Higher education institutions declare climate emergency

Networks representing more than 7,000 higher education institutions worldwide have agreed to go carbon-neutral by 2050, among other plans. Missing from the list of institutions that have signed the letter are some of Asia’s top universities.

climate emergency protest
A protest in Australia calls for an emergency response to the climate crisis. Image: Tavker / Flickr , CC BY-SA 2.0

Ever since 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg sat outside the Swedish parliament demanding that her government pay serious attention to climate change, the global youth movement of skipping school to push for environmental reforms has gathered pace.

A new plan by higher education institutions, however, could give students greater reason to attend classes.

More than 7,000 higher and further education institutions worldwide declared a climate emergency in a letter on July 10 and recognised “the need for a drastic societal shift to combat the growing threat of climate change”. 

They plan to increase the delivery of environmental and sustainability education in their courses and campus programmes, and go carbon-neutral by 2030, or 2050 at the latest. They also plan to mobilise more resources for “action-oriented climate change research” and skills development.

The letter, which comes ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept 23, was organised by The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC)—an association that promotes environmental sustainability in further and higher education institutions in the United Kingdom and Ireland—as well as United States-based climate action organisation Second Nature and UN Environment’s Youth and Education Alliance.

So far, 25 networks and 56 institutions including King’s College London, France’s Grenoble Ecole de Management, Dubai’s Zayed University and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia have signed the letter.

The participating networks—such as the China Green University Network (CGUN) and Asian Sustainable Campus Network (ASCN)—represent more than 7,000 higher and further education institutions, said UN Environment in a press statement.

The organisers expect more than 10,000 institutions to come on board by the end of the year.

Three Asian institutions among 56

Missing from the list of institutions are some of Asia’s top varsities, however.

Among the top universities in QS’s Asia Universities Rankings 2019 are Singapore’s National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University, the University of Hong Kong, and China’s Tsinghua, Peking and Fudan universities, for instance.

Only three institutions in Asia feature among the 56 that have signed the climate emergency letter: China’s Tongji University, India’s TERI School of Advanced Studies and Indonesia’s University of 17 Agustus 1945 (UNTAG) in Surabaya.

Tongji University offers a robust sustainability curriculum while TERI actively reaches out to its students to sensitise them to environmental issues and sustainable development through solutions-based approaches. TERI is also housed on a green campus in New Delhi, which uses architectural and innovative design to limit energy and water consumption.

Students want schools to teach—and take climate action

Schools around the world have come under increasing pressure from students who want them to act on the accelerating pace of global warming.

In Singapore, for instance, students have petitioned NUS to divest from fossil fuels.

Representatives from the student groups Fossil Free Yale-NUS and Students Taking Action for NUS to Divest met administrators earlier this year for discussions. An NUS spokesman told The Straits Times that it does not invest directly in fossil fuels, but has a “very small exposure” through investments held by fund managers.

“Young people around the world feel that schools, colleges and universities have been too slow to react to the crisis that is now bearing down on us. We welcome the news that they are declaring a climate emergency, we have no time to lose,” said Charlotte Bonner, a director for the global alliance Students Organising for Sustainability.

Bonner said the alliance will urge more schools to come on board and added: “Of course, the most important element is the action that follows.”

Some universities have taken steps to mitigate their carbon footprint and infuse sustainability in their curricula.

Kenya’s Strathmore University runs on clean energy and has its own 600-kilwatt photovoltaic grid tie system, according to UN Environment. The University of California in the United States has committed to carbon-neutrality by 2025 while others, such as the American University and Colgate University, have already achieved the goal.

The NUS unveiled its first net-zero building in January this year, while the Singapore Management University launched a new academic major on sustainability, the first to be introduced in Southeast Asia.

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