Building and Sustainable Development” offered by Tsinghua University has been continually updated.

Promoting sustainability on campus and beyond

Higher education institutions need to have the courage to assume their proper responsibilities, further update their thinking, improve their systems, coordinate their planning, strengthen mutual cooperation and exchange between domestic and international universities, and make every effort to build a sustainable campus in order to implement sustainable development strategies and build a resource saving and environmentally friendly society.

We can see this reflected in Tongji University’s decision to sign up to the Climate Emergency initiative created by the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges, Second Nature and the United Nations Environment Programme’s Youth Education Alliance.

Moreover, Zhejiang University has established the Ecological Civilisation Programme, which is supported by the Ecological Civilisation Research Institute. This programme has made major advancements in cutting-edge fields such as renewable energy research and development, environmental and ecological preservation and restoration.

The theoretical, technological, institutional, educational and cultural support systems for the development of ecological civilisation are the main areas of study for Zhejiang University’s Ecological Civilisation Programme, and produce significant advances in a variety of areas.

These include collaborative environmental pollution remediation, environmental and ecological protection and restoration, clean energy research and development, ecological and environmental big data and intelligence analysis, ecological innovation and cultural communication.

Zhejiang University has also aligned with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, developed the sustainable development action plan of Zhejiang University – A Global ZJU for Social Good (Z4G) – and launched the first global initiative on sustainable development by a Chinese university.

This initiative drew positive replies from 56 universities across six continents and 30 countries and regions, including Harvard University, Yale University, University College London, the University of Sydney and the University of Toronto.

Global ZJU for Social Good is a sustainable development strategy centred on talent development, cutting-edge research and green campus developments.

Obstacles to success

In order to participate in global climate governance, however, China’s top universities face significant obstacles.

First, on a social level, its colleges and universities still do not have policies to support their efforts to address the global climate crisis, and their systems for developing talent are not tied to societal needs. Second, at the educational level, ‘dual carbon’ talent cultivation in colleges and universities needs to be enhanced.

Furthermore, global climate governance and sustainable development curricula in colleges and universities are too broad and not strongly focused, with an emphasis on theory rather than practice.

For instance, there is a lack of connection between the development of ‘dual carbon’ talent in universities and the demands of business. This lack of connection between classroom instruction and real-world practice also results in ‘dual carbon’ talent development that is unable to fulfil business needs and poor talent mobility between universities and business.

Additionally, there is a shortage of knowledge and expertise in carbon neutral financial markets and capabilities.

Last but not least, at the individual level, there are not enough channels for higher education students to participate in global climate governance as well as a weak grasp of practice.

Shifei Duan is associate professor at UNESCO Research Center at Zhejiang University in China. Qian Wu is a masters degree candidate at UNESCO Research Center at Zhejiang University. Yue Kan is corresponding author, professor and director of the UNESCO Research Center at Zhejiang University.