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Universities as agents of change

Universities as agents of change

13 April, 2020

The first discussion in our Talking Climate series on 9 April focused on universities, with the aim of exploring how communities of students and tutors can pave the way towards carbon-free, resilient lifestyles. It’s a particularly topical question in the light of government planning to stimulate economies worldwide. In the face of unprecedented global pressure, state budgets have been restructured to help restart the economy following the pandemic. We must seize the opportunity for re-evaluation and focus on solutions that accelerate progress according to scenario 1 of the IPCC 1.5°C report. This scenario calculates with early and stringent greenhouse gas mitigation efforts in order to reduce pressure on the next generations and achieve the ultimate goal of the Paris Agreement, to keep global warming below 1.5°C.

There is scientific consensus that overshooting this target would have devastating consequences for our future — probably similarly to the current pandemic. This is why we believe that universities, as drivers of change, should be among the partners in decision making on the proper green and sustainable — but at the same time fair and just — economic restart. We may have no second chance this century: we will not be able to mobilise again the kind of funds that are currently being planned. This means it is crucial to build solutions that are not only science based but also supported and accepted by our communities. 

The three speakers — Bozena Ryszawska from the Wroclaw University of Economics, Poland; Marie-Claire Graf of the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, Switzerland; and David Chapman from the University of Warwick, UK — began the discussion by sharing best practices and past efforts in greening their universities. While sharing common goals, each university adopted different approaches and tools. The bottom-up actions focused not only on greening the university and reducing its carbon footprint, but also on bringing sustainability closer to society.

The recent challenges generated by the pandemic were also among the discussion topics. As Professor Ryszawska highlighted, we need to learn from the pandemic and understand better how different systems are interconnected — which is essential when talking about the climate crisis. This is where universities can drive narratives and propose alternative solutions. Marie-Claire Graf talked about the importance of adapting channels of communication and forms of activism to the current situation; while David Chapman described the unique opportunity that has emerged for communities to see, observe and respect nature and the environment in times of reduced pollution, and to regard this as normality for the future.

With an eye to the future, the speakers were in agreement that universities have a role in helping citizens to understand problems and challenges. Universities can reintegrate and mobilise society by translating science for the general public. The speakers also touched on the fact that students tend to be more progressive than the somewhat static structure of the universities. They have power to drive, to demand change, and to question “business-as-usual” approaches to education. Every university should follow the Paris Agreement at least in its research, but also in its campus strategy and governance. Students must stand up and demand such change through sustainability chapters, climate champions, open lectures, or other, similar initiatives.

The pandemic changed our world overnight. “The current situation proves that universities can change radically and rapidly when they have to, and we can use this as a reference when demanding change”, underlined Graf. In more advanced university environments, change takes place more organically, although even in these countries, students play an important role in driving change and building greater prospects for solutions. “Now that governments have proved that they are able to move mountains overnight against the invisible enemy COVID-19, we have every reason to demand the same effort to address the climate emergency”, claimed Chapman. “We cannot return to normal after all this. Universities are here to contribute to sweeping changes and to take the lead, demonstrating best practices and explaining solutions and their benefits to society”, he argued. “We must be leaders; we must be frontrunners and agents of change”, concluded Professor Ryszawska.