Higher education: central to society’s response to climate change

Tristan Mccowan Photo
Prof Tristan McCowan

Professor of International Education, University College London, principal investigator for the Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate project and Higher Education and the SDGs Network member.

Over the past fortnight, world leaders, scientists and environmental activists have congregated in Glasgow to attend the Conference of the Parties (COP26) and debate global progress on climate change.

Buy-in from all nations over the issue of climate change is essential; there is little point in countries reducing the carbon footprint of their own industry while continuing to purchase carbon-intensive goods from elsewhere. It is truly a global challenge, one that will only be overcome if economic competition can be set aside in favour of cooperation.

The higher education sector is central to society’s response to climate change, conducting basic scientific research, producing innovative technologies, educating citizens, training professionals and engaging in public awareness-raising. Yet universities, like nations, have been pulled into a national and global competition that can stifle their sustainability work. Rankings can help institutions benchmark, but too often they promote elite excellence at the expense of inclusivity, environmental regeneration and the public good.

Fortunately, universities are ideally placed for global cooperation and partnerships. Early higher education institutions, functioning over the past two millennia in different parts of the globe, served as hubs for scholars from different regions, cultures and language groups. Science and scholarship in all disciplinary areas have blossomed from these interactions. As a higher education community, we need to nurture these international and cross-cultural relationships and address the barriers to meaningful, horizontal partnerships.

International associations like the ACU have a vital role to play in forging a dialogue between universities in regions across the globe, allowing them to share experiences, work collaboratively on projects and build alliances for change. Together with other international networks, efforts are needed to ensure that the global environment for higher education is conducive to these forms of cooperation. Addressing the climate crisis is within humanity’s reach, but only if we pool our ingenuity and energy towards a common end.

More information

  • #UnisForOurPlanet: Join our campaign to show how universities – and the people within them – are spearheading critical solutions and efforts to tackle climate change
  • 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.
  • The Higher Education and the SDGs Network is a forum for all university staff and students at ACU member universities who are directly engaging in the Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs) agenda.