Santa Ono: What COVID-19 can teach us in our fight against climate change

One of the many lessons we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we, as global citizens, can mobilize to confront a shared challenge.

Around the world, researchers have redirected efforts to slow the spread and find a vaccine, national governments have coordinated efforts to secure personal protective equipment, maintain supply lines while curtailing mobility, and launch efforts to restart the economy, and citizens everywhere have followed public health orders to stay at home and maintain physical distancing while volunteering and contributing to community efforts.

The response to COVID-19, imperfect as it may have been at times, has shown us that we can, working together, effect global change and tackle a formidable challenge. Now is the time to apply this important lesson to the greatest challenge we face as humans on this earth — climate change.

As president and vice-chancellor of the University of B.C., climate change and the transition to a low-carbon future has been and will continue to be one of my key priorities for the university.

In December 2019, UBC joined organizations around the world in declaring a global climate emergency and committed to full divestment of its investments from the fossil fuel industry. In April, the UBC board of governors passed a motion that committed the university to reaffirming its approach to divestment, aiming to reduce climate change-related financial risk in its endowment through the continued application of environmental, social and governance investment practices, signing on to the UN Principles of Responsible Investing, and the reduction of carbon emissions and stranded fossil fuel assets.

Last July, I had the honour of participating in the inaugural meeting of the U7 Alliance, an international alliance of more than 45 university presidents committed to ensuring their institutions take concrete action to address the most pressing global challenges, including sustainability, clean water, gender equality and chronic disease. Earlier this month, UBC also joined 16 leading Canadian universities to launch Investing to Address Climate Change: A Charter for Canadian Universities, signalling a national commitment by Canadian universities to tackling climate change through responsible investment practices.

The university’s Climate Action Plan, developed in 2010, set some of the most aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets for a post-secondary institution in North America. Despite an increase in student population and building growth, we have achieved a 34 per cent reduction in GHG emissions since 2007. Today, the university is on-track to reduce GHG emissions by 67 per cent in 2020 and by 100 per cent in 2050.

This work builds on UBC’s recognized leadership on sustainability and climate action. Our work in this area was recognized by the Times Higher Education University Impact Rating last year, with UBC ranking as No. 1 for taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

And so this week I was honoured to succeed University of California President Janet Napolitano as leader of the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), effective June 30.

UC3, a signature program of Second Nature, is a collective of 22 leading North American research universities working together to help local communities achieve their climate goals and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future. For the past two years, I have been proud to work with this outstanding coalition to leverage collective expertise, share ideas, working with local, regional, state/provincial governments and develop new climate solutions. As the new UC3 leader, I look forward to working with university leaders across North America, guiding the development and execution of strategic projects and continuing to build the coalition’s robust network of external partnerships with government, business and community leaders.

I am heartened by the way university leaders from across Canada and North America are joining forces to commit their institutions to concrete action addressing climate change. But we can and should do more.

At this pivotal moment in our planet’s future, we have a unique opportunity to apply lessons learned from the COVID-19 response to bring about significant and lasting systemic changes to curb GHGs and promote sustainability.

Researchers, governments, citizens are proving that unprecedented global mobilization is possible. Now is the time to act for lasting change.

Santa Ono is president and vice-chancellor of the University of B.C.

Source: Vancouver Sun