Energy and climate education still missing in Southeast Asian universities

University curriculum in Southeast Asian varsities generally creates silos between energy and climate. Imparting energy-climate knowledge to our youth is integral to transforming the present state into a low-carbon future.

The National University of Singapore School of Design & Environment's new Net Zero Energy Building in Kent Ridge
The first net-zero energy building on National University of Singapore's Kent Ridge campus is located within the School of Design & Environment, and was designed in collaboration with Transsolar. Image: SDE News

This article was inspired by one of the interns working at the ASEAN Centre for Energy (ACE). I asked, “What is your expected takeaway from your internship?”

“Many of my friends are aware of the zero-carbon future, but few understand its different dimensions and nuances. Something my team and I at Young Sustainable Impact Southeast Asia are working on is to explore the different facets of energy transition and find ways to make the complex topic more accessible to youths. Getting the ASEAN perspective in will be of incredible value,” wrote Gao Yiming, a fourth year engineering student at the National University of Singapore. 

The initiative of the youths to set up such a social enterprise to address sustainability is impressive and also implies that accessibility to energy-climate education is deemed necessary in this region.

Since the dawn of the new millennium, climate change is no stranger in making the headlines. It is something that will increasing affect all youths in the duration of their lifetimes. And with energy-related emissions making up a staggering 73 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions, the energy transition lies in the heart of global effort to curb climate change.

However, do youth pay attention to such information? Do they appreciate its importance? Do they pay attention to this energy-climate nexus? Do they feel the transboundary effects of climate change?

About 25 per cent of 642 million people in Southeast Asia are youth ranging from 15 to 29 years old. They are high school students planning for their tertiary education, they are universities students, they are postgraduate students, and they are also at the early stage of their careers. They are at the critical stages of their youth, where they are fueled with curiosity, and are open to exploring opportunities for their career directions. 

Education institutions such as universities play a vital role in providing knowledge and shaping the transdisciplinary paradigm of sustainability. The roles of education in pursuing sustainability have been clearly recognised by the United Nations— during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, and Article 12 of the Paris Agreement.

We need to have an education system which can build the capacity of youth for future-oriented thinking. Education should inspire the belief that we have the power and the responsibility to create positive change not only on a local, but also regional or a global scale.

Nonetheless, taking education as one of the critical enablers for climate change mitigation first requires an integral education structure. For instance, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) related undergraduate programmes provides certain foundations to future careers in energy industries. The traditional curriculum of STEM programmes usually consist of hard science courses blended with business related or environmental related subjects.

However, energy-climate related subjects are not commonly taught as part of the core courses and they either fall under the elective courses or not even exist. Different universities may have different curriculums, unfortunately this has been a common gap across the universities in Southeast Asia.

For example, even though “Environmental Issues in a Changing World” is one of the core courses of the Bachelor Engineering in Environmental programme at Nanyang Technology University (NTU), Singapore, which the contents consist of both energy and climate change, it is not a core course for other engineering programmes.

With the knowledge of energy-climate nexus, the future generation will be able to appreciate the value of clean energy in deciding the future energy mix.

On the other hand, the World No. 1 university in engineering and technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers an undergraduate programme under the MIT Energy Initiative—Energy Studies Minor has a completely different curriculum design, in which the core courses including subjects related to energy science, technologies, social science, economics that sustainability is blended into some of these courses; whereas the typical core courses of engineering programme such as thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, material science, etc. are fall under the restricted elective courses.

Such programme will produce sustainability-minded graduates and hence securing a future with more sustainable energy system development.     

Natural and physical sciences (hard science) provide the knowledge on how the low-carbon energy system works; while social sciences (soft science) provide the knowledge on how the policies and human behaviours can drive the transition into a low-carbon society. 

The present curriculums may have certain integration of hard and soft sciences, however the missing piece is the knowledge on the basics of climate change, energy-climate challenges, energy and climate policy as well as the international cooperation for climate change. These subjects need to be imbedded into the core courses of STEM programmes.

Decarbonisation requires competent skilled professionals for technologies deployment. The traditional curriculums may be able to prepare graduates to be on the ground engineers in the field of green technologies, however energy transition demands for energy-climate minded engineers who can offer climate change mitigation options, more than just an energy technology solution.

For instance, in Southeast Asia, coal remains the dominant energy source in the power sector. With the knowledge of energy-climate nexus, the future generation will be able to appreciate the value of clean energy in deciding the future energy mix, by taking into account the price to be paid for the loss and damage associated with climate change impacts.

Such knowledge gap needs to be addressed and universities can play a vital role as the primary agent of enhancing the youth’s capacities to transform the decarbonisation vision for the society into the reality.

To alter the famous quote from the late Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which youth can use to change the world”. Youths are the future leaders of our world, the future decision-makers who will shape and evolve our future into a climate-friendly reality. Therefore youths in STEM need holistic knowledge to be the game changers for climate change mitigation options in meeting the Paris Agreement’s objectives.

Global warming is likely to reach a temperature rise of 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. Future climate-related risks for natural and human systems are unavoidable even though global warming gradually stabilises at 1.5°C.

More worrying is the fact that if we exceed 1.5°C and reach the peak of near to 2oC before returning to 1.5°C by 2100, some impacts may be long-lasting or irreversible, such as the loss of some ecosystems.

Reaching the 1.5oC of warming can be as soon as the next decade or another 33 years later. Taking the average life expectancy of ASEAN as 71 years old, anyone 38 years old and below can expect to experience climate-related risk in their lifetime. In the ASEAN region, countries like Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are at relatively higher risk.

The younger you are, the greater possibility you would be at such risk. Hey youths, how old are you?

Gao Yiming is a student at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Hoyyen Chan is a senior research analyst at the ASEAN Climate Change and Energy Project (ACCEPT).

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