Green universities – speeding up the pace of change for the 2030 Agenda

In May 2019, the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a summary report for policymakers, “suggesting that around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss”.

Highlighting the importance of biodiversity not only for our quality of life but for human existence per se, the report calls for transformative changes, i.e. “a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values”. This is one of several reports, including the Global Environment Outlook 6 and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report, that seeks a new relationship between humanity and nature.

Despite all this, the pace of change is failing to keep up with the 2030 Agenda – so what can universities do? To my eyes, academia can play a role in the transformative change required for sustainability: from research that fosters technological, social and economic innovations, to learning processes that promote discussion and deliberation about paradigms and values, universities can promote a shift towards sustainability.

A few weeks ago, my other home institution, EAFIT University, co-hosted the ‘Green Universities Forum’ in partnership with Low Carbon City and SITE4Society. The event was again held in Medellín, Colombia, gathering academic experts and researchers from various disciplines, as well as administrative staff from universities, students and engaged citizens.

According to Felipe Castro, Deputy Director of the Centre for the SDGs in Latin America and the Caribbean, the 2030 Agenda is a very robust initiative, yet “there are tensions and trade-offs among the SDGs that need to be solved: in those points is where universities can act, both through research and raising awareness”. Moreover, universities can serve as convergence points where different sectors can gather to collaborate; in the words of Laura Hernández, student of Political Sciences at EAFIT and representative of the students in this institution, universities “can be the epicentre of collaborative governance”.

Skills for sustainability – and future leadership

For universities to contribute to change, they must also undergo a transformation. Prof. Marco Rieckmann from the University of Vechta in Germany emphasised the institutional approach, whereby universities i) promote learning for sustainability ii) do inter- and transdisciplinary research about it, iii) organise themselves sustainably (including campus operation), and iv) fulfil their community responsibilities. Prof. Rieckmann then aimed his presentation at the decision makers of the future, saying they should develop their critical and systems thinking, self-awareness, and integrated problem-solving.

These competencies are not expected to be acquired or developed solely through cognitive processes or information about sustainability issues. Besides head, heart and hands are required to mobilise the socio-emotional and behavioural domains. Engaging students in participatory and practical research projects that solve real sustainability problems — that’s the best way to promote skills and learning for sustainable development, concluded Prof. Rieckmann.

Sustainable entrepreneurship in Colombia

Proving that universities can produce research that brings social, ecological and economic benefits, Dr. Mabel Torres, professor and researcher at Universidad Tecnológica del Chocó, presented her work on one of the most biodiverse places in the world: the Chocó region in the west of Colombia. As the ecological richness of this region contrasts with its high poverty rates, in 2012 Dr. Torres created ‘Bioinnova’, the National Science, Technology and Innovation Centre for Sustainable Productive Development of Biodiversity, which has so far spun off five companies to make sustainable use of biodiversity (producing food, clothing and cleaning supplies, while generating employment and serving society).

The second Green Universities Forum showed the potential that lies in these institutions to facilitate the flourishing of a sustainable society. But to do so, we need to act more intensively and decisively – and we need to start doing it now. As the Chinese proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”.