Universities Climate Network drives engagement with COP28

With the global climate summit COP28 on the horizon, 33 national and international higher education institutions based in the United Arab Emirates forged a Universities Climate Network to “drive engagement among youth and academia”. So successful has it been that the network will live on – and hopefully expand – afterwards.

“This cannot stop. COP28 is just the beginning. It’s a pivot point from which we need to move on and continue working together, said Professor Mariët Westermann, vice-chancellor of New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi and first chair of the network.

“So, post-COP28, we have to stay on it, together. Universities often feel that they’re competing with each other, and to some degree they do. But we all know that higher education, climate change or not, has plenty of challenges. We need to band together and ‘lift all the boats’ in this way,” she told University World News.

The Universities Climate Network has been very busy with knowledge sharing, climate action events and youth engagement around the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is being held from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in Dubai. COP28 in UAE bills itself as “a milestone moment when the world will take stock of its progress on the Paris Agreement”.

The Universities Climate Network

Universities in Britain worked together to create the COP26, said Westermann. “It seemed like a really good idea, especially because we, as universities, are hosts to young people – the young people who are extremely engaged on climate change, who will be the most badly affected generation to date by the issue and whom we are leaving to solve it for the future.”

The idea of a climate network began in October 2022, when Westermann gathered together a dozen academic leaders. “We started with about 12 universities and colleges. The network took shape as teams within the universities worked on it together. We grew rapidly, to 33 institutions today.”

NYU Abu Dhabi does a lot of work on climate and sustainability, as do other universities in the UAE. “It was important to bring them all together so that we could consolidate the work that we do on climate and also begin to make contributions to the thinking around COP28.”

Universities and other climate-involved organisations take part in activities in the Green Zone of COP summits. They do not contribute directly to the formal negotiations – that happens in the Blue Zone – although there are academics supporting and advising negotiators.

In February this year, NYU Abu Dhabi signed a memorandum of understanding with COP28 and its Director General Majid Al Suwaidi, a seasoned UAE ambassador who was the UAE’s lead negotiator on climate change, energy and sustainability, and played a key role in the negotiation of the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The Universities Climate Network focuses on three key areas: knowledge sharing activities in the Green Zone and beyond, public events focused on climate action, and enhanced youth engagement. For the COP28 presidency and directorate, the network provides a streamlined way to collaborate with higher education.

Andrew Mackenzie, head of the Institute of Sustainable Development at Middlesex University Dubai, told University World News the network came together very quickly.

“In such a short time the collaboration between universities in the region who have a focus on sustainability, climate mitigation, biodiversity and environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy and development has been formidable.

“The realisation of the number of people and incubators – such as the Institute of Sustainable Development – working to promote the Sustainable Development Goals, reduce carbon footprints and build positive environmental outcomes, has been inspiring.

“We have already witnessed many network events, such as the Climate Action Taskforce, student solutions competitions and hackathons, climate mitigation roundtables, and ESG strategy developments.” At a series of network talks in April, universities discussed a range of issues: climate diplomacy, the hydrogen economy, urban modernity and the contemporary Gulf, how to make smart cities, and why COP28 UAE matters.

“Billed as the ‘Solutions COP’, this demonstrates the importance of academia in driving student awareness, sustainability research, and collaboration with government departments and corporate businesses. This is vital to society making a difference in the race to net zero and ESG goals,” Mackenzie said.

Pillars of the network

The network is built on four pillars that help universities to make contributions to COP28.

“First, we are a core youth engagement platform for COP28. We mobilise students from across the UAE and the world. Many of them are Emirati nationals. Others are nationals of other countries who grew up here. But many thousands of students come from other countries,” said Westermann – around 150 countries.

The second pillar is research and innovation. There are many universities in the UAE that have outstanding laboratories and centres on climate research. The network is helping to disseminate and analyse the sector’s climate research.

“We’re making recommendations directly to the COP28 organisation about what to showcase, what to talk about, what young people want to talk about, what our scientists want to talk about, and sharing all of this in panels that have been going on through the year. So, government, industry and universities are all learning and getting access to this research and innovation platform,” she said.

The third pillar is communal activations. “This is showing the unique role that an academic community can play in citizen science, in public engagement on climate change, and activities that entire families and schools can get involved in,” Westermann added. Universities have been stepping up community engagement and the network is helping to coordinate this work.

The fourth, very important pillar, is decarbonisation of universities themselves. NYU Abu Dhabi published its own Climate Action Plan, long in the making and launched in September 2023.

Students and COP28

Around the world, students are heavily involved in climate action and sustainability initiatives. The global climate summit has a junior version, now in its 18th year. It is called the Conference of Youth. COY18 will be held in Dubai for several days in the run-up to COP28.

The three co-hosts of COY18 are the Green House at NYU Abu Dhabi – a student interest group at the university that is highly active – along with the American University of Sharjah and the Arab Youth Center in Dubai.

“They are bringing together hundreds of young people from around the world, and especially from our own universities, to discuss and debate, to develop and exchange knowledge, and to agree on particular activations,” Westermann told University World News.

Even closer to COP28, overlapping with the first day, NYU Abu Dhabi will host the world’s largest youth event focused on the energy transition, organised entirely by student leaders. There will be between 600 and 700 students from some 85 countries.

The Student Energy Summit 2023 will debate issues such as where renewable energies are going to come from. “It’s interesting to do that in the UAE. This is a hydrocarbon economy in origin, but it is investing massively in renewables, and in the energy transition. That’s a big focus of COP28.”

However, Westermann said, it does not take COP28 to spark students into action on climate. “Our students are always engaging, always making us sign cool food pledges and helping us to be accountable for what we are doing at our universities in the network. They are major informants on climate action plans. That’s a very exciting part of what we’re doing.”

Climate-focused NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is a smaller campus of the giant New York University, with more than 2,000 undergraduates and 130 postgraduates. There some 360 faculty, and because of the smaller size, they work together easily. “So there’s a lot of cross-cutting work.”

When Westermann became vice-chancellor in 2019, she saw strong research related to climate, which connected well to teaching. There was also good activity around climate change in student organisations. Plus, the university had strong environmental programmes.

“But there was no single driver.” So, she hired a first director of environmental sustainability and stewardship, accountable to the vice-chancellor’s office: Antonios Vouloudis, a Greek environmental engineer. “He is a renewable Energizer Bunny. He’s been fantastic,” she said.

NYU Abu Dhabi now has the ambitious goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Its Climate Action Plan, the carbon neutrality goal and UAE’s Net Zero by 2050 strategy, have set rigorous sustainability and climate mitigation measures in motion.

The university, for instance, in one single semester reduced paper from 6.5 million pages to 2.9 million in four months. It got rid of plastic, improved water filtration systems and managed food waste. It has looked at vendor supply and applies renewables and reusables to everything it can.

Regarding teaching and learning, said Westermann: “Sustainability and stewardship are infused throughout our curriculum in different ways. Not every course is about it, but almost every course touches on it.

“Our core curriculum is truly magical. This year, of the some 100 core, non-major courses we offer, 38 of them are tagged for sustainability and stewardship, including my own course on Gardens of Eden, which is about sustainable landscape in the region.” The vice-chancellor is a professor of fine arts.

Research is carried out in some 80 laboratories and centres, many of them engaged with climate. “Our research centres on the environment are directly tied to the challenges of the Gulf and Middle East and North Africa [MENA] region environments, as well as South Asia and East Africa. The environment doesn’t observe borders, and we don’t either. The research is exciting.”

Westermann said ground-breaking climate research by universities in the Gulf is a good example of why the world needs to take heed of research in regions other than the Global North and the West.

The network will live on

The network has succeeded beyond expectations. “We really galvanised ourselves,” Westermann told University World News. “Now we are in the habit of bringing each other’s research communities into each other’s conferences and panels and symposiums. It’s natural.

“We are determined to keep the network together. I’m also hoping that, because we all have ties to other universities in the Gulf and in the MENA region, we can expand the network – especially at the time of COP28 and through our other channels – and even hook into world conversations.

There is a lot of interesting university activity in the Middle East and North Africa, Westermann concludes. “The network has a good, focused agenda – and it carries across all the disciplines and practices too. We must keep that focus. Climate change is the most existential problem we face.”

* The participants in the Universities Climate Network include: Abu Dhabi Polytechnic, Abu Dhabi University, Ajman University, Al Ain University, American University in Dubai, American University in the Emirates, American University of Ras Al Khaimah, American University of Sharjah, Amity University Dubai, Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, Canadian University Dubai, De Montfort University Dubai, Emirates College for Advanced Education, Heriot-Watt University Dubai, Gulf Medical University, Higher Colleges of Technology, Khalifa University, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Middlesex University Dubai, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, Mohammed Bin Zayed University for Humanities, National Defence College, NYU Abu Dhabi, Rabdan Academy, Sorbonne University, SP Jain School of Global Management, University of Sharjah, UAE University, University of Birmingham Dubai, University of Dubai, University of Wollongong in Dubai, Westford University College and Zayed University.