Transforming universities for a changing climate

Commonwealth staff and students gather around a sapling

Climate change is widely regarded as one of the biggest challenges of our time. Higher Education institutions across the Commonwealth are at the forefront of action on climate change, not only through carrying out research but also through teaching, public awareness and community engagement.

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

The project aims to strengthen the contribution of universities in tackling the causes and impacts of climate change in lower-income contexts. Through our role as the impact and knowledge exchange partner of Climate U, we will be facilitating exchange and dialogue between members of our Commonwealth Climate Resilience Network and the project.

The programme has the following central objectives:

  • To support local action on climate change in Brazil, Fiji, Kenya and Mozambique through the creation of participatory action research groups in universities
  • To assess existing coverage of climate change in the curricula, research and community engagement activities of universities in the four countries
  • To contribute to theory and understanding of the impact of higher education on climate change and sustainable development
  • To build and strengthen national, regional and global university networks and knowledge exchange on climate change

On 14 October the first webinar in the Climate U programme took place, presenting the findings of a new working paper and launching debate by asking what impact universities can and should have on climate change.

Professor Tristan McCowan from UCL outlined a framework for understanding the impact of universities involving four stages:

  • the modalities of university action (education, knowledge production, public engagement, service delivery and campus operations)
  • direct engagement with bridging actors
  • the broader influence on societal understandings and practices
  • impact on the ecosphere.

In response, Dr Fatima Denton, Director of United Nations University, Institute of Natural Resources in Africa, emphasised the need for universities to create transnational coalitions to level the playing field between the global north and global south in fighting against climate change, using knowledge as an equalising factor.

As well as being a ‘birthplace of knowledge’, Dr Fatima Denton described universities as ‘an instrument and an enabler’ of the kind of partnerships that are necessary to solve this global challenge, enabling the global north and the global south to come together productively.

The panel addressed how the impact of climate change is not evenly distributed, with emissions primarily responsible for global warming located in the wealthiest countries and the most negative impacts felt in poorest communities. It was also noted that no single group of universities either in the global North or global South can independently address the issues of climate change and that equitable partnerships would be crucial to achieve this.  Also emphasised was the need for a shift to co-creating and co-designing research and interventions to address climate change, in order to get the voices of those affected on board.

Producing local solutions to climate impacts

Such efforts are already underway here at the ACU. The Climate Impacts Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement (CIRCLE) fellowship programme, funded by FCDO, 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  how Dr Catherine Akinbami is helping agricultural communities in Nigeria respond to the impacts of climate change on their livelihoods.

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.


Join our network 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.

In addition, our new Commonwealth Climate Resilience Challenge Grants have now opened for applications. Aimed at academic and professional staff, the grants support collaborative work and initiatives addressing climate resilience, focused on either of the two main strategic priorities of the CCRN. The deadline for applications is 13 November 2020.

If you are 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.

Further reading

McCowan, Tristan (2020) The impact of universities on climate change: a theoretical framework. Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate, Working Paper Series No. 1

Images: CIRCLE alumnus Dr Catherine Akinbami working in Nigeria, training rural communities to develop climate-smart livelihoods.