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Carbon Peaking and Neutrality: Transforming Talent in Higher Education

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In China, ‘dual-carbon’ or shuang tan (双碳) refers to the national goals set to reach the country’s carbon peak by 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Two recent events highlighted the significant role of higher education in achieving the ‘dual carbon goals’ (DCG), both in China and internationally. In April, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued the ‘Higher Education Work Plan for the Strengthening of Talent Development System for Carbon Peaking and Carbon Neutrality’. In the same month, Times Higher Education (THE) released the 2022 World University Impact Rankings which assesses universities against the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the fourth year. The scoring criteria focus on a university’s performance in the following: its research on climate change, its use of energy, and its preparedness to deal with the consequences of climate change, which corresponds with SDG 13 — ‘Climate Action’. In this article, I will elaborate on my view that in order to develop talents to meet the needs of the DCG, higher education will have to undergo four fundamental changes.

The biggest CO2 emitter

China was the biggest carbon emitter (CO2) from fossil fuels in 2020, accounting for 30.64% of global emissions. Its emissions exceed all developed nations combined. The country has vowed to reach net-zero emissions by 2060 with a peak no later than 2030. Photo: Zhimai Zhang / Unsplash

Since it will take the efforts of multiple generations to achieve carbon neutrality, we need to educate our students to become ‘Generation Green’. Their attitudes and behaviours will shape the future of our planet.

1. Change in Philosophy of Education

First, higher education needs to revolutionise its philosophy. Cultivating talents for the DCG is more than a mission to cultivate human resources for economic and social development. In the greater scope of long-term development of our time, education must adapt to the existential needs for sustainability. This is not a lofty ideology, but a fundamental change in how we view education. 

 

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) noted that the world is facing the Triple Planetary Crisis — climate change, environmental pollution and loss of biodiversity. Keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and limiting temperature increase further to 1.5°C, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement, is a mission that will decide whether humanity can continue to develop sustainably. Since it will take the efforts of multiple generations to achieve carbon neutrality, we need to educate our students to become ‘Generation Green’. Their attitudes and behaviours will shape the future of our planet. Universities should no longer focus narrowly on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM) based on an outdated efficiency model rooted in an industrial revolution mindset. We need to instil a sense of mission in our students so that they view the arduous battle of achieving carbon neutrality and addressing climate emergencies as their responsibility to secure the future of humanity. Failure to do so will amount to a failed education.

 

A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) flagship report published in 2021, Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education, charted a path to the future of education up to the year 2050. The report believes the world is at a new turning point. It calls for a major transformation in education to repair past injustices and enhance education capacity to act together for a more sustainable and just future based on a new social contract. Fernando Reimers, a Harvard professor and the lead author of the UNESCO report, said, “What good do universities do for society? Who do universities serve? I think that is causing a reckoning within the higher education community perhaps of comparable significance to the reckoning that led to the last major transformation of the university [in widening access] after the Second World War.”

“System change not climate change”

Youth climate activist Howey Ou is considered China’s Greta Thunberg, taking to the streets to speak out about climate change. Despite criticism, mockery, social pressure and harassments by school officials and the police, she is blazing a new path to raise environmental awareness in China. Photo: Christoph Soeder / dpa / Alamy Live News

Having the DCG as a key educational goal, higher education institutions need to critically reassess what is expected of them in the era of the climate crisis. China’s Ministry of Education has also issued a directive requiring Chinese universities to ‘help raise the overall awareness of ecological civilisation and take on the responsibility of educating the public on the new concept of sustainable development’. This is indeed what universities should go all out to deliver.

 

2. Change in Mindset

Higher education needs to transform its mindset. This, in essence, is a question of how DCG talents should be cultivated. Adding renewable energy courses to the curriculum, or introducing education contents on energy storage, hydrogen energy, carbon finance, carbon capture, carbon utilisation, carbon storage and more to fill the gaps in sustainability education is a short-sighted solution to meet a profound and structural social need. Every profession and every aspect of our socio-economic life needs to be fundamentally transformed to effectively achieve the DCG. Adding new courses and setting up a research centre or two are far from sufficient.

 

Cultivating DCG talents calls for a systematic pedagogy design. DCG education should engage the university in its entirety and has to be comprehensively mapped out ‘based on the rules of new-era talent development, education pedagogy and technology innovation’, as required by the Ministry of Education. One of the essential tasks is the cultivation of Climate Literacy and Carbon Neutrality Literacy among our students, much like the cultivation of literacy skills during the early days of the industrial revolution. This involves designing and delivering foundational and general carbon neutrality courses to all of our students. However, we do have to recognise the big knowledge gap in carbon neutrality among our university students. The 2020 China Youth Climate Awareness and Behaviour Research Survey reported that, due to limited access, only 19% of our young people have participated in climate education. The gap needs to be closed promptly.

 

We also need to update and reinforce the curriculums of the relevant academic disciplines in our higher education institutions. Carbon neutrality is based upon the systemic replacement of traditional fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. However, the scope of the transformation goes way beyond the energy sector. The necessary makeovers of energy systems and business models are also applicable to manufacturing, transportation, construction, agriculture, finance, legal and almost every other sector. To prepare our students appropriately for their future careers, the teaching of every academic discipline in our universities needs to be reinforced with the relevant carbon neutrality content to reflect the systemic change of our overall energy model.

China's Generation Z

Unlike their Western peers, protecting the environment is low on the list of public concerns for China’s Generation Z, according to the 2022 Global Generation Z Insights Report, even though they are more aware of climate change than the previous generations. An expert suggests that China’s green initiatives have been part of a top-down agenda and have had little to do with young people and the mass consumer market. Photo: Dan Porges / Alamy

Furthermore, carbon neutrality is a key component of the New Energy System+ that involves much cross-disciplinary engagement. This makes interdisciplinary curriculum and professional development a key characteristic of DCG education. In fact, interdisciplinary integration is the source of today’s innovations in science and technology and the catalyst that inspires the emergence of new academic disciplines. We should therefore leverage the interdisciplinary nature of DCG education to nurture versatile graduates for a carbon-neutral future. More specifically, our universities should start to introduce secondary carbon neutrality courses under the relevant primary disciplines, while new and interdisciplinary primary disciplines are being established at the national level. This, I believe, is a unique and effective model for curriculum and pedagogy development in the Chinese education system.

 

3. Change in Pedagogy

Higher education needs a change in pedagogy. The key questions for the delivery of DCG education are: ‘Who?’ and ‘How?’ — especially when time is not on our side and the process needs to be accelerated. These are the key challenges most universities are grappling with as they do not have sufficient academic and physical resources for the teaching of DCG subjects. 

 

Education technologies such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) can help to overcome the challenge. The Finnish government, for example, used MOOC to provide free artificial intelligence (AI) training to 1% of its population in a push to build a critical mass of AI-literate workforce among its citizens. Taking a leaf from Finland, Chinese universities can similarly offer a wide selection of high-quality and relevant MOOC courses conducted by domain experts and world-class teachers to their students. That way, students will learn from the best regardless of where they are. The latest carbon-neutral discoveries, technologies, products and projects can also be presented to the students in virtual classrooms in the Metaverse on the 5G network, making the learning experience more immersive and novel.

International cooperation is also a key component in DCG education, especially when China aspires to play a leading role in the global effort of shaping a sustainable future for humanity.

The three-way collaboration among academia, R&D and industry is also an important aspect of DCG education. Instead of being at the forefront, our universities are often a step behind the socio-economic development of the DCG in theoretical research, technological innovation and industrial development. Universities should therefore welcome lessons and experience from the industry and strengthen academia-industry collaboration in their teaching so as to fulfil their socio-political mission of innovating social advancement. For example, industry experts can be invited to conduct lectures and guide students on their undergraduate projects and postgraduate research.

 

International cooperation is also a key component in DCG education, especially when China aspires to play a leading role in the global effort of shaping a sustainable future for humanity. Chinese universities should work with their more advanced foreign counterparts in curriculum design, joint research, and the training of both undergraduate and postgraduate students. This will not only enhance the quality of our DCG talents but will also help to raise the bar for our teaching and research. The Global Alliance of Universities on Climate initiated by Tsinghua University, and the International Universities Climate Alliance supported by Nanjing University and China University of Geosciences are good examples of Chinese universities taking a lead in this area.

Green university initiatives

As a leading university and the pioneering green university in the country, Tsinghua University is highly influential with regard to the development of green universities in China. Many other universities have designed their own programmes based on Tsinghua’s experiences in the green university initiative. Source: School of Environment, Tsinghua University

4. Change in Campus Operations

Lastly, higher education institutions need to change the mode of operation of their campuses to go beyond being a training ground for DCG talents to also become role models of sustainable operation. First of all, university campuses should strive to be low carbon and achieve carbon neutrality eventually. Being highly-populated sites with a large number of classrooms, lecture theatres, laboratories and other physical structures, university campuses are typically both big energy consumers and major greenhouse gas emitters of their local communities. They, therefore, have the institutional obligation to contribute meaningfully to the DCG.

 

To allow students to gain hands-on experience in DCG products, universities should use their campuses as testbeds for renewable energy, lithium and sodium-ion batteries, hydrogen vehicles, solar photovoltaic buildings and other green technologies. They should also become the host institutions of a good variety of sustainability-related forums and advocacies. There is no better way to learn something than doing it and participating in its development. 

 

The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings on climate action is a noteworthy indicator of higher education institutions’ participation in the DCG. The ranking evaluates participating universities based on research on climate action (27%), low-carbon energy use (27%), environmental education measures (23%), and commitment to a carbon-neutral campus (23%). In 2022, the University of Tasmania ranked first among 1,406 universities. Being the only Chinese university in the top 100, Fudan University ranked 65th. To the best of my knowledge, none of the Chinese universities has announced a timetable or a roadmap for carbon neutrality. We have a lot more to do for our climate actions compared to our international peers. I am participating in the drafting of the Zero Carbon Standards for Chinese campuses. It will be a big push for carbon neutrality on higher education campuses when the relevant authority publishes the standards in due course.

It is a mission-critical endeavour for higher education to play a significant role in the mitigation of the climate crisis and the advancement of modern China.

To conclude, talent development for DCG is no ordinary task. Instead, it is a mission-critical endeavour for higher education to play a significant role in the mitigation of the climate crisis and the advancement of modern China. It can only be realised through our persistent and coordinated efforts in education reform, mindset transformation and systematic planning. 

 

The Chinese version of this article was extracted from the author’s blog on ScienceNet.CN, and was first published in Global Times (Chinese edition) on May 26, 2022. The translated version is republished here with the author’s permission.

 

(Translated by Ben Ning and Soh Xiaoqing | The article was originally written in Chinese)

PROF WANG YUANFENG

Prof Wang Yuanfeng is Director of the Center of Carbon Neutral Technology and Strategy, Beijing Jiaotong University, and Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Association of Development Strategy Studies. Prof Wang is also a writer and poet. He has published two novels and a poetry anthology, and he frequently writes comment articles on science, education, sustainability and the economy, as well as world affairs for influential Chinese newspapers.

SEPTEMBER 2022 | ISSUE 10

Reorganising the Future of Work

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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