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Higher education: building a healthier, greener future

Published on 03 June 2020
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This year’s World Environment Day is like no other. On June 5 we will be coming together against a backdrop of a pandemic that keeps our world at a virtual standstill. To combat the parallel threats of COVID-19 and climate change, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has reminded us that "brave, visionary and collaborative leadership" will be necessary going forward. As we plan to build back better after the pandemic, higher education will have an important role to play in helping us re-imagine our relationship to the planet and keep responsible environmental stewardship high on our agenda.

The students, researchers, leaders and activists in higher education make universities powerhouses of innovation and strong mobilisers for local action. You don’t have to look far to witness the power of higher education: universities have been on the front line in the battle against COVID-19, from finding cures to producing protective gear. Our #HigherEdTogether campaign showcases some of these inspiring stories from across the Commonwealth.  

This capacity for innovation and influence is also invaluable in our fight against climate change. Universities have the tools and resources to identify the needs of diverse groups, analyse trends and produce locally relevant solutions. Their campuses are often early adopters of environmental practices, evidenced by the ambitious sustainability plans members have implemented across our network.

Amidst escalating calls for climate action, it’s easy to picture how higher education can produce the type of brave, visionary and collaborative leadership Secretary General Guterres described.

Enhancing the work of universities positively impacts their communities and countries, both through knowledge generation and the civic engagements of researchers, students and academic leaders. Meanwhile, increased support for thematic fellowships and placement opportunities help build the human capacities and partnerships needed to combat climate change.

Producing solutions to climate impacts 

Such efforts are already under way here at the ACU. The Climate Impacts Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement (CIRCLE) fellowship programme funded by DFID has enabled 97 talented African researchers to develop relevant local solutions to climate impacts. Deeply embedded in some of the world’s most biodiverse regions, their work reflects the concerns of vulnerable communities often neglected by existing policies.  We invite you to read about Dr Hannah Karuri’s work building the climate resilience of smallholder farmers in Kenya, and Dr Taiwo Hammed’s project which helped a local community turn waste into energy in Ibadan, Nigeria. Similarly inspired by her participation in CIRCLE, alumnus Dr. Mercy Derkyi established a dedicated Climate and Gender Centre at the University of Energy and Natural Resources in Ghana, where she continues to work closely with local communities.

Through CIRCLE, fellows have also delivered a series of external engagement activities that have collectively reached over 3000 industry, policy and community stakeholders across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Marine plastics research and innovation 

Meanwhile, the UK BEIS and Waitrose-funded Blue Charter Fellowships programme enables innovative researchers from across the Commonwealth to produce vital knowledge on marine plastics and forge strong international research collaborations. Using the skills and networks they built through the fellowship, Blue Charter fellows have gone on to create wider impact: alumnus Mr Rufino Varea of the University of South Pacific served as policy advisor to a national marine biodiversity protection taskforce in Fiji, while alumnus Dr Caula Clayton contributed to the establishment of a campus-greening initiative and a new environment-focused student programme at Jamaica’s Caribbean Maritime University. You can also read about the fellowship experience of Ms Nina Wootton, whose research contributed to the implementation of a plastics ban in Fiji. These are just a few examples of the incredible work our Fellows continue to undertake.

A network of universities for climate action

The ACU is also working to build global and regional communities of practice around climate and environmental action. With many Commonwealth countries on the frontline of climate change, the ACU’s Commonwealth Climate Resilience Network (CCRN) is working to build climate resilience within universities and their wider communities. Established in partnership with Fiji National University (FNU), the University of the South Pacific (USP) and the University of the West Indies (UWI), the network links universities directly affected by climate change with those that have expertise in building resilience.

Through the sharing of knowledge and best practice, the network of over 100 universities in more than 30 countries helps to directly address the practical needs of universities and communities, while providing a platform for universities to connect with policymakers and develop effective approaches to resilience and disaster preparedness. If you're actively engaged in research, teaching or climate resilience activities within your institution, we invite you to join the network  for opportunities to collaborate and share your knowledge with peers from across the Commonwealth.

The ACU is also pleased to be a partner in a new research project funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund. The “Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate” project is led by the Institute of Education at University College London and involves several ACU member institutions in exploring and enhancing the contribution of universities to addressing climate change in Fiji, Kenya and Mozambique.

Climate and resilience scholarship programme 

As of last week, applications for a Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarship (QECS)-funded course in climate resilience have also opened. We’re excited to announce that Fiji National University (FNU) will be hosting a distance learning, Interdisciplinary Master's in Climate Change Mitigation and Resilience. This programme is directed at students from the Caribbean region with an interest in climate change training that responds to the variable impact of climate change on the development challenges of the country, and the region, including aspects of culture and indigenous knowledge and practices. For a life-changing opportunity to study abroad and drive change, prospective applicants will need to apply by 9 July, 4pm (UTC +1).

The power of higher education

The achievements of our Fellows and networks and their vital contributions to society are a testament to the power of higher education in building a better world. As we re-imagine a safer, healthier and greener future on World Environment Day, let us also celebrate the growing ecosystem of universities committed to transformational change for people and planet.