by Georges Dyer, Second Nature

Last week I had the pleasure of traveling to Lima, Peru to participate in an exciting seminar with leaders from universities, government, business, and NGOs on higher education’s opportunity to lead the shift to sustainability. As is the case in most countries around the world, Peru’s energy ministries are working to take control of their energy future.  With the geopolitical issues, volatile prices, supply constraints, security threats, and imminent threat of climate disruption, we need to make fossil fuels yesterday’s energy source.  And quickly.

How to do so is of course another question – particularly when there is a need for continued economic growth and increased standards of living.  (‘developed’ countries like the US don’t need to keep growing the amount of physical through-puts in our economy to improve our quality of life, in fact I think the opposite is true, but there’s still room for such growth in Peru with 20% of the country without access to electricity and 36% living in poverty).

The folks I met with at the Ministerio de Energia y Minas had some great ideas.  They’ve got a vision of moving from an energy mix of 47% crude, 28% renewables (mostly hydro), 21% natural gas, and 4% coal to about one-third each of crude, renewables, and natural gas.  Unlike the US, where we have a lot of low-cost (though very expensive from a systems-view) coal, Peru is looking at greater supply constraints (though they do have some proven reserves of oil and natural gas).

They’ve got some significant solar and wind projects in the works, they are mapping out other possible sources like geothermal, and are really looking for ways to manage the demand side. They’ve done a lot of public outreach and awareness building and developed many guidelines and informational resources for facilities people in various sectors.  (And two alpacas graze on the ministry grounds – saving on fuel for mowing and fertilizing!)

They also see the need for leadership from higher education. A couple of representatives attended the 3rd Annual Climate Leadership Summit of the ACUPCC last August in Chicago and heard from college & university presidents, the USGBC, Janine Benyus, Peter Senge, and Bill Clinton about the importance of demand-side reduction, energy efficiency, and new ways of thinking, educating and innovating.  There was also a lot of talk about how to finally bring the ACUPCC concept international.  We had a panel of representatives from the UK, Taiwan, Scotland, and Malaysia who had already been working on that in various capacities, and a general feeling that it was vitally important to do so.

The Peruvian delegation continued to work on the idea and arranged this meeting for university representatives,  government officials, and others to explore the idea further, and learn about the benefits, opportunities, and strategies for carrying it out.  I gave two presentations to this group, one on the current status of the ACUPCC and another on some of the specific resources available to support the network – like the ACUPCC Reporting System, the Clean Air – Cool Planet Campus Carbon Calculator, the CAP wiki, and ACUPCC guidance documents on leading change, the academic components of climate action planning, carbon offsets, and financing sustainability projects.

I also attended a workshop where university representatives evaluated the ACUPCC Commitment Document and spent some time in small groups brainstorming changes that would need to be made to make such a document appropriate for the Peruvian reality.  They came back together in the larger group and edited a version of the Commitment in real time on a projector, allowing everyone to see this exciting concept come into reality.  For the many university reps who could not attend, this draft will be posted for a month long comment period.

This represents a huge leadership opportunity for the country that will be instrumental in building a secure, efficient, prosperous Peru. There is a tremendous amount of momentum building, which will of course need to continue to grow for a successful launch.  And there is likely quite a bit more work to be done in adapting the language to ensure the initiative is appropriate and effective, taking into account things like the dire reality of the need for adaptation strategies to climate disruption; the particular risks with regard to water supply; the structure of Peruvian universities and the higher education sector as a whole, etc.

But in general, the opportunity appears to be ripe for such an initiative to be really successful.  Aiming for climate neutrality fits with Peru’s official endorsement of the 350 ppm target for atmospheric concentration (we’re currently at 392 & climbing every day!).  With the combination of dependence on foreign fuels and high vulnerability to climate disruption it is very much in the country’s interest to look to its institutions of higher learning for leadership on reducing demand and developing clean, reliable power sources.

Next we went to la PontificiaUniversidad Catolica del Peru, one of the larger institutions with another beautiful Lima campus.   We met with a couple of professors who are leading a project to coordinate education and research on sustainable development issues across a variety of departments.  The highlight of the tour for me was visiting GRUPO-PUCP – a research group focused on rural sustainable development through sustainable agriculture, small scale hydro, wind, and solar energy production, cleaner cooking technologies, sustainable building design, irrigation systems, and more.I had the chance to visit a couple of campuses in Lima doing just that in various ways.  First, the Universidad de Piura, which has it’s main campus in the north, has a beautiful Lima location.  After a quick tour – including stops at their research lab, culinary department, and new basketball court, I learned about the many sustainability projects they have going on, including reforestation projects, nutrition programs for local children, health clinics, and climate research, including a team that carries out research in Antarctica every summer.

Peru is extremely vulnerable to climate change – it has been ranked the third most vulnerable nation in the world. Retreating glaciers threaten water supply, power supply, and agriculture. The impacts of climate disruption will be devastating everywhere, but visiting countries like Peru provides an incredibly powerful and immediate reminder of why this work is so important and so urgent.

The tragic irony of course is that countries like Peru have done far less to cause these problems associated with climate disruption, yet they will be harmed by them more directly, more immediately, and to greater extent.

In the US, the ACUPCC provides a vehicle for higher education to lead, as a sector, in the development of low-carbon, sustainable solutions, and to ensure that graduates are equipped to do the things necessary for the rest of society to do the same – like think in whole-systems, understand interdependence, and experience empathy. With the lion’s share of historic CO2 emissions, the US has the responsibility to lead the way – and quickly – and colleges and universities must be at the center of this shift if it is going to be successful.

In Peru, a collective sector-wide climate change initiative would do the same thing – and provide a lot of benefit to the country and it’s universities by reducing costs, driving innovation, and ensuring graduates are prepared for the 21st century economy.  But in terms of the symbolic message, and the example it would set, the tone would be slightly different.  It would underscore the urgency with which most of the world’s population is forced to face the reality of climate disruption. And hopefully, it would help the US and the other big emitters like China and India move past the negotiation deadlock and recognize that the path to climate neutrality can also be the path to prosperity before it is too late.