Universities must help teach lessons on sustainability

UCC social work student Sarah Kearney with colleague Michael Crockett and student Saima Manuel. The university’s campus is now home to several beehives. Picture: Clare Keogh

UCC’s students called for action on the environment a year ago, and we are following through — as we all should be, writes John O’Halloran.

Sustainability rests on all our shoulders. We are the last generation that can fight climate change, and history will judge us harshly if we do not act.

These were the sentiments of the then UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon in 2015, and it is our belief that it is incumbent on universities to act in the single greatest challenge our society faces.

Over a decade ago, our students led our university community to make the decision that we must seek to act. If we were to inspire policy change, if we were to inspire those around us, the generations that pass through our doors, we must become a university that places sustainability at the heart of all that we do.

So what did we do? We examined our practices, our teaching, our research, and our engagement and set out on a path to that which would lead this institution on a course to be recognised as a world-leading university in the field of sustainability.

The framework adopted at UCC incorporates a bottom-up approach — activism, matched with top-down leadership, support, and strategies. At middle out — a university-wide module on sustainability. This approach has mobilised and inspired a university to contribute towards creating a sustainable future.

More than 500 universities in 75 countries were recently assessed to ascertain how they are contributing towards the UN’s blueprint for creating a sustainable world.

UCC was Ireland’s highest ranked university, at number 21 in the world. Such a recognition is testament to the passion and determination of our students and staff, to be part of an institution that places sustainability at its core. Of course, recognition is appreciated, but plaudits will not help in what must be our continuous focus: How society can balance our impact on the planet.

Watching recent documentaries on climate change can leave one in a mournful state on how we got here and how, with the clock ticking, we can find a solution. We must put our shoulder to the wheel and, yes, it starts with you. Little changes in how we lead our lives can add up to significant impacts for our planet.

We have to question the use of plastic, we must plan that public transportation is extended across our communities, and we must encourage debate on the sustainability of our practices which impact on our environment.

Just this week, 200 education leaders from 51 Asian and European countries met in Bucharest to share how their organisations contribute to policy development and take action towards the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainability.

On a recent bank holiday Monday, Ireland awoke to news of a major global UN report that painted in detail how our natural world is being decimated. From coral reefs disappearing to rainforests becoming savannahs, nature is being destroyed at a rate a hundred times higher than the average over the past 10m years.

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg

In Ireland, 91% of our habitats are in bad or poor condition, according to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. We may be a green country, but our action on sustainability is depressingly grey.

Mary Robinson, on our new UCC podcast, Plain Speaking, delivered an impassioned 20-minute discussion with one central message: We as a nation have not done enough.

Recently, experts from more than 30 countries gathered for an international conference on sustainability. Delegates reviewed the framework for the UI GreenMetric World University Rankings. What struck me was the passion from each university to try to make some imprint on the path that our economies and society have taken. Sharing the same planet, it is our collective responsibility to share our challenges and seek to find some possible solutions.

When seeking solutions, we can call on government, we can judge those who are not contributing, or we can seek change through our own actions. Even small actions can have a big impact. For example, our campus is now home to several beehives. Honey bees are known to be at risk of extinction all around the world, with considerable knock-on effects on human food sources as bees are needed to pollinate many crop species around the world.

Following the emergence of information on the global threat to bees, what was extraordinary to see has been the community response across Ireland, where small changes are set to make a big impact.

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, launched by the National Biodiversity Data Centre in 2015, lacks budget but certainly does not lack energy or impact. This simple but effective plan brings together communities across Ireland to change practices that impact on our bees and to address this real issue and to reverse pollinator decline.

That is where the answer lies, within the individual. We cannot wait for government to act, we cannot think of it as someone else’s problem, we cannot simply tune out. This is our problem, and our time to act is now. Think about your individual impact on the environment and make those changes today.

Can you use public transportation? Can you encourage retailers to use less plastic? Think about the cheap product you are going to buy, what has made it so cheap and how long will it last before you discard it? Challenge others to make similar changes in their lives.

Age is not a barrier to making a difference on this issue. Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, from the age of 15, has inspired a global movement to take action. At UCC we take the approach that campaigns and events that engage the student body in environmental issues are part of the ‘informal curriculum’.

Eighteen sustainability teams across the university, composed of our students and staff, dissect our impact and seek to change our practices and inform our teaching on sustainability.

In 1979, I published my first research paper on ecology. Forty years later and I have now witnessed the growth of a stunning research community here in Cork that is dedicated to environmental sustainability.

In Ringaskiddy, the Marine and Renewable Energy Centre is seeking ways to harness the energy within our waves and wind; the Environmental Research Institute on the banks of the River Lee brings together over 300 environmental researchers to address complex global challenges; in our School of Law our experts seek to embed environmental law in a path towards sustainability. Solutions to our challenges can be found in evidence-based research, which, when matched by will, can achieve great things.

In 2014, Ireland’s UN ambassador, David Donoghue, along with Kenya’s ambassador, Macharia Kamau, played a pivotal role in ensuring the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were developed and adopted. We are a small nation, but that, like age, is no excuse for inaction.

The recently published UN report on biodiversity states that developed countries, where policy actions and societal impacts are helping to raise awareness of environmental issues are leading the way in the protection of biodiversity and enhancing sustainability.

The hard-hitting report, which identifies the detrimental impacts of human activities on our natural environment, also presents a wide range of actions for sustainability across sectors such as agriculture, forestry, energy, and finance, underpinned by scientific knowledge, and highlights the critical need to integrate biodiversity considerations in global decision-making and individual behaviours.

It reminds each of us of our responsibility to preserve our planet for future generations. As universities we must build understanding, create hope, and realise an enduring transformation towards sustainability — sustainability through scholarship.

Professor John O’Halloran is deputy president and registrar at University College Cork.

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