University College Cork – World’s top sustainability institution

University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland estimates that it has protected the environment from nearly half a million single use cups, either plastic or paper, to date by banning them from the beginning of the year.

Their absence is not the only evidence of the drive towards a ‘Green Campus’ which has rightly been described as “student-led, research-informed and practice-focused”. Watch out for the bin-free offices next year and more besides.

First Associate Vice-President of Sustainability Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir told University World News that the students began the ‘Green Journey’ some years back and then “the university leadership bought into and supported it”.

First in world

University College Cork started that journey before it became fashionable and before the world accepted it was essential for all institutions.

Its Green Campus Committee – which is co-chaired by the students’ union – was set up in 2007 and it became the first university in the world to be awarded a Green Flag in 2010 by the Foundation for Environmental Education.

The same year it also became the first university in the world to be awarded the ISO 50001 standard for energy management. Last year Cork created the Office of Sustainability and Climate Action and made it part of the President’s Office.

UCC’s story is a good example of a bottom-up approach to sustainability, which was met with a top-down commitment from university management.

As Hayley O’Connell Vaughan, UCC Students’ Union communications and engagement officer, explained: “Student activists have always been the key driving force behind sustainability practices in UCC. From our Green Flag to the roll out of the ‘Plastic Free UCC’ initiative; without students these initiatives would not have been possible.”

The university, which has more than 24,000 students, has already garnered around 35 awards in the sustainability space. The most recent was the Sustainability Institution of the Year award at the International Green Gown Awards ceremony held in New York recently as part of the United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

Coincidentally, Irish Minister for the Environment and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan was attending the forum on the same day to present Ireland’s voluntary national review on progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

University College Cork was also the first university in Europe to be awarded a Gold Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education in 2018. By 2027 it aims to achieve a platinum STARS rating. To date 149 gold but only 12 platinum STARS awards have been made.

Sustainability and Climate Action Plan

The university which was founded in 1845 is not sitting on its latest laurel but is rapidly forging ahead with its new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, which was launched in July by Ryan’s colleague, Minister for Finance Michael McGrath.

The plan lays out a pathway to becoming a zero waste campus by 2030 and a carbon neutral campus by 2040, and commits the university to undertaking a measurable, science-based approach to get there.

It lists 62 concrete actions that the university is committed to undertaking over the next five years working across the whole institution to reduce its environmental footprint.

The plan covers nine areas: research; teaching and learning; climate action; sustainability citizenship; food, health and well-being; landscape, heritage and natural resources; waste reduction and circular economy; procurement and contracts; and commuting and active travel.

Each section lists strategic aims, objectives, actions and key milestones. For instance, the research actions include:

• Identify a sustainable funding model for the UCC Green Campus Living Laboratory Programme, with a new call issued on an annual basis.

• Publish at least one academic paper or book chapter per year on UCC Green Campus as well as policy briefs and case studies.

• Strengthen and advance UCC’s scientific excellence and leadership in sustainability research through UCC Futures Sustainability.

This year’s key milestones under the heading climate action are: needs assessment of capital projects; carbon budgets for business travel established; and all suppliers required to submit carbon footprint. The target for 2030 is onsite renewable capacity at 750,000 kWh per annum and annual energy use reduced by 575,000 kWh.

As part of its commitment to sustainability citizenship, all senior management will be trained in climate ‘proofing’ by the end of this year. An all-Ireland Sustainable Development Solutions Network, focused on public engagement with the SDGs – co-hosted by Cork and Queen’s University Belfast – is up and running on schedule. The aims and objectives under the other headings are equally ambitious with tight implementation timelines.

Throughout the plan there is also a commitment to driving emissions reduction outside of UCC by informing policy, supporting business and empowering society through engaged research on climate action and co-produced solutions.

The plan sets out an engagement process with local authorities and the wider community on sustainability. This will include UCC developing a programme with the local city council that will assess green space use and promote wild areas, green space and food growing initiatives.

Sustainability research

The university backs up practising sustainability by researching it.

There are more than 500 researchers in its Environmental Research Institute, which was established in 2000 to consolidate and advance UCC’s wide range of research activities in sustainability.

The university is ranked first place globally in terms of academic citations, according to Google Scholar, in three specific areas of sustainability research.

A key focus of its research is to leverage scientific excellence from across the range of academic disciplines to deliver societal impact. These disciplines include different branches of physical sciences, engineering, sociology, law, politics and business.

Ó Gallachóir cited as an example of its environmental impact a recent announcement by Irish Distillers of an investment of €50 million (US$54 million) to deliver a carbon neutral distillery by the end of 2026. The decision was underpinned by collaborative research with UCC.

The Green Gown Awards

“We’re not talking about ‘greenwashing’ here – this is the real thing” said the vice-president, who is naturally delighted over the university’s latest Green Gown accolade.

There were 93 finalists from 25 countries competing in eight categories for the Green Gown awards. The headline partner for the awards is Allianz Global Investors. The awards are endorsed by the UN Environment Programme and supported by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, L’Agence universitaire de la Francophonie, the International Association of Universities and the UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative.

The awards recognise and celebrate the exceptional sustainability initiatives being undertaken by universities and colleges across the world. They are administered by EAUC – the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education.

The judges said that University College Cork provided strong evidence of leadership and the development of institution-wide sustainability practices. This was further evidenced by certifications, rankings and key performance indicator improvements.

There was clear commitment that has been sustained over a long period of time. The judges noted that this started as a student led initiative that the university leadership bought into and supported.

“This is a worthy winner of the Sustainability Institution of the Year” they declared.