Session at Transforming Education Summit Highlights the Role of Higher Education for Climate Action

The session discussed mainstreaming climate education towards achieving net zero emissions.

On 17 September 2022, UNU-IAS organised a session at the Transforming Education Summit (TES) during the high-level week of the UN General Assembly in New York. Focusing on the role of universities in climate education and lifelong learning, the session explored how to bridge diverse sectors and stakeholders for a whole-society approach to mainstream climate education towards achieving net zero emissions by 2050. It was co-organised by UNU, the Ministry of Universities of Spain, the Ministry of Education of Bhutan, UNESCO, and the UNFCCC Secretariat.

In opening remarks, Xiaomeng Shen (Vice-Rector in Europe, UNU; Director, UNU-EHS) spoke about education systems geared toward job markets, highlighting the need to transform and transcend competition toward cooperation and societal solidarity.

Karma Galay (Officiating Secretary, Ministry of Education, Bhutan) discussed Bhutan’s pathway to becoming carbon negative, noting that environmental conservation had long been part of the country’s culture. Place-based learning and values are integrated into the school curriculum, and public awareness is promoted via non-formal education — all seen as necessary for the whole of society.

Stressing the urgent need for capacity development for climate action, Shinobu Yume Yamaguchi (Director, UNU-IAS) introduced the institute’s new postgraduate degree specialisation on the Paris Agreement, which is due to be launched in Autumn 2023. The programme will provide a transdisciplinary perspective to address all of the SDGs, and combine lectures and practicums.

Markus González Beilfuss (Undersecretary, Ministry of Universities, Spain) pointed out that governments should support universities in addressing global challenges and apply both theoretical and practical approaches. Youssef Nassef (Director, Adaptation Division, UNFCCC) emphasised the need for education to lead the transformation from extractive mindsets to sustainable ones, adding that long-term collaboration across the UN system and with other stakeholders was essential.

Introducing a collaborative air quality research project in Kenya, Philip Osano (Centre Director, Stockholm Environment Institute Africa) discussed ways in which communities could engage with policymakers to empower people and influence climate policy. Brittany Vermeulen (RCE Youth Coordinator, RCE Greater Western Sydney) shared her experiences with the Regional Centres of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development (RCE) Youth Platform, noting that its success had been due to placing youth in charge of designing and implementing projects with support of universities. She explained that for young people to become change agents, they needed to connect with each other in supportive environments. Melissa Brown Goodall (Senior Director, Environmental Innovations Initiative, University of Pennsylvania) noted that within universities, every single discipline should reflect the climate and nature imperative. She spoke about transformative trends in higher education such as more hands-on teaching and learning, and stressed that it was critical to include non-traditional voices for broader knowledge dissemination.

Discussion explored ways in which universities could engage in non-formal education. Prof. Yamaguchi shared the example of the Global RCE Network, which has been mobilising universities to work directly with communities in line with UNU’s focus on research for implementation. Dr Goodall discussed University of Pennsylvania online workshops aiming to bridge higher education with primary and secondary education, and integrate climate justice into all aspects of learning.

In closing, Maki Hayashikawa (Director, Education 2030, UNESCO) emphasised that universities must reach out to the public to bring society and higher education together and co-create a new environment for the future. In addition to teaching and research, higher education must address social challenges. She noted that although change might take a generation, a whole-society approach was essential to climate change education.