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A question of justice

Maddalaine Ansell explores how to achieve environmental sustainability in international education

Debates about climate change now recognise the need to consider its political, social and ethical as well as environmental implications.

The recent COP26 conference in Glasgow was no different, providing a focal point for discussions on how to base action on principles of climate justice. University leaders, staff and students have increasingly recognised the importance of this—and are uniquely placed to make a difference.

First, there is an obvious leadership role for universities in building and testing the evidence base for anthropogenic climate change to develop expert consensus that it is robust and can be trusted. They can also facilitate open and honest discussion among decision-makers about what action is likely to work and ensure that initiatives are rigorously monitored and evaluated.

Creative communication

Universities can also bring together academics who understand the evidence with artists who can communicate the scale of the challenge in a way that moves and motivates audiences beyond the academic sphere. At COP26, I met a young Mastercard scholarship winner from Africa who said: “If you want to influence my generation, do it through music.”

I also attended the first showing of Nine Earths, a film resulting from a collaboration between artist and director Mike Faulkner from the digital arts company D-Fuse, filmmakers around the world and climate scientists including Mark Maslin, professor of earth system science at University College London. It packed a powerful punch.

Equally importantly, universities can educate their students to be climate-literate and equip them with the knowledge, skills and behaviour to be adaptable and resilient in the face of climate change.

Almost 40 per cent of the UK’s 18-year-olds have been accepted into university this year. The University of Bath is including carbon literacy in its induction for all new students. If similar initiatives are introduced across higher education (and I believe in many places they have been), that’s a lot of young people equipped to make a difference.

Community action

Many students are passionate about climate change. This is, after all, the generation that engaged in climate strikes. So are many people who work at universities. I have occasionally served as a judge at the Green Gown Awards, which recognise exceptional sustainability efforts by universities and colleges, and I have been hugely impressed by the energy, commitment and passion of the staff who lead the shortlisted initiatives.

Universities are well placed to support staff and students in engaging at the grassroots and to provide places for their wider communities to come together to discuss community action. Working together to tackle climate change could lead universities to find new ways to engage with, and be relevant to, their communities.

Jonathan Grant, professor of public policy at King’s College London, suggests in his book The New Power University that Gen Z would like the fight against climate change and the search for more sustainable ways of living and working together to be not just part of the academic mission but at the heart of the social purpose of their universities.

Changing approaches

Even if universities do all this, they will still be open to justified criticism if they fail to get their own houses in order. Many are committed to doing so; over a thousand universities from across the world, including many famous names from the UK, have signed up to Race to Zero, a global initiative for a zero-carbon world, linked to the annual UN climate change conferences.

Many national and international groupings of universities are getting together to compare approaches. University estate managers are looking to see how they can make ageing buildings greener, use resources more efficiently and manage waste. Reducing travel, however, is a major challenge for a university that truly wants to be globally connected.

In this respect, by making travel difficult if not impossible, the pandemic has helped us to understand which activities can be done digitally—and that sometimes doing them digitally can mean doing them better. For example, students have appreciated the flexibility to watch lectures at the times that suit them and course materials being accessible electronically in one place.

Some universities have also managed to organise virtual international experiences with a surprising degree of success—and this has made those experiences available to students who would not have been able to travel for them.

Magic meetings

In the short term, the pandemic has had a profound impact on international research collaborations, bringing many projects to a halt and requiring researchers to adapt their approaches to collaborative working. But the rapid development of vaccines and antiviral drugs has demonstrated the extraordinary power of international collaboration—even when travel cannot happen—and in the longer term, this may be positive news for climate research. In both teaching and research, we need to maintain the spirit of experimentation and innovation that has developed over the past two years.

On the other hand, some activities are just not as effective when done over Zoom or MS Teams. We should not comprehensively deprive students of the benefits of immersing themselves in another culture and developing mastery of another language, which is a way of learning to see the world differently. Overcoming the challenges of living overseas for the first time builds resilience and problem-solving skills. The benefits are particularly strong for those students who have had few other opportunities to broaden their horizons.

Similarly, early career researchers should continue to be supported to build networks that will enable them to work with the best in the world and to conduct fieldwork in person. This will require physical mobility.

There is also a kind of magic that happens when people meet. Both as a civil servant and at the British Council, I’ve noticed that it’s often the conversations in the margins of formal events that lead to new ideas and new collaborations. Relationships matter and it’s hard to build them entirely online—although once built, some of the maintenance can be done virtually.

This isn’t an argument to exempt international education from the need to reduce carbon footprints. Travel should be seen as something precious and rationed accordingly. Rather, it’s a plea for climate justice within universities as well as in the wider debate. We should prioritise the activities that most need people to be together physically, and the people who would benefit the most from travel.

Maddalaine Ansell is director of education at the British Council. For information on how the British Council’s Climate Connection programme is supporting climate action, click here.