Empowering future leaders: How COP28 leaves a lasting legacy for sustainability education

The role of universities in creating a greener tomorrow
Empowering future leaders: How COP28 leaves a lasting legacy for sustainability education
Professor Paul J. Hopkinson is the dean of the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Zayed University

Ensuring events such as COP28 have a legacy that lives long after the pavilions close is crucial for any responsible host nation. Having spent several days at The Greening Education Hub, I have no doubt that COP28 will catalyze a new generation of sustainable actionists amongst Emirati youth.

The UAE Ministry of Education organized the Greening Education Hub. It aims to highlight the importance of education in addressing climate issues. We are certainly seeing a paradigm shift in higher education. It’s a shift where sustainability is no longer a peripheral subject but a core focus critical to shaping the leaders of tomorrow.

Redefining sustainability in education

The urgency of integrating sustainability into our education system cannot be overstated. We grapple with the pressing challenges of climate change, resource depletion, and environmental degradation. And the role of universities in preparing students to navigate and lead in this new reality is crucial. Zayed University’s bold initiative in this regard is a necessary evolution. It aligns education with the emerging demands of our times.

We must take a holistic approach to sustainability education now. Simply tagging a “sustainability” module to existing programs won’t do it anymore. Like Zayed University, higher education institutions must launch sustainability programs in their own right. These programs must adopt an interdisciplinary approach, emphasizing social, economic, and ecological interdependence in deriving necessary solutions.

In the past, there has been a tendency to equate sustainability education with environmental science. This narrow viewpoint is outdated and not fit for purpose. To truly address the complexities of climate change, sustainability education must expand its scope. It must include a wide range of disciplines, including business, government policy, science, and technology. The challenge of climate change is immense. Hyper-specialists in narrow fields cannot tackle it on their own. Instead, it will require the insights and contributions of multidisciplinary teams and generalists who can integrate diverse perspectives and knowledge.

Those teams will need a broad range of practical skills. These encompass problem-solving, critical thinking, and effective communication. All of these are competencies that are crucial in any professional setting. Understanding sustainability issues is only part of the equation. The ability to apply this understanding in real-world scenarios and to convincingly convey these ideas to colleagues, clients or customers is equally crucial.

sustainability education

Read: The intersection of technology and sustainability

Empowering future leaders

For universities, it means we should be nurturing students who are proficient in analyzing climate data and developing algorithms to predict weather patterns. These students must also understand the impacts of carbon emissions. Additionally, we must hone students who are also well-equipped to question assumptions, construct well-reasoned arguments, and devise creative solutions. This emphasis on critical thinking is vital, as tackling real-world challenges often requires nuanced understanding and balanced decision-making.

Beyond preparing students for dynamic career pathways, sustainability education should also embody a profound commitment to fostering engaged, innovative, and community-centric citizens. This focus on nurturing socially responsible and environmentally conscious leaders is essential for the world. And it’s especially relevant in our current era of unprecedented environmental and social challenges. 

Climate leadership program

One of the many new initiatives launched in the Greening Education Hub at COP 28 was the Middle East’s “Business Schools for Climate Leadership” program. It brings together universities across the region. Overseen by The Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRiME), a United Nations-supported initiative, the program will actively place climate leadership at the center of education programs. Moreover, it will pioneer carbon literacy training in the region. Universities can lead efforts to localize carbon literacy training by working with partners. Zayed University is a good example of this. Unlike traditional business schools, the university’s College of Interdisciplinary Studies integrates business and economics alongside policy issues and environmental science. Our goal is to equip students with an interdisciplinary mindset and approach to tackling these challenges.

Moreover, students must be given the chance to learn from experiences. A prominent example is the recent COP Simulation Model at the British University in Cairo, where 29 Zayed University students participated. Participating in these simulations, students step into the shoes of policymakers, negotiators, and activists, delving into the complexities of international environmental diplomacy. Through these exercises, they can learn the intricacies of global environmental governance, the challenges of reaching consensus among diverse stakeholders, and the art of balancing environmental concerns with economic and social priorities.

Beyond COP28

COP 28 may now be in the rear-view mirror. But, we have all been reinvigorated and re-energized by the discussions that took place in the build-up to and during this seminal event. As we look forward to the future, striving to achieve the ambitious objectives outlined in the UAE’s Centennial 2071 plan, the role of educational institutions becomes even more pivotal. By empowering students with the skills and ethical grounding to make impactful decisions, we are all actively contributing to creating a sustainable and equitable future. 

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