Former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2016-2022)
Melissa Brown Goodall
Director of the Global University Climate Forum and Senior Director of the Penn Environmental Innovations Initiative
Next Steps by
Co-founder of Global Optimism and Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010-2016)
This was written for the 2021 iteration of Global University Climate Forum. Updates for the 2022 iteration will be published by January 2023.
Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
We stand at a pivotal point in human history, one that will likely determine humanity’s future on this planet. This is no hyperbole, but the incontrovertible conclusion of the science of climate change.
As is always the case in scientific research, our understanding of climate change has increased and strengthened over time. The initial, guarded statements about the nature and the possible scale of this phenomenon have given way to firmly based, unequivocal conclusions about its causes and probable evolution in the absence of decisive —and increasingly urgent— action.
The report on the physical science of climate change published by the IPCC in 2021 was unequivocal: recent changes in the climate are widespread, rapid, and intensifying. These changes are already impacting every region on Earth, both on land and in the oceans. The report showed that unless there are rapid, sustained, and large-scale reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2, methane, and others, the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C will be beyond reach.
The UN Climate Change Synthesis Report on Nationally Determined Contributions —a comprehensive analysis of the aggregated impact of national climate plans— reveals that while some nations are making progress, the overall greenhouse gas emissions numbers are moving in the wrong direction. Instead of a necessary overall decline in emissions, the report points to a considerable increase — nearly 13,7% — in global emissions in 2030 compared to 2010. This is incompatible with the reductions needed to keep global temperature increase below 1.5°C and runs contrary to the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Billions throughout the world expect governments, corporations, and civil society to show the bold and courageous leadership necessary to overcome the current climate emergency. As I have often remarked, the Paris Climate Agreement is a covenant of hope for the world. It provides a clear roadmap for action, but we are far from where we need to be, and we are moving too slowly.
Science has a central role to play in order to get us to our goals. The rigor and reliability of scientific work are crucial to all those involved in addressing the challenge posed by climate change. Never before has it been so important, so crucial for the wellbeing of humanity, that we share as widely as possible the findings of science.
I commend the efforts of the Global University Climate Forum for its commitment to the cause of climate action. Their outstanding record in both research and teaching is a testament to the value that higher education institutions have for all societies. The student-led efforts showcased here are evidence that today’s young leaders take climate action seriously and can achieve remarkable results in very little time. It is critical that we continue to empower and elevate voices like these while we encourage governments, businesses, and higher education institutions to act with urgency.
Melissa Brown Goodall
Director of the Global University Climate Forum
Senior Director of the Penn Environmental Innovations Initiative
Our thesis is that there is a need for a knowledge sector. Around the world, academic institutions are conducting world-changing research and educating world-changing professionals. There can and should be a way for UN organizations to directly connect with these unique and extraordinary assets.
While the secretariat of the Global University Climate Forum is in housed in the Environmental Innovations Initiative of the University of Pennsylvania, the Forum is a collaborative and iterative program that benefits from guidance, support, and enthusiasm from an exceptional list of partners. The Forum started in 2009. At the time, the idea was to capture the attention of students from around the world who had flocked to Denmark to witness history in the making during the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP15): We created a two-day program to encourage them to develop and execute local-scale projects that would have a measurable impact on their campus. We hosted subsequent events in 2012 at the Rio Earth Summit (Rio+20) and in 2015 during the climate negotiations COP21 in Paris. Each time, the program evolved and grew – we went from 80 or so students in Copenhagen to 130 in France, and we were able to integrate learning elements as well as peer review and reporting components.
As we were preparing for the COP26 iteration of the Forum, we recognized that the visibility of Greta Thunberg and the growing trend of climate strikes and divestment protests had shifted the climate action narrative on campuses and in the world. Our steering group was in the process of reimagining how to update our model to meet the needs and interests of the newly energized generation of college and university students when COVID forced us to pivot the model entirely. There are no silver linings to a pandemic, but for the Forum the unique circumstances forced innovations that added exceptional dimension to the program:
- First, we were able to include nearly 600 students from 44 countries. Many of these students could not have joined an in-person event, nor would we have wanted to incur that carbon burden or financial burden.
- Second, because our 20 workshops were virtual, we were able to line up a truly exceptional set of speakers from around the globe. Additionally, those recordings are available for any to see.
- Third, we were able to maintain interactive connections with students as they acted on their ideas. We had always set the expectation that the teams should report on progress, but with the postponement of COP26 we had the students report monthly on their projects, and we used that time to offer mentors, peer-to-peer connections, and additional resources.
This publication is a collection of final reports. We accepted 134 teams of students to the Forum. Each student was required to attend at least three workshops in November 2020, and all were offered the opportunity to enroll in a carbon literacy certification training offered by the University of Nottingham. For six months starting in December 2020, we sent monthly messages to the teams and prompted them to post updates to Slack. In May, we collected the 78 final reports you see here. We wanted to keep the reporting both simple and meaningful, so we asked the students to include their original Vision and Metric for Success, and then to reflect on what they were and were not able to accomplish in six months. We also suggested that they indicate which of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals their projects support. As we read the final submissions, were inspired to organize them into seven categories:
- Measure & Manage (account, energize, capture, adapt)
- Advance (teach, play, empower)
- Imagine & Innovate (redirect, recreate, disrupt)
- Regenerate (nurture, restore, steward)
- Rejuvenate (nourish, replenish, thrive)
- Act (connect, rally, reconceive, rise)
- Connect (curate, socialize, empower)
Our hope is that this will allow the reader to explore subsets of projects that have connected or complementary concepts. Edits to each entry were minimal, as we wanted to ensure that the students told their stories in their own voices. The majority of participants were writing in English as a second (or third or fourth) language, so we helped to refine their entries as we saw fit, but we made no effort to unify the style of the entries. We hope this choice means that the individuality and creativity of the teams is evident.
We chose to host this publication online so that it could be broadly distributed for free and translated with a click of a button to virtually any language. We realize that online translation is rarely entirely accurate, but our goal was to be as inclusive as possible in the audiences we reach.
Two sections follow the student reports: Next Steps offers more thoughts on the potential of higher education institutions as the knowledge sector, and Acknowledgements recognizes the remarkable array of partners, speakers, mentors, allies, and friends who helped to make this program and this publication possible.
Student Report Categories
Co-founder of Global Optimism
Former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010-2016)
It is hard not to be inspired by what the Global University Climate Forum students were able to accomplish in just six months. During a pandemic. With few or no resources. They identified problems and tested ways to solve them. I suggest now that the reader pause to consider the transformative change that might result from dramatically expanding this same model – to empower a whole generation of innovators to play an active role in shaping the future we need.
This program offers remarkable evidence that academic institutions are home to thoughtful, energetic students who will become informed and empowered professionals. Many of the projects also demonstrate the potential of universities as anchor institutions in their communities, as well as their capacity to act as conduits for connection, collaboration, and change. What they only hint at is the ground-breaking research that is happening in higher education throughout the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that came out in September 2021 is a resounding wake-up call – we need to organize swiftly and act with much more urgency and in new ways that transcend traditional thought and systems patterns.
Academic experts played active roles in developing the IPCC report, and academic institutions and networks are remarkably well-suited for researching, testing, and advancing solutions. In addition to scholarly activities, as institutions focused on generating knowledge rather than profits or advocacy, colleges and universities can and should be convening thought-leaders and empirically evaluating progress on commitments. It must be admitted, however, that one thing most higher education institutions are not practiced at is communicating the value of their resources to the public: There is an inherited sense that pivoting knowledge into action may diminish analytical rigor. While conducting research for commercial or promotional purposes could certainly do this, there are many ways that the extraordinary assets of the knowledge sector can and should be brought to bear on the issues we face with the climate emergency.
Culpability for the disconnect between academia and the entities responsible for global governance does not fall solely on higher education institutions. There are well-defined pathways for the business sector and civil sector to directly connect with and influence global policy, but there is no such conduit for the knowledge sector. This may be attributed in part to the aforestated disinclination to self-promote but has also probably been hindered by the narrow science-policy interface lens that is so often offered when academia is looking for a seat at the table. In addition, the opportunities are so myriad and broad that structuring viable, impactful, inclusive ways to engage these institutions may feel elusive.
In this spirit, over the next 18 months, the Global University Climate Forum will host workshops and other collaborative gatherings to explore possible concrete next steps, including:
- Courses that connect UN challenges to classrooms
- A network of faculty members teaching on related topics
- A network of mentors for students
- A platform to allow policymakers to pose challenges to researchers and foster collaborative research
- Academic tracks for conferences
- A curated set of resources for policymakers such as the Environmental Performance Index and Environmental Conventions Index
- Additional informal action-oriented programming like the Forum to connect students to real-world scenarios
- Structured student cohorts within academic networks such as the International Sustainable Campus Network
- Internships with UN entities and think tanks
- Topic-specific conferences to bring together researchers of all disciplines with policymakers
This is important work that must be done through active collaboration.