Universities’ key role overlooked in European Green Deal

With ever-mounting concerns regarding the climate and environment now exacerbated by energy supply issues and weather extremes, an ‘all hands on deck’ approach is imperative to achieve sustainability. The overall framing of the European Green Deal in terms of a just transition suggests that different interests, sectors and types of input will be reflected in concrete initiatives.

However, this framing must be matched by a culture of inclusion that enables co-creation rather than just consultation and dialogue. In an era of climate emergency, this means that stakeholders should not solely pursue the inclusion of their own sectors, but also welcome that of other sectors, like-minded or not.

This is an ethos which universities embody, as science has always thrived when wide-ranging and often conflicting views from different disciplinary and methodological standpoints come together. With its interdisciplinarity and perpetual collaboration and exchange, scientific culture is in many ways a culture of inclusion, and all those working towards a green transition can learn from it.

Nevertheless, as European universities set out to explore their place in the Green Deal, we discovered that the European Commission’s 2019 communication did not properly capture our unique role. Indeed, it only mentioned universities in passing.

Structural deficiency

Consequently, in a vision paper on universities and the Green Deal published earlier this year, the European University Association (EUA) contends that this is not just an unticked box on the checklist of European Union policymakers’ usual dialogue partners. Rather, this is a structural deficiency hampering the systemic nature of the green transition.

To truly become climate neutral by 2050, all of society must converge on holistic solutions, and these will not emerge unless there is a willingness to reach out across sectors and communities, to learn from one another and work in synergy. Universities are adept at doing so as this is what defines them as places of learning and knowledge production, but for other actors this may be much less straightforward.

Thus, omitting the university sector entails the loss of a wellspring of expertise and experience on tackling societal challenges collaboratively. Moreover, the role of universities as honest brokers is what enables data about climate and the environment to become usable knowledge by translating and mediating between different interests and communities.

Leveraging and further enhancing this role should be a central focus of making Europe climate neutral. Hence it is important to find ways for the university sector to be more systematically engaged in the Green Deal.

Initiatives such as the new European Research Area or the New European Innovation Agenda are significant steps in mobilising Europe’s research and innovation capabilities for the green transition.

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