New Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability Officially Launched

A new Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability was officially launched by the United Nations Environment Programme and participating universities earlier this month, in advance of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development – Rio+20 – in Rio de Janeiro on 20 June. A new Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability (GUPES) was officially launched by the United Nations Environment Programme and participating universities this month, in advance of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development – Rio+20 – starting in Rio de Janeiro on 20 June.


The launch of GUPES at China’s Tongji University in Shanghai from 5-6 June was part of a joint UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) involving other UN bodies including UNESCO and the UN Academic Impact.


GUPES will provide universities with a platform to interact with policy-makers and others within the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and other international organisations as well as with one another specifically on sustainability issues.


“There is a deliberate attempt within UNEP to focus on universities,” said Mahesh Pradhan, chief of UNEP’s Environmental Education and Training Unit in Nairobi, who was at the Shanghai launch.


Many of UNEP’s reports and scientific assessments “include a lot of inputs from universities around the world, and they are relevant to the higher education sector, which also provides a reality check.”


In particular, UNEP says it is looking to boost university networking through joint research projects. “We are looking at South-South collaboration, focusing mainly on developing regions such as Africa and Latin America and Asia.“We have laid the foundation now,” Pradhan told University World News after the launch.


Knowledge hubs

For example, with countries like China investing heavily in Africa, there is a great deal of focus on Africa’s resources and planning on how they can be better used and preserved.

African governments and GUPES universities set up a water resource management research initiative last year with funding from the Chinese government, based at Tongji University.

‘Knowledge hubs’ such as GUPES would provide a clear point of contact for government and higher education institutions – like the urban knowledge hub at Tongji and the Asia-Pacific Center for Water Security, where UNEP partnered with Peking and Tsinghua universities.

The global GUPES network grew out of a network of 80 universities in Africa, called Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in Africa (MESA). It has been credited with some small but tangible changes, according to Pradhan. For example, Botswana did not have any environmental programmes until a MESA masters was set up.

Newer university networks based on MESA are being developed in the Caribbean under the Mainstreamimg Environment and Sustainability in the Caribbean (MESCA) partnership programme, and in Asia-Pacific with the Regional University Consortium on Environment for Sustainable development.



Athough GUPES held its first meeting in Nairobi in 2010, and another in Chile last year, it has become more international. Rio+20 is being seen as an arena where universities can provide leadership and influence policy on the sustainability agenda.Delegates at the Shanghai launch said one of the major contributions of universities would be to elaborate the concept, principles and parameters for a green economy within the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, one of the major agenda items of the Rio+20 Summit.

In particular, universities could play a critical role in developing metrics for measuring progress in green economy initiatives, which are being discussed at Rio+20. For example, the government of Barbados linked with a local university for a green economy scoping study and, using the main findings, the university provided guidance for a national green economy initiative. Universities have already been important providers of inputs to UNEP’s sourcebooks on the green economy and on ecosystem management, which will lead to masters degrees at GUPES partner universities on these issues, according to Pradhan.

Through GUPES, UNEP will support universities in developing sustainability curricula and low-carbon (green) campuses, and in developing and delivering training courses for policy-makers on environmental and sustainability issues and management. It will also work to strengthen regional higher education networks.


Training for the green economy

Universities will also be hubs to engage with policy-makers on training. “It is critical that policy-makers ensure long-term productive capacity by promoting a new cadre of engineers, technicians and scientists sensitive to sound environmental development,” said Bindu Lohani, vice-president of knowledge management and sustainable development at the Asian Development Bank, in a keynote speech at the GUPES launch.

He pointed out that in many regions of the developing world and emerging Asia, huge benefits have been reaped from knowledge and innovation produced elsewhere. “The next level of development means we bring this expertise and innovation home.”

And he added: “Most importantly, it means we must constantly retool our education systems to ensure graduates are ready for the task.”

 2012-GUPES-Short Meeting Report-GUPES at Tongji