A war metaphor to describe the Covid-19 pandemic response was easy enough to appreciate. Universities throughout the world, along with other key sectors of society, “pivoted” rapidly to address the crisis or even to explore the opportunities it engendered. In contrast, I see our collective response to the climate crisis and the interlinked broader sustainability crises, as slow, muted, and ineffective.
Universities, along with other key sectors of society, are proceeding largely “business-as-usual,” apathetically ignoring a litany of SDG failures along the way. The Paris Agreement set the long-term goal of limiting global post-industrial warming to 1.5oC, or else climate-related risks for natural and human systems are going to increase dramatically (IPCC). In the past year, the average global temperature reached 1.1oC above the pre-industrial baseline, and the World Meteorological Organization now predicts a 50% chance that 1.5oC will be breached by the middle of the present decade.
There is thus broad consensus that a global human and ecological catastrophe could precipitate in just a handful of years, critically exacerbating sustainability challenges including water scarcity, hunger, health, poverty, economic growth, life on land and water, energy security and sustainable communities. I believe that our world is in a state of crisis that imperils all of humanity, and universities throughout the world must act.
Times Higher Education 26 Red Lion Square London, WC1R 4HQ
Our required response to the present crisis must be of a scale and sense of urgency akin to how we must respond to major world wars. Our universities must cease to be exemplars of unsustainable practices and we must become the transformative enablers of sustainability for others. Our students and our partners in government, civic groups and private sector take their cue from our community, not just based on what we teach, but more so on what we do. This is an enormous responsibility for us to assume and a unique opportunity for us to demonstrate our calling as enablers of change. The ball is in our court, and it is useful to ask ourselves how our actions in this moment of crisis will be remembered by our grandchildren.
So, what can we do? My actions, as president of KAUST, have been to commit my university to a net zero carbon emission, a zero waste and a zero-wastewater strategy. I am hosting the Global Sustainable Development Congress, a major international sustainability congress, in partnership with Times Higher Education to discuss how universities must respond to the climate and sustainability crisis of today. We will explore these challenges using the following framework:
Sustainability crisis of our time: Opening plenary
Higher education at a time of global crisis
Sustainability research, innovation, and action
Supportive policies, collaboration, and governance
Actions at scale beyond the university walls
Call to action: Closing plenary
We will tackle each of the above themes along four tracks: Health and demography; sustainable energy and industry; sustainable environment; and sustainable cities and communities.
This three-day event will deliver an immersive, multi-track agenda, with over 1,000 global thought leaders, investors and influencers sharing their insights on the challenges faced in converting the goals into action and impact, recognising the urgent need for universities to be radical, rapid and operating at a greater scale to reflect the urgency of this time of crisis. Talk is cheap, and I expect all participants to come to the congress with a sense of urgency and to be willing to act on and enable much-needed change.
I look forward to welcoming you on the shores of the Red Sea.
Professor Tony Chan
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology