The climate emergency demands deeper international partnerships

Networks such as Universitas 21 facilitate mutual support to meet net zero targets, say Tan Eng Chye and Anton Muscatelli

December 24, 2021
Climate protest
Source: Alamy/Getty/iStock

The climate change emergency is rapidly ushering in a new world order for universities.

While across the world we have seen responses from individuals, faculties and whole universities to the impending climate disaster, the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) further highlighted the peril we all face. 

The next decade will determine the future of the planet. Universities sit as foundational institutions in communities that look to them to show leadership. This is a time when they must step up for the people they serve. They must turn away from the competition model that has dominated for the past two decades and embrace collaboration in new ways, with directly deliverable outcomes.

Our own two universities are well advanced with commitments to reach net zero by 2030 and have extensive actions in place to meet that target. Our campuses are living laboratories experimenting with technologies to reduce carbon and waste. 

The National University of Singapore has projects that aim to reduce the temperature on campus by four degrees. These include 40,000 sensors to enable energy to be managed and a 10-year programme to plant 100,000 trees.

The University of Glasgow’s climate action plan includes new renewable energy generation technologies, reductions in unnecessary travel and an active search for climate change research partnerships.

We are advancing adaptive innovations, supported by green financing, that showcase to our own wider communities what has to be done to cut carbon emissions. We are also leading the way for our university peers. Through our Universitas 21 network of 27 research-intensive universities we will share our sustainable-estate expertise to accelerate the reduction in carbon emissions on campuses across the globe.

We are experimenting with new technologies, as well as advancing alternative technologies for use in a range of environments. We expect that in the immediate future we will find industry reaching into our institutions to apply these technologies more widely. The National University of Singapore is a model for university-industry connectedness, and we look forward to this level of intensive collaboration being replicated among our network.

We see in all this a return to the foundations of the university: bringing together communities of people – students and teachers – to solve the problems of the world. Climate change is a problem our students will live with into the future. Their commitment and passion are at the heart of practical and effective solutions.

Universities are embedding climate change in curricula across disciplines because, as we know, the impacts of temperature rises are as relevant to a biomedical student as they are to a humanities student.

The urgency of the climate change actions required must also be met by scale. Between them, Universitas 21 members have one million students and 200,000 faculty staff. This offers a powerful platform to coordinate and leverage actions already under way – and to look for opportunities to advance international research.

We don’t have all the answers, and we know that implementing climate change action plans is difficult. University leaders must work with more focus than they ever have before to shape plans and implement them at pace. Tough decisions have to be made. It takes bold vision and courage. We believe support for the courage required can be found among peers.

The Universitas 21 network’s 25-year journey towards large-scale international collaboration has been accelerated by the pandemic’s push to develop new online programmes for staff and students. Our Global Leadership Programme for potential university leaders and our Global Citizenship Programme are extremely popular, radically expanding the level of engagement previously achieved with face-to-face programmes. 

Covid-19 has also forced on us an intensity of purpose, a recommitment to internationalisation and a drive to identify ways we can support each other across our campuses and in our research and teaching. It is only through multiplying the efforts of us all that we can genuinely hope to meet our ambitious 2030 net zero emissions targets.

Tan Eng Chye is chair of Universitas 21 and president of the National University of Singapore. Sir Anton Muscatelli is principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, a Universitas 21 member.

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