The higher education sector has a critical role to play in the global fight to develop and implement sustainable practices. But beyond climate protection, what does this really involve?
As confirmed by NASA, 2020 officially shares the title with 2016 for the hottest year on record, reaching a global average temperature of 1.84 degrees Fahrenheit (1.02 degrees Celsius) warmer than the baseline 1951-1980 mean.
This is despite various reports that the pause in human activity during the coronavirus crisis had the potential to provide the environment with a much-needed respite.
While 2020 saw a temporary reduction in CO2 emissions and air pollution, scientists confirmed this will have a “negligible” effect on climate change in the long run, reiterating the urgent need to continue down the path towards sustainable living.
QS has consistently reported on the critical role that the higher education sector must play in climate action.
Institutions have a responsibility to run their organization in a sustainable fashion; making every effort to reduce their own impact on the planet through on-campus recycling, efficient infrastructure, and by promoting environmentally friendly habits among staff and students.
However, universities can contribute much more to climate action than by simply practicing sustainable habits.
Through curriculum and research, universities can educate and inspire the next generation of climate leaders; those who will create and implement climate change solutions.
However, according to a report by Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE), simply “adding a few courses on environmental issues and sustainability is not enough for a paradigm shift to happen.”
Instead, higher education institutions must accept the many dimensions to sustainability and reflect this in their curriculum and research.
This involves going beyond a “traditional focus on the sources of pollution and the various means to reduce it,” and instead equipping students from all disciplines with skills that can be utilized across industries to create a sustainable future.
For example, business education at universities must be adapted to center on sustainable management. This involves business students being taught to shift their perspective on success, listening to “calls to lessen pressure on resources, improve management of environmental risks, and increase the social equity of business practices.”
Sustainability is also a key driver of innovation and economic modernization, as well as having a significant impact on society.
Given that universities have a role to play in educating and inspiring the next generation of world leaders and decision makers, those with the power to develop national and international policies, sustainability must take a more prominent position across all academic fields.
As summarized by Sabina Wölkner, in order to make real progress, the collective definition of sustainability must shift from “climate protection” to “a sound vision that unites ecological sustainability, economic performance, and social justice.”
By accepting a more holistic definition of sustainability, beyond what Wölkner calls the “apocalyptic global warming rhetoric,” it becomes clear just how influential higher education institutions can be to the journey towards global sustainability.
As summarized by the IMHE report, “every area of life is going to have to change if sustainability is to come about and, therefore, every discipline has to be involved in the process of moving to a more sustainable future.”
By failing to acknowledge a more comprehensive definition of sustainability, higher education institutions ignore the power they possess to positively influence global efforts.
For further discussion on higher education’s role in sustainable development, please register for the virtual QS MAPLE conference and exhibition on the 23-25 March, 2021. The event will focus on the theme of ‘The Future Today: Sustainable Growth Towards 2030’.