How can universities contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?

Often the responsibility to be sustainable is left to the individual or small organisations and collectives, with universities rarely being active; or, at least, not noticeably so. Universities are far larger contributors to climate change than initially perceived, and they have the potential to have far larger positive influences than we give them credit for.

The Sustainable Development Goals call on UN member states – Australia Included – to work towards development priorities by 2030. They aim to bring an end to poverty, address issues like climate change and resource conflict, and bring about peace, security, equality, and education.

The University Commitment to Sustainable Development Goals shows a growing commitment by these institutions to achieving the SDGs. Five Australian universities signed the agreement in 2016. The ANU was not one of them. These universities have ‘agreed to utilise their research and education resources to advance the SDGs.’ As well as providing this research assistance, they committed to ensuring their campuses are environmentally and socially sustainable.

This is a massive topic to cover, so this article focuses on a few ideas that universities can do to contribute to a more sustainable and equal world. Most of this article will focus on Goal 13, ‘Climate Action’ (in turn linked to all the other goals), and some ideas to help alleviate poverty and hunger (Goals 1 and 2).

Engaging in research that seeks to alleviate global problems is important, but practical changes on campus should be the first step in demonstrating a commitment to a sustainable future.

Universities can lead on these issues: they can contribute by taking action and providing information to the university community. University administrations have enough power to implement changes and restrictions in the buildings and facilities running under their command. They can also have sway over the manner in which the student body and staff act.

There are many small ways that universities can contribute. They can attempt – like many villages and towns in the country (with Coles Bay in Tassie being the first in 2003) – to place a ban on the distribution of plastic bags when purchasing goods in their respective communal areas. Many shops across the nation (and even worldwide) understand the pros of plastic bags but have instead opted to add an additional few cents, deterring the majority of customers from purchasing them and incentivising them into bringing their own.

Along the same line, the university could enforce the use of biodegradable containers, and where not possible (i.e. pho), recyclable plastic containers with facilities to ensure the cleaning/emptying and recycling of the containers. I have seen the red landfill bins of the Pop-Up filled with recyclable plastic containers holding the small remains of lunch. Evidently not only are facilities (like a bin for organic waste) required but sufficient education and signage too.

While it may not be fully within the universities’ grasp, they could impose limitations on the energy and water usage of any residential colleges. This, of course, is something that may not be feasible, but even something as simple as setting goals for them, and rewarding/denouncing for results may create a change in student’s consumption and waste levels. Other options could include installing shower timers or environmentally friendly shower heads and light bulbs.

Universities should have and frequently update an Environmental Management Plan (EMP). The ANU has one and it, theoretically, helps to understand and effectively manage the University’s environmental footprint. Though even in the ANU’s, issues arise and flaws pointed out by student groups. Flaws often in these documents, such as the ANU’s 2016-2020 draft, occur in the area of refurbishment, construction, and demolition. The ANU’s current EMP mentions ‘adopting sustainable building practices’ in its new projects and refurbishments. However, this only considers the impact of the buildings after their construction or renovation.

Often it can be far cheaper and greener to renovate or retro-fit a building rather than commission a new building altogether. This process of dismantling the old, and bringing in the materials for the new building, as well as the construction, is often far worse for the environment (immediate and the wider areas) than perceived. While the ANU released Sustainability Specifications in 2012, to ‘guide the construction of all new buildings and retrofits’, the document ignores the cost of the construction process – as many current projects are doing. The question is: do the savings made by the new ‘green’ building cover the cost of building it? How many universities are aware of the footprint of construction?

As we know, the Sustainable Development Goals do not only include climate change and carbon footprints; but a wide range of other socio-economic aspects of our lifestyles. We must combat issues like poverty, hunger, water quality, inequalities, and justice on a global scale, as well as locally. In regards to alleviating poverty and hunger, universities can try help out their surrounds (or assist in charities for international aid). A small fund, which they could source money by divesting from fossil fuels (or small cuts in profit), could go towards helping feed, house, or provide new initiatives to help the homeless of Canberra. This would show that the university cares about citizens, and is making an attempt to achieve the SDGs.

We know that universities can influence the behaviour of their students and staff through, as well as lead by example in the wider community. Changes made, actions taken, and education provided by universities could drastically improve their environmental and societal outputs, and show a commitment to investing in people and communities, rather than the destruction of the planet.

While groups of students are staff are advocating for change, action, and education in our universities, they often do not have the reach or resources to make a difference at the institutional level. These actions and efforts would be far more effective if provided with university support. We require cooperation and leadership from our universities and the administrations must be held responsible if they do not comply. They must take action to assist and lead the student and staff populations to attempt to achieve the sustainable future that the SDGs aim for.