Universities make climate change a priority among SDGs

Climate change protests are pushing climate action up the agenda of universities and colleges across the world, according to a new report on progress in higher education towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The second SDG Accord report, Progress towards the Global Goals in the University and College Sector, was launched on 10 July at the United Nations High-level Political Forum in New York by the Global Alliance – a partnership of the world’s universities, colleges and sustainability networks. Progress reported by institutions on the SDGs this year has proven to be significant.

The report recommends that university leaders commit to net zero carbon emissions and sign the global climate emergency letter.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

This SDG Accord report is the accountability mechanism of the SDG Accord, a high-profile international initiative developed to allow the tertiary education sector to demonstrate its commitment to the SDGs. It is presented annually to the United Nations.

Sam Barratt, chief of education and youth for UN Environment and chair of the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, said: “The take-away from the survey of 110 institutions is that they are already embracing their role in educating and supporting this new generation of leaders.

“Every Friday we see this new consciousness rising, as young people demand action and call on governments, companies and institutions to move faster to address the climate emergency.

“The SDG Accord brings these institutions together, giving them a platform to share best practice and empowers them to be more aspirational on this agenda. The report shows that acting on climate change and education are the stand-out priorities, but positive action is being taken on all of the SDGs with real change taking place, just one year on since the last report.”

Last week, as University World News reported, networks representing 7,000 higher and further education institutions announced they were declaring a climate emergency and agreed to address the crisis through research, the curriculum and by going carbon neutral.

Pledge to align university efforts

The SDG Accord, signed by institutions, individuals, supporting organisations and student organisations encourages signatories to “align all major efforts with the Sustainable Development Goals, targets and indicators, including through their education, research, leadership, operational and engagement activities”.

It urges them to involve all stakeholder groups, collaborate across cities, regions, countries and continents with other signatory institutions as part of a collective international response, and inform, share their learning and account to both local and global communities their progress towards the SDGs.

The SDG Accord is an international initiative that the Global Alliance developed to allow the higher education sector to demonstrate its commitment to playing its part in meeting the SDGs, and sharing best practice.

This is a partnership initiative, endorsed by the UN’s Higher Education Sustainability Initiative and many other global partners. Launched in 2017, it currently has official commitment to its tenets from 110 institutions, 103 support organisations and 817 individuals – all spread across 85 countries.

“The SDG Accord provides a platform to come together in a movement, to inspire, celebrate and advance the critical role that education has in delivering the SDGs, and presents this in a coherent annual report for use by the UN, governments, business and wider society,” the report explains.

Scaling of impact

“While the sustainability journey of each institution will reflect its unique context, it is clear that connecting them together through the SDG Accord offers the opportunity for scaling of impact.”

There are 17 SDGs covering different aspects of sustainable development and initially the main area of impact reported by institutions was on SDG 4 (Quality education) and SDG 3 (Good health and well-being). But the standout change in priorities now is towards climate action (SDG 13).

Iain Patton, CEO of the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, known as EAUC, which presented the report to the High-level Political Forum, said: “We are already starting to see an increase in the drive from institutions to lower their carbon emissions as they seek to show the leadership and foresight expected of advanced education institutions.

“This increase in action is due to the publication of scientific research papers warning how imminently a climate catastrophe will occur, combined with pressure from students and academics as they participate in global climate strikes and other actions to force the issue up the agenda.”

The SDG Accord report reveals that more than two thirds (70%) of respondent institutions had mapped their activities to the SDGs either partially or entirely. Furthermore, 62% of respondents report publicly on their SDG work – a 50% increase from 2018.

The majority of institutions (71%) said that the SDGs were a strategic priority. This could be linked to the findings from 2018 that saw 71% of respondents state that discussing the SDGs at an executive level was their next step for the following year.

Anecdotally, many institutions said the SDG Accord has been a useful tool to open up discussion on the SDGs at a more senior level within their institution.

Over the past 12 months, the SDGs that institutions outlined they had the biggest impact on were SDG 4 (Quality education), SDG 3 (Good health and well-being) and SDG 5 (Gender equality). When asked what they would be prioritising over the next 12 months, 72% said SDG 13 (Climate action), 70% said SDG 4 (Quality education) and 58% said SDG 3 (Good health and well-being).

At the other end of the spectrum, the SDGs that institutions felt they had least impact on in the past 12 months were SDG 1 (No poverty), SDG 2 (Zero hunger) and SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation).

Biggest challenges

The biggest challenges for institutions in integrating the SDGs holistically were lack of staff capacity, lack of funding and limited understanding of the SDGs within the institution.

Patton said: “There has been a big increase year-on-year in tangible contribution to the SDGs in each university and college that has reported. These contributions are forward-thinking, engaging and innovative and we are excited to see them develop.

“But there is still much to do. Now that the SDGs are becoming embedded at a more senior level in institutions, we would like to see real progress on overcoming the barriers listed by institutions as problematic to the integration of the SDGs.

“In particular, there must be more training and support for staff on the SDGs to ensure they are equipped with the skills they require to push the agenda throughout their institution.”

The report includes case studies showing how universities are committing to aligning with the SDGs. One example given is Kuwait University’s commitments on SDG 4 (Quality education) and SDG 5 (Gender equality.).

Quality education is the main mission of Kuwait University (KU), supplying the labour market with graduates with competence and skill. KU has tried to focus on activating the quality of education, measuring the quality and excellence of all components, including students, staff and institutions.

Regarding SDG 5, it has established the Women’s Research and Studies Center, which supports the contribution of women to work and society, and has held conferences on achieving gender equality, issued reports on the status of women in Kuwait, carried out surveys on the challenges women face and trained women in leadership empowerment.

Examples of individual initiatives carried out by universities are also included.

For instance, Keele University in the United Kingdom ran a Beauty Bank project led by students, which involved collecting more than 1,000 items for people unable to afford hygiene products, in partnership with local charities.

Economic peace awards

Grenoble Ecole de Management in France held the first ever Economic Peace Trophies, which drew 70 companies as participants. They had carried out projects oriented around themes like the development of people, the evolution of management styles and the integration of all stakeholders.

UCSI University, Malaysia, reported Initiative Z, a student-led project dedicated to combating the waste crisis via designing and implementing engineering projects and sustainable practices focusing on waste aversion, diversion and resource substitution, to help minimise campus waste.

TERI School of Advanced Studies, India, held a conference titled “Reducing Inequalities in India by 2030: Challenges and ways forward in implementing SDG 10” and a two-day national seminar on “Poverty and Social Exclusion: A life course perspective.”

However, the report also noted that only 51 institutions out of the 110 actually submitted their report, and since reporting is mandatory, those that did not will be removed from the Accord to ensure it only contains institutions that are demonstrating progress. This year’s submissions were spread across 19 countries, but two-thirds of them came from the UK.