Sweden’s climate framework will boost universities’ credibility

Almost all higher education institutions in the country have signed a document committing to combating the climate crisis, says Göran Finnveden

October 30, 2020
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The main message from the young climate strikers and the Fridays for Future movement has been: “Listen to the science!” For us in academia, this is a fantastic message. But it is also a responsibility. For our credibility and our reputation, both as a sector and as individual institutions, we must accept this responsibility.

Many stakeholders, including students and staff, have made it clear that they expect universities to take a leading role in combating climate change, and not only through research. This is seen as a question of credibility. We are expected to show that we take our own research about the importance of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases seriously – that we “walk the talk”.

Universities have critical roles in combating the climate crisis. We must educate citizens and future leaders, undertake research on possible ways to reduce and adapt to climate change, collaborate with society on these issues and reduce our own footprint.

However, our usual ways of creating societal impact are no longer enough. To be on track for the commitments made in the Paris Agreement, global emissions must roughly be halved by 2030 and then continue to decrease. This requires significant changes during the coming decade, and these changes must happen faster than the timelines of most strategies or long-term research within universities.

We must, therefore, devise new ways of creating impact related to the climate crisis. We can do that by establishing new methods of collaboration with society and leading by example.

As a response to these expectations from stakeholders, higher education institutions in Sweden have created a climate framework, which includes the following goals:

  • through education, research and external engagement, to help society as a whole to achieve set targets
  • work to reduce our own climate impact in line with society’s commitment as expressed in national and international agreements
  • based on our institution-specific conditions, set up far-reaching targets for climate-related work and also allocate resources so that we can achieve these targets and conduct follow-ups
  • clearly communicate our climate-related work in order to inspire and spread knowledge to other organisations and members of society.

The climate framework includes a guideline document that lists a number of key areas of climate impact from institutions. Each institution can choose the areas they want to focus on depending on their local circumstances, but all should be prepared to work on their core activities of education, research, collaboration, business travel and energy use.

There are many universities in the world that have committed to becoming climate-neutral, but the unique aspect of the climate framework is that almost the whole sector of a country has made this commitment, and it includes a pledge to allocate resources to this activity. Thirty-seven higher education institutions in Sweden have signed the framework.

At KTH, we have developed climate objectives in a number of areas, including education, research, business travel and campus activities, while we have developed targets for the years 2022, 2025, 2030, 2040 and 2045 – the last is the date by which Sweden has committed to be climate-neutral. These objectives have now been implemented, and we are using our certified environmental management system as a tool. It is, however, clear that we cannot reach our targets alone. We need to work together with other universities and other partners.

By developing and signing the climate framework, and then setting targets and implementing the commitments, we believe that we are showing students, staff and other stakeholders that we are shouldering our responsibility for the climate crisis. In this way, we are strengthening our role in addressing the climate crisis, as well as other societal challenges, and building the credibility and the reputation of our university and the sector.

Göran Finnveden is professor of environmental strategic analysis and vice-president for sustainable development at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.


Print headline: Green expectations

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