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9 November 2021

Climate, Environment and Sustainability: The Importance of Universities in Addressing the Climate Crisis


Professor Simon Kemp
Professorial Fellow in Education for Sustainable Development, University of Southampton

Professor Jim Longhurst
Professor of Environmental Science and Assistant Vice Chancellor: Environment & Sustainability, UWE Bristol

Glasgow, November 2021. How will this time and place be remembered? Will future generations look back, hold their heads in their hands and mutter “yet another wasted opportunity by the ‘procrastination generation’”? Or will they pinpoint this as the time everything changed, and the world’s leaders took the necessary transformational actions that reflected the compelling science? Hopefully the latter, and the world waits with bated breath.

You may be wondering how this all relates to the work of QAA.

QAA, like so much of the higher education sector, is committed to addressing the climate crisis and associated sustainability issues. Before the pandemic changed the world beyond all recognition, a group of experts from across UK academia, professional bodies and student organisations worked with QAA and Advance HE to jointly publish a new guidance document on Education for Sustainable Development in higher education.

The aim of the guidance is to support students from all academic disciplines to develop skills and values and take actions to transition society towards a sustainable future that addresses the climate crisis head on. The guidance gives advice and support on curriculum design, as well as teaching, learning and assessment approaches. The intention is to equally support staff and students to work together in addressing this most wicked of problems facing our collective futures.

The timing of the guidance’s development and release was not a coincidence. We are in a time of increased urgency to tackle the climate crisis and its interconnected development needs. As world leaders, NGOs, business and academics meet at the critical COP26 UN Climate Conference, the higher education sector has a key role in advancing the evidence around the need to address climate and all sustainable development issues. 

The need for political and business leaders to act on climate is based on scientific evidence driven by the global academic community. One only has to look at the lists of contributing authors of the latest United Nations Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report or any of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Reports to recognise the importance of the higher education sector in advancing our understanding of the climate crisis and the urgency for action. 

However, it is important to note that despite the hopes being pinned on COP26 for meaningful leadership, targets and action, the climate crisis is not going away. It is, and will continue to be, incumbent upon the academic community to ensure our students are equipped with the skills, competencies, academic knowledge and understanding of how they can play their part in the pursuit of an environmentally sensitive and socially responsible future. 

Curriculum materials, assessments, experiential learning and professional development opportunities should include content that reflects the urgency of the sustainability challenge, but in a way that remains true to the academic discipline. This is not an easy task. It will take time, along with a huge collective effort across the higher education sector when there are so many other enormous pressures we face as an academic community.   

The higher education sector includes some 160 universities, more than 2.3 million students and 429,000 staff. It has an annual expenditure of £37 billion. Just imagine what could be done if these resources were directed to support sustainable development. Sectoral teaching, informed by the new guidance, could create a generation of sustainability literate graduates; research output could support attainment of the 17 UN SDGs whilst purchasing power could drive positive change through influencing the behaviour of suppliers.

Tomorrow’s graduates will live through the climate crisis. According to Actuary Tables, a student leaving a UK university this year can expect to live at least another 60 years. How will their educational experience prepare them for the challenges that they will encounter in their professional and private lives? The next cohort of students will be much more concerned about the climate and ecological emergency. They will expect their institution to take the climate emergency seriously, to include carbon literacy and sustainability within the formal and informal curriculum, and to prepare them for the challenges they will face across their life course, professional and private, as they live through a changing climate.

We owe it to our current and future generations to do all we can to contribute to the greatest challenge we have faced. In summary, universities can play a powerful role in building a sustainable decarbonised society. They can:

  • use their role as thought leaders to help shape public opinion and build the case for urgent action
  • use their financial resources wisely to reduce indirect emissions
  • educate their students about sustainability and climate change
  • direct research to support attainment of the SDGs
  • research solutions for living in a changing climate
  • ensure that their campus is adapted for an adverse future climate
  • rapidly reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases
  • work with local stakeholders to jointly address local sustainability issues.
  • join the UN Race to Zero and sign the SDG Accord

If we do not ourselves show leadership through action, we can hardly criticise our political and business leaders if they fail to act on the climate crisis.

Professor Simon Kemp and Professor Jim Longhurst co-chaired the QAA/Advance HE Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Advisory Group. The Education for Sustainable Development Guidance is available for QAA Members on our Membership Resources Site. An Executive Summary is publicly available on the QAA website.