The messages from science are clear: The coming decade will be crucial in combating the climate crisis. Clearly, universities have a key role to play in addressing the challenges. Göran Finnveden and Fredrik Hörstedt discuss the Climate Framework, comprising Swedish universities, and why this initiative is unique.
The urgency of the climate crisis is becoming more and more evident. In order to be in line with the Paris agreement, carbon dioxide emissions must be halved at the global level over the coming decade, reach zero around the middle of the century and then move into the negative numbers. A recent report from the International Energy Agency describes how this is still possible for the energy sector. But action is required.
Higher education institutions have a critical role in combating the climate crisis. They educate citizens and future leaders, do research on possible ways to lower emissions and adapt to climate change, collaborate with society on these issues and work to reduce the sector’s own carbon footprint.
The usual ways universities create societal impact are, however, no longer enough. The students recruited now will only begin to have an impact by 2030 and research simply takes time. Universities must, therefore, use new ways of creating impact and share the responsibility of addressing the climate crisis. That can only be done by developing new ways of collaboration with society and by leading through example.
Many stakeholders, including students and staff, have made it clear that they expect universities to take a leading role in combating climate change and not only through research. This is seen as a question of credibility. Universities are expected to show that they take their own research about the importance of reducing emissions seriously and “walk the talk”.
As a response to these expectations, higher education institutions in Sweden created the Climate Framework. The university signatories consider climate change to be a crucial and priority issue and adhere to the following:
The Climate Framework, signed by the vice-chancellors of the signatory universities, also offers a guideline document that lists a number of key areas for climate impact from higher education institutions. Each institution can choose the areas it wants to focus on, depending on local circumstances. Each institution should, however, be prepared to address the issue in the context of education, research, collaboration, business travels and energy use, since they are considered central for all universities.
In total 37 of Sweden’s universities have signed this framework. There are many universities in the world that have committed themselves to becoming climate neutral. The unique aspect of the Climate Framework is that almost the whole sector in the country has made a shared commitment. In addition, the commitment includes allocating resources for this work.
The Climate Framework was developed as a bottom-up initiative with the Chalmers University of Technology and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology as the initiators. The process to develop the framework was collaborative and included discussions and workshops. These included the national network for environmental management at Swedish higher education institutions (MLUH) to identify key areas and measures. Participants also included representatives from the national Climate Students’ organisation. The idea that emerged was presented at a meeting with the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF), where most of the presidents of the Swedish universities were present. A draft was produced and sent for feedback to all higher education institutions, the Climate Students, the Student Unions in Sweden and SUHF. Based on the input received, the framework was revised. Finally, the vice-chancellors of each institution signed the framework.
Once in place, the signatory universities were set to develop their own climate strategies, targets and activities based on the commitment and the guidelines. An informal network was formed, and the Climate Framework has been on the agenda of the MLUH network for mutual learning. The Climate Students have conducted an annual survey of climate activities at Swedish universities. But it is also clear that the continued work with the Climate Framework could benefit from a more formal organisation. This is currently being developed in an assignment given by SUHF to strengthen the context of the climate efforts of higher education institutions and to increase synergies between them.
This will be completed in the autumn of 2021 and it will propose a Climate Network that will manage the Climate Framework and increase bottom-up collaboration, learning and information sharing between higher education institutions. The Climate Network’s activities will be based on the interests and needs of universities and will be consolidated in working groups on specific areas and issues. The goal is not to take over the responsibility of universities to reach climate undertakings, but to offer support in reaching them.
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