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Global education has major role to play in climate change crisis

Stakeholders in the global education community have spoken about the ways that the sector can become more sustainable, following the release of the IPCC report earlier this month. 

The largest contributors to higher education emissions are mobility, procurement of books, paper and office equipment, and direct energy use. Photo: pexels

"It can still work even if we're not getting on planes all the time"

The report, which was published by UN scientists, warned that the world will face increasingly extreme heatwaves, droughts and flooding. Crucially, it provided new estimates of the chances of crossing the global warming level of 1.5°C in the next decades. 

Scientists said that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.

Melissa Lee, founder and CEO of The GREEN Program said that higher education must “urgently” address issues such as mobility to help fight climate change. 

“We need seismic changes and bold decisions from leaders”

“The higher education industry has a responsibility and opportunity to play a positive role in the fight against climate change,” she said. 

“We need seismic changes and bold decisions from leaders to stop the devastating impacts of climate change, which is occurring faster than scientists anticipated.” 

Lee explained that typically, the largest contributors to higher education emissions are mobility (i.e. commuting staff, students, air travel), procurement (i.e. books for students, paper, office equipment) , and direct energy use (i.e. heating, electricity). 

She argued that from an internal office standpoint, these are considerations that must be addressed urgently in higher education.

“The IPCC report confirms that we are not moving fast enough. We cannot fight climate change alone, and we definitely cannot just put it on the shoulders of ‘future generations’ to figure out. We need all generations and sectors to play a role in creating change,” Lee said. 

“Clean mobility, carbon removal and offsetting, energy decarbonisation, decentralisation, and digitalisation, smart infrastructure, and regenerative food systems are a few of the spaces that are promising as we move forward into a chance for a sustainable future. 

“The global education community is stepping up and has a responsibility to play a critical role for our planet and future generations.”

Francis Glover, head of international recruitment at the University of Greenwich said that some of the shifts made during the last year and a half due to the pandemic, could play an important role in HE becoming more sustainable. 

“I think this year’s taught us a lot in terms of how far we’ve got to come as a sector in terms of digital engagement with students pre-arrival and how much of that human interaction is as necessary to be done face to face or how much it can be replicated virtually,” he said.  

“That’s something that obviously we’ve been forced into embracing but something which has been very useful for us as a sector to learn, that it can still work even if we’re not getting on planes all the time.”

Glover noted that universities have seen a massive reduction in flights, and said that institutions will likely maintain a level of reduction in flights compared to what they were doing before the pandemic.

“A continued shift towards transnational education will be important, but also embracing working in the online space and embracing teaching in the online environments and campuses we’ve spent so much in the last 18 months building,” he said. 

“It would be a shame to deconstruct those straight away, just as we are continuing to get better at delivering teaching in an online environment.”

Despite the dramatic changes to the sector caused by the pandemic and their potential benefits, there are still fundamental issues within global education that need to be addressed, according to Sirin Myles co-founder and managing director of The IC Global Partnership

“We have been trying to answer how we as a sector can manage the tension between our environmental sustainability and climate commitments and the desire to grow the global footprint and international student recruitment,” she said.  

“UK institutions’ targets for international student recruitment are ambitious”

“If you look at the UK national internationalisation strategy, we are aiming for growth in international student numbers. If you look at a number of UK institutions and their targets for international student recruitment, they are ambitious. 

“I mean, I’m yet to see or hear of a university that says they are not going to grow international student numbers.”

However, Myles noted that there has been an increase in discussion among leaders within the sector – and that this will ultimately help change practices. 

“I think what we have observed through the conversations that we are seeing and some of the pieces from colleagues who have international directors roles, within the last year or so, these colleagues are themselves starting to write pieces through LinkedIn, encouraging colleagues to think about sustainability,” she added.

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