Sustainable institutions should also be equal institutions

As the world races against time to prevent irreversible climate change, cooperation from all sectors of the economy is imperative.

Educational institutions, as custodians and repositories of knowledge, have a duty not only to respond to climate research findings by putting in place measures to reduce their carbon footprints, but also provide quality instruction to students who will go on to influence society.

Given the universality of climate change, there is a need for educational institutions in the developed world to partner with institutions in the developing world.

To avoid awakening the ghost of colonialism, such partnerships must be approached from an understanding that, although the impact of climate change is felt globally, various sections of the globe have different perspectives and developmental priorities in dealing with climate change and sustainability.

Considering the influence that educational institutions have on society, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be achieved without the active participation of all citadels of learning. But notions of and approaches to sustainability may vary in different climes.

Hence, institutional collaboration in the form of knowledge exchange, technical partnerships and sustainable projects promotion is essential.

Whilst making efforts to encourage sustainability abroad, educational institutions must embody equality in all areas of their activities.

The lack of equality in tertiary institutions in developed countries is shown by the limited curricula on slavery and colonial practices, low enrolment of minority ethnic groups in Ivy League institutions, an absence of diversity in management positions and the disproportionate payment scales for women and minority ethnic nationalities.

The need for action

Human activities have plunged the planet on a downward slope towards environmental devastation. Anthropocentric exploitation and consumption of the planet's resources have resulted in climate change and threaten the survival of all species.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report 2022 further underscores the need for governments, businesses and people to make a paradigm shift in our use of the Earth’s resources to prevent irreversible climate change.

The frequency of wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, melting of the Arctic and loss of biodiversity testify to the urgency of the crisis. This echoes the concerns raised in the Paris Agreement 2015 and subsequent conferences. Such a generational shift entails the entrenchment of sustainability in our development.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a collective understanding that preserving the planet requires concerted efforts and global harmony.

The goals, which cover economic, social and environmental aspects of development, provide governments and policy-makers with a workable exemplar of developmental objectives that should be pursued to entrench global prosperity for all with minimal impact on the environment.

However, in driving the ideals of sustainability, emphasis has often been placed on the environmental aspects of the SDGs over the social and economic aspects. The basic understanding of sustainability for most people revolves around reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using low or zero carbon energy, cutting down on the use of plastic and promoting a plant-based diet.

Sustainability cannot truly be attained without the SDGs. For instance, no matter the efforts to cut down fossil fuels, where there is still poverty, low-income households will continue to use unsustainable means to meet their energy needs, such as the felling of trees for wood fuel or the indiscriminate hunting of animals (including endangered species) for food.

The role of universities

Higher education institutions can play a key role in broadening the scope of understanding of the SDGs not only by conducting research and teaching concerning the subject, but also implementing the goals in their operations and programmes.

Influencers of sustainability in society include activists, non-governmental organisations, policy-makers (including the legislature, executive and judiciary), youth (including students) and academics.

A huge percentage of these influencers go through educational establishments. Higher education institutions can shape the sustainability narrative through the nature and quality of instruction provided to future generations.

However, disseminating a balanced narrative on sustainability requires an understanding of the historical context with regard to countries’ contribution to climate change.

Historical and present contributions to climate change influence the discourse on sustainability and the perspective adopted by the Global North and Global South.

Given the contribution of the developed world to climate change, there is a greater responsibility on the Global North to change its consumption patterns. However, while developed and developing countries agree on the need to avert irreversible climate change, the approaches to addressing these concerns are different.

Sustainability in the Global North implies sustainable consumption, energy efficiency and the deployment of low or zero carbon energy sources; whereas in the Global South, government priorities are focused on exploiting natural resources (including fossil fuels) to meet domestic needs, promoting social well-being and economic development, even when this portends heightened risk to environmental sustainability.

Resilient partnerships are therefore imperative to bridge the developmental gap.

Acting in partnership

Sustainability thrives through partnerships and partnerships have been recognised in Goal 17 as being key to achieving the SDGs. Universities in developed countries can influence sustainability in their developing country counterparts through research collaboration and sustainable project partnerships.

Through knowledge exchange and information sharing, institutions can partner in the development of innovative technologies. Researchers can be allowed to conduct research overseas and best practices, new research models and improved methodologies can be exchanged between institutions on different continents to drive development.

Further, given that Western institutions have access to more modern equipment and technical expertise, it is vital to welcome scholars and young innovators from developing countries who can take advantage of these facilities to realise their inventions.

However, before inviting scholars from overseas universities, higher education institutions in the developed world should promote equality and diversity within their institutions.

Providing quality sustainability education begins with designing balanced and inclusive curricula that are not overly Americentric or Eurocentric as this only provides a prejudiced perspective on global issues; for example, calling out environmental pollution in developing countries without highlighting the role of outsourced emissions from Western countries.

It equally entails equity in university enrolment. At the management level, opportunities should be available to deserving academics irrespective of their nationality, ethnicity or other distinct features.

Importantly, there should be no pay gap when it comes to ethnicity, neither should access to research funding be based on biased metrics.

Having identified the need to improve on their equality and diversity performance, higher education institutions should ensure that minority groups are not merely used as pawns to appear ‘diverse’ such as a black woman in STEM used for photo opportunities for funding applications.

Higher education is critical to attaining sustainability. However, a broader appreciation of sustainability within the SDG framework is required to effectively perform the duty of disseminating quality sustainability education.

Resilient partnerships between higher education institutions in the Global North and South remain a potent tool to advance sustainability beyond borders. However, in the long run, sustainability in higher education institutions in the developed world will be measured by how much equality and diversity has been achieved within higher education programmes and activities, as well as among members of the academic community.

This goal should be pursued tenaciously by academic planners and decision-makers in higher education.

This article relates to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but particularly SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all; SDG 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts; and SDG 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development. More details on the Sustainable Development Goals and the 169 targets for implementing them can be found here.

Etisang Abraham is a PhD researcher in law and philosophy at the University of Stirling, Scotland, United Kingdom.