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.
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.
Prioritising the needs of industry
Unfortunately, they are permeated with the current EU discourse on strategic autonomy to such an extent that they dwell too much on the needs of industry, be it for investments, skilled workers or technological upgrades.
Europe must undoubtedly address its critical dependencies and attain greater industrial resilience. But if more inputs are supposed to lead to better and more innovative outputs in industry, is this not also true for the research and innovation sector? After all, there is plenty to suggest that the green transition does not only require market-based solutions.
The Commission’s 2022 Science, Research and Innovation Performance report highlights several key aspects of Europe’s quest for sustainability that are less often discussed.
For instance, as this quest influences public goods like infrastructure and ecosystem services, large parts of the green transition are not happening in traditional product markets but in public services provided by municipalities, regions or national governments.
This creates opportunities to involve different stakeholders in innovation processes, compared with the habitual product or service innovation in business-to-business markets.
The report goes on to note that public policies can support collaboration and partnerships between research centres, industry and public authorities, and that universities could play a critical role in supporting the diffusion of sustainable solutions.
In fact, according to the EUA’s 2021 innovation survey, universities are already doing so, with promising levels of collaboration with local or regional authorities to implement green solutions in public services.
Additionally, as argued in our EUA Green Deal vision paper, universities’ societal engagement can provide a platform to discuss the difficult matter of behavioural change, which the energy crisis belatedly highlights as a key component of any realistic push for sustainability.
The current hard reckoning with fossil fuel dependence may spur the development of green energy sources, but had there been honest discussions in past years about unsustainable consumption patterns and lifestyles in the Global North, it may not have been so disruptive.
Without such discussions, convenient but flawed paradigms that going green is fully consistent with business-as-usual scenarios of continued growth have been widely touted. But this has only exacerbated the urgency of meaningful change for both individuals and national economies.
Universities can make a difference in many such areas if they are brought back into the framework of the Green Deal. And while policy interventions are needed to improve the framework itself, the university sector’s strategic reflection on how to boost its own visibility and performance is also critical.
A Green Deal roadmap
This opens up a multi-faceted agenda for the EUA and its new Green Deal task-and-finish group that will begin to develop a Green Deal roadmap for universities this autumn.
Improving the recognition of universities’ capabilities and expertise among policy-makers and stakeholders is a core concern, but hardly the only one. For example, the often-siloed modus operandi of national and European policy-making risks compounding the Green Deal’s shortcomings to the point where the science-policy interface is less and less porous.
Offering input which is aligned with decision-makers’ needs but that also challenges the compartmentalisation of political institutions is daunting. While some universities might have the contacts and resources to overcome this, others will struggle.
Whether in terms of advocacy and outreach, or capacity building and enhanced performance, the coming months will be the time to define the critical priorities for a truly systematic engagement of universities in this area.
Sergiu-Matei Lucaci is policy and project officer at the European University Association. He works on European research and innovation policy, with a focus on innovation ecosystems and the green transition.