Universities too slow to climate change

Universities too slow to climate change

16 Feb 2009

Carol AdamsProfessor Carol Adams
c.adams@latrobe.edu.au

An audio version (MP3 4.3MB) of this opinion piece read by Professor Carol Adams is also available.

While companies are starting to integrate environmental sustainability and climate change impacts into their strategic planning, decision making and product choices, many universities are producing graduates for yesterday’s world.  

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting (NGER) Act are focussing the minds of CFOs and accountants. For a long time CFOs were thought by their organisational colleagues to be hindering corporate sustainability initiatives. Now their minds are on the corporate carbon footprint as it begins to tread on the financial bottom line.  Greenhouse gas emissions are becoming a mainstream business issue in many sectors.

Reports from respectable agencies around the world are projecting a huge growth in ‘Green Collar’ jobs.  Helping universities prepare students for these jobs, would be a more productive way of boosting the economy than pouring money into ailing industries unwilling to lead the way by developing more environmentally friendly products or reducing their own carbon footprint.

As educators of future leaders, workers and parents, universities have a responsibility to respond to the impact climate change will have on students – in their chosen careers as well as their daily lives .  Climate change will affect the nature of the work done by scientists, health professionals, engineers, lawyers, business managers, accountants, tourism operators and social scientists alike.

Universities need to change the curriculum and equip students with the green knowledge and skills employers need.  It isn’t just a moral responsibility and it isn’t about enforcing values. It makes good business sense for universities to position themselves to fill a known market growth area, and it will make their graduates more effective.  The Government agrees that the scientific evidence supporting climate change is overwhelming.  It makes economic sense for Government to support and encourage university initiatives in response to the threats posed by climate change.  

In the UK and US there are green league tables with highly regarded institutions such as Cambridge, Harvard and Yale in the top groups on sustainability performance.  Australian universities are lagging behind in their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.  Many do not yet know their emissions, monitor their water use, have a green and socially responsible procurement policy or assess environmental risks. Few involve students in campus sustainability initiatives or have programmes equipping students for green collar jobs.

Much of our university infrastructure is old and in need of investment to increase its energy efficiency. New infrastructure projects funded by the government should be required to incorporate measures to reduce our carbon footprint.

These issues need to be systematically addressed if universities are to earn the credibility to address sustainability issues through their teaching and research. Some universities have made ‘green’ appointments and have established stand alone operational groups focussed on ‘sustainability’. They then find that they fail to embed change within the culture.  Change requires leadership from the top.  It requires each operational unit taking ownership of plans for change.  It requires green thinking and doing becoming part of everyone’s job.  Targets need to be set and performance measured and managed.

There are challenges for university research management and funding too.  Climate change is creating problems for organisations.  These problems and their solutions have a range of social as well as environmental impacts which need to be weighed up.  Where resources are limited and choices have to be made, devoting efforts to an environmental problem might mean a social issue is inadequately addressed.  To solve these problems, multi-disciplinary research teams are required.  We must ensure that resources flow to these multi-disciplinary teams and that our research structures facilitate their formation.  Traditional university structures need to adapt.

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