How universities and professions are preparing to meet the climate challenge


Shamit Saggar, University of Western Australia

Getting ahead of climate change challenges is now a pressing need across our economy and society. Last month the bosses of 22 of Australia’s largest firms, including BHP, Rio Tinto, Wesfarmers and Commonwealth Bank, put their names to the Climate Leaders Coalition. It signalled their collective wish to push down emissions and push up their international obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Australia’s politicians are increasingly on the back foot — something universities and professions cannot risk. The cockpit of the knowledge economy must remain fit for purpose in the face of global challenges.

The biggest of these of late has been marshalling expertise to tackle a global pandemic. Climate change is an even bigger challenge.




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Climate change is the most important mission for universities of the 21st century


Universities as knowledge communities take pride in leading discovery and understanding. The pressures to update and reform can come from beyond the academy, sometimes in response to perceived failure (think of economics and the GFC) or in meeting demand for new skills (the rapid expansion of business education in the past two decades).

Cover of The Preparedness Report

UWA Public Policy Institute, Author provided

The Preparedness Report, launched today by the UWA Public Policy Institute, argues disciplines, and the practitioners they educate and train, are already changing fast in response to climate change.

The report highlights the nature and extent of retooling in six fields: engineering, architecture, law, economics, healthcare and oceanography (the same is true for around 20 more disciplines).

Key questions for all professions

All professions need to find timely answers to some core questions:

  • What will be the practical impacts of climate change on the feasibility, processes, sustainability and operations of their professions?

  • How will future members of the professions need to be educated, trained and accredited?

  • How will the underlying disciplines change?

  • Which new fields of research and education will emerge?

  • How will different disciplines develop new cross-overs and synergies?

Many new skills and competencies will have to be taught. Think, for example, of the need to engineer heat-tolerant public transport systems and plan water-sensitive cities.

Fresh mechanisms are also needed to ensure the value of current expertise, such as actuaries’ capacity to model commercial and household risk for insurance purposes.




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Greater use of cross-disciplinary collaboration will be needed too — for example, in building design and construction.

How 6 disciplines are responding

Engineering is synonymous with industrial society so has much to reflect on in terms of repurposing. Engineers will have to recalibrate their earlier assumptions. As UWA environmental engineer Anas Ghadouani notes:

Consider the fact that the sectors at the top of the emissions pyramid, including transport, electricity production and manufacturing, contributed over 75% of emissions. These top emitting sectors have been flush with engineers and engineering companies.

For architects to be credible in this new environment, they must grasp that “our modern experience of globalisation is predicated on three phenomena with spatial and environmental consequences: mobility, dispersion and density”, says UWA’s School of Design dean, Kate Hislop. Thus:

Lowering CO₂ emissions involves regenerative design, adaptive reuse, life-cycle costing, carbon modelling, post-occupancy evaluation, waste minimisation and adoption of low embodied carbon materials and systems.

Academic law is heavily exposed, and its challenges, reports David Hodgkinson from UWA’s School of Law, boil down to the laws and regulations that can be introduced to reduce emissions and assist people, species and ecosystems vulnerable to climate change. It is a question of intergenerational justice. He concludes:

The main issue at stake is that if we agree to reduce emissions now, people living in the future will benefit, not those living today. But we will, today, bear the costs of reducing such emissions.

For economists, whose counsel has become embedded in part thanks to the landmark Stern Report, the greatest contribution has been in evaluating policy options that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their very strong consensus is that the key policy response is to place a price on greenhouse gas emissions. David Pannell, who leads UWA’s Centre for Environmental Economics and Policy, states:

There are differences of opinion about whether a tax or a market in permits would be superior [in reducing emissions], but there is almost no dissent among economists that one or the other of these is needed.

In the field of health care, the emphasis is on training health-care professionals. For Sajni Gudka, from UWA’s School of Population and Global Health, climate change amounts to a public health emergency:

Real capacity shortfalls are close by in responding to growing infectious diseases, heat stress, food insecurity, poor water quality and nutrition.

Finally, for oceanography the urgency lies in mitigating the effects of climate change in coastal zones. Julian Partridge and Charitha Pattiaratchi, of UWA’s Oceans Institute, say a breakthrough depends on a grand alliance of disciplinary perspectives:

Climate change challenges cannot be solved by engineers and scientists alone. They need alliances with social scientists, cultural heritage specialists and others to join this collective endeavour.




Read more:
This is how universities can lead climate action


Waiting for political action

The focus of the report is on the academic sector, related professions and the knowledge economy. But the preparedness question is also being asked of the political class and specific governments. As public attitudes become accustomed to environmental stewardship, heightened by the bushfire crisis last summer, voters are beginning to choose a direction of travel that was until recently dismissed.

In Western Australia, the government has just released its new Climate Change Policy, following several other states. Doctors for the Environment Australia is one of many campaigns that question the sagacity of short-term economic priorities.

How prepared is the country’s political class to use the advances made by universities and professions to address climate change?The Conversation

Shamit Saggar, Professor and Director, Public Policy institute, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This is how universities can lead climate action


Gabi Mocatta, University of Tasmania and Rob White, University of Tasmania

Universities are vital hubs of research and teaching on climate change. As large organisations, they also have significant emissions, which contribute to our climate crisis. Universities should therefore lead global action to limit climate change. How best can they do this?

It’s Global Climate Change Week. This annual event aims to encourage universities – staff and students – to engage with each other, their communities and policymakers on climate change action and solutions. As organising committee members and academics working on climate change, we explore here what leadership in university-based climate action looks like.

The reasons to act are obvious. In Paris in 2015, the international community agreed to pursue all possible measures to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. But current policies have us on track for an increase of about 3.6°C by 2100.




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Climate change is the most important mission for universities of the 21st century


The need to cut greenhouse gas emissions is urgent – the consequences of not doing so catastrophic.

What university climate action looks like

Universities are big consumers and emitters – some sectors more than others. Universities also have the autonomy to make decisions on sustainability and are increasingly doing so, individually and collectively.




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Many universities are basing their efforts on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability includes radically reducing carbon footprints.

Organisations like the International Universities Climate Alliance and Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability support such efforts. Campaigns like Race to Zero, Countdown and the Global Colleges and Universities Climate Letter provide forums for institutions to commit formally to reducing emissions.

Tasmania, a case study

And what does this climate action look like on the ground? We’ll start with our university, the University of Tasmania – the case we know best.

The university recently ranked third in the world in the Times Higher Education university rankings for climate action. The rankings measure research on climate change, energy use and climate change adaptation.

Our university punches above its weight, with many climate change research groups and more IPCC authors than any other Australian university. Researchers in social sciences, law, education and humanities are also influential in the study of climate change and its impacts.

The University of Tasmania has closely audited and reduced emissions and offset its remaining emissions. Certified carbon-neutral since 2016, it’s one of only two Australian universities to achieve this status (the other is Charles Sturt University).

Divesting from fossil fuels

Fossil fuel divestment is a process of transition with three elements:

  • negative screening – no new investments in fossil-fuel-related industries

  • positive screening – investment in renewable energy and ecologically sustainable industries

  • phased withdrawal of existing investments in fossil-fuel-related industries and activities.

To mark Global Climate Change Week, the University of Tasmania has just announced it aims to divest from any fossil-fuel-exposed investments by the end of 2021. The university already has no direct shareholdings in fossil fuel companies. Its investment strategy will include positive screening, investing in companies that are working towards a zero-carbon economy and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Many universities are making divestment the core of their climate action. In Australia, La Trobe started that trend in 2016.

Globally, one of the largest divestment pushes has come from the University of California Berkley. In 2019, it announced it would divest completely from fossil fuels in its US$126 billion investment portfolio and $70 billion pension fund.

Here in Australia, an ongoing campaign is pushing the 450,000-member higher education superannuation fund, UniSuper, to divest from fossil fuel investments.




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Generating power on campus

Some universities are generating their own renewable power.

For example, Deakin University has developed an industrial-scale microgrid: a 14.5 hectare solar energy farm with a 1 megawatt central battery. The project integrates rooftop solar panels and smaller batteries across the Waurn Ponds campus.

The University of Queensland has set up and maintains a A$125 million solar farm just outside Warwick to offset its annual electricity needs.

UQ now offsets 100% of its electricity use with renewable generation.



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Monash is investing A$135 million in its Net Zero initiative. Already partly solar-powered, the university has committed to carbon-neutral infrastructure and operations by 2030.

UNSW plans to expand its onsite solar generation and buy 100% renewable power for the remainder, reducing its emissions in line with keeping global warming under 1.5°C.

Universities can and must do more

Many universities have made a start, but they must be more ambitious as climate action leaders. All universities can and should take meaningful and visible action.

This Global Climate Change Week, students, staff, university communities, get informed. Urge your university to divest from fossil fuels, use renewable energy and commit to achieving net zero emissions – soon. Organise your own campus sustainability initiative, or get active in your university’s existing one.

Only by acting to understand and reduce their own climate impacts can universities be credible climate leaders. Their role as platforms for climate change research and engaged political commentary, as well as sustainable institutional practices, makes them global exemplars on climate action. In this, universities are essential to all of our futures.The Conversation

Gabi Mocatta, Lecturer in Communication, Deakin University, and Research Fellow in Climate Change Communication, Climate Futures Programme, University of Tasmania and Rob White, Professor of Criminology, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change is the most important mission for universities of the 21st century


Lauren Rickards, RMIT University and Tamson Pietsch, University of Technology Sydney

This essay is based on an episode of the UTS podcast series “The New Social Contract” that examines how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through this global pandemic.


Universities are confronting the possibility of profound sector-wide transformation due to the continuing effects of COVID-19. It is prompting much needed debate about what such transformation should look like and what kind of system is in the public interest.

This is now an urgent conversation. If universities want a say in what the future of higher education will look like, they will need to generate ideas quickly and in a way that attracts wide public support.

This will involve articulating their unique role as embedded, future-regarding, ethical generators of crucial knowledge and skills, well-equipped to handle coming contingencies and helping others do the same.

And this means higher education changes are entangled with another major force for transformation – climate change.

How can universities credibly claim to be preparing young people for their futures, or to be working with employers, if they do not take into account the kind of world they are helping to bring about?

A vital role in a climate changed world

Whether indexed by the continual climb in extreme heat and humidity, the melting of Arctic ice, the eruption of unprecedented mega-fire events or the rapid degradation of ecosystems and disruption of human settlements, climate change is here.

It is rapidly exacerbating environmental and social stress across the globe, as well as directly and indirectly impacting all institutions and areas of life. And worse still, global greenhouse gas concentrations are moving in exactly the opposite direction to what we need, with carbon emissions growing by 2.0% in 2019, the fastest growth for seven years.

Much-needed transitions towards low carbon and well-adapted systems are emerging. But they are too piecemeal and slow relative to what is needed to avoid large scale cascading and compounding impacts to our planet.

Universities, along with all other parts of our society, will feel the effects of climate change. The cost of the devastation at the Australian National University due to the summer’s fires and hailstorm, for instance, is estimated to be A$75 million dollars.

Failure to appropriately adapt to the increasing likelihood of such events threatens to undermine research of all sorts.

Whether due to climate impacts (such as the effects of sea level rise on coastal laboratories) or policy and market shifts away from carbon-intensive activities (such as coal powered energy), research investments face the risk of becoming stranded assets. Not only could expensive infrastructure and equipment be rendered redundant, but certain skills, capabilities and projects could too.

Universities are key to enabling Australian society to transition to a safer and lower emissions pathway. They are needed to provide the knowledge, skills and technologies for this positive transition. And they are also needed to foster the social dialogue and build the broad public mandate to get there.

This means old ideas of universities as isolated and values-free zones, and newer notions of them as cheap consultants to the private sector, fundamentally fail to fulfil the role universities now need to play.

They must become public good, mission-driven organisations devoted to rapidly progressing human understanding and action on the largest threat there has ever been, to what they are taken to represent and advance – human civilisation.


Subscribe to the New Social Contract podcast on your favourite podcast app: Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher


Universities must become more sustainable…

Inaction will erode the trust on which universities rely, especially among the key constituencies universities are meant to serve – young people and the private, community and public sectors.

Students, businesses, not-for-profit organisations and certain governments are already acting far more forcefully than universities, even as the latter claim to be intellectual leaders.

Who universities invest in, fund, partner with and teach, and how, will increasingly be judged through a climate change lens. All actors in the fossil fuel value chain – including insurance brokers and researchers – are coming under pressure to stop facilitating a form of production that enriches a few while endangering all.

Networks such as the International Universities Climate Alliance, the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate and Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability are pushing for change in and by the sector.

In 2019, three global university networks organised an open letter signed by more than 7,000 higher and further education institutions. It called for the sector to reduce emissions and invest in climate change research, teaching and outreach. Even more have signed the SDG (sustainable development goals) Accord’s climate emergency declaration, which calls for:

  • mobilising more resources for action-oriented climate change research and skills creation

  • committing to going carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050 at the very latest

  • increasing the delivery of environmental and sustainability education across curriculum, campus and community outreach programs.

Some universities are already starting to build aspects of climate change into their operations. Most prominent have been efforts to divest university finances from direct support of fossil fuels. While some institutions are still dragging their feet, the University of California has announced it will fully divest its US$126 billion endowment from fossil fuels.

Pressure is similarly growing for Unisuper to stop investing Australian university staff superannuation into corporations that endanger the very future staff are saving for.

University campuses are being refigured as sites of energy production and consumption. Strathmore University in Kenya and RMIT University in Australia are among those who produce their own renewable energy.

RMIT university produces its own renewable energy.
Shutterstock

Although few universities are working towards absolute reductions in emissions, or have appropriate climate adaptation plans, initiatives such as the Times Higher Education Impact Index are increasing interest in visible climate action.

… and they must change teaching and research

Teaching and research too must change. University students can choose programs and optional modules dedicated to climate change. But this isn’t enough. Climate change has to be integrated in all disciplines.

It is essential universities do not quarantine climate change as some kind of specialist topic. A recent analysis of management studies found a profound lack of engagement across the discipline with the implications of climate change.

As Cornell University’s Professor of Engineering Anthony Ingraffea argues, when it comes to educating the future generation, “doing the right thing on climate change should be baked into an engineer’s DNA”.

This means recognising the strong overlap between work that has instrumental value for climate change action and work that celebrates the intrinsic value of human understanding. The intellectual and social challenges presented by climate change are perhaps the greatest justification yet for why we need open-minded, open-ended exploration and dialogue of the sort universities can provide.

Universities produce the knowledge galvanising others to act. It is time for them to act too. It is time for all of us who work in or with universities to reappraise our institutions in light of the changes needed, the changes coming, and the changes already here.

This is the public mission of universities in the 21st century. And it is the most pressing mission there is.


The next article linked to the podcast will look at universities and the nation’s workforce.

Universities and climate was made by Impact Studios at the University of Technology, Sydney – an audio production house combining academic research and audio storytelling.The Conversation

Lauren Rickards, Associate Professor, Sustainability and Urban Planning, School of Global Urban and Social Studies; Co-leader, Climate Change and Resilience Research Program, Centre for Urban Studies, RMIT University and Tamson Pietsch, Associate Professor, Social & Political Sciences, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.