Uniting universities behind common purpose key to tackling global challenges: U of A president

Partnerships can amplify universities’ contributions as wellsprings of innovation and drive progress toward a more sustainable world, says Bill Flanagan during COP27 conference.


U of A president Bill Flanagan is representing a global network of leading universities at a panel event during the COP27 climate change conference, highlighting the key role universities can play as partners in tackling global sustainability challenges. (Photo: John Ulan)

University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan is representing the collective voices of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) at COP27, the United Nations climate change conference, to highlight how universities can lead on global sustainability efforts through advancing research on sustainable energy systems and climate change.

Thursday’s panel, comprising leaders from the world’s top post-secondary networks, will discuss how universities can contribute to global climate change efforts and develop a united voice in securing a bigger seat at climate change talks.

“It is clear that universities are solutions providers in tackling climate change. Implementation hinges on our partnerships — partnerships among universities globally enable us to share knowledge and develop new technologies and other innovations,” Flanagan says.

WUN is an international network of 24 top universities on six continents brought together to partner on solving many of the world’s most pressing challenges, such as sustainable energy systems.

“Our faculty and researchers are at the leading edge of discovering technologies to produce, store, transport and deliver cleaner, reliable energy sources in ways that drive us to net-zero emissions and help meet Canada's commitments to combating climate change,” says Flanagan. “From generating cleaner fuels such as hydrogen, to carbon capture and its use and storage, our research activity is occurring across the entire continuum of energy systems.”

Flanagan, who is joined at COP27 in Egypt by Aminah Robinson Fayek, U of A vice-president of research and innovation, notes the university is home to Canada's largest energy research cluster.

Future Energy Systems involves 121 projects, 143 researchers and more than 1,000 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, working across disciplines to improve energy processes and reduce environmental impact — from sustainable development of fossil fuels to research on carbon capture and storage, grids and storage, and renewables such as biomass, geothermal, wind and solar — all supported with a $75-million investment from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

Some of the major climate change priorities that WUN researchers are collaborating on include sustainable and affordable food, clean and affordable energy, and human response and adaptation. 

The U of A plays an especially important role as the northernmost research-intensive institution in Canada, and a strategic location at the gateway to Canada's North.

“Knowing the past can help us predict what's ahead,” says Flanagan, pointing to the U of A’s role as home to a number of northern and Arctic research initiatives, including the Canadian Ice Core Lab.

“Melting ice caps and rising sea levels are a significant climate change concern, and much of what we know about Canada's Arctic ice comes from U of A faculty, alumni and our valued partners.”

The university has also been able to leverage WUN to partner on Indigenous-engaged and Indigenous-led research. This is important in the context of climate change because Indigenous populations are being disproportionately affected by climate change.

“The U of A is committed to working closely with Indigenous communities — recognizing they need to lead the energy systems solutions in their communities — as well as engaging Indigenous communities and incorporating traditional knowledge to co-develop solutions to meet their needs.”

A good example of this type of multi-stakeholder and Indigenous-led research is the Ărramăt Project, which received $24 million in 2022 from the Canadian government’s New Frontiers in Research Fund.

The project brings together more than 150 Indigenous organizations and governments from around the world with researchers at 19 Canadian universities, two Canadian colleges and 14 international universities.

They will carry out more than 140 Indigenous-led, place-based research projects in 24 countries to examine the links between the loss of biodiversity and the decline in Indigenous health. Many of these projects will confront the drivers of biodiversity decline and poor health, including climate change, and propose solutions that can be acted on to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples.

Being the flagship university in a resource-rich province comes with a particular expertise that will allow the U of A and its WUN colleagues to play a leading role in determining what the next energy renaissance looks like, Flanagan notes.

“Meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow is part of who we are as a university, spurred forward by our shared responsibility to build a better world for all.”