Re:thinking / Re:working higher education: SDG Conference Bergen

“The last lesson I learnt is that sustainability is not in the future but in the present. Personal experience taught me that most people want to be reassured that they are going to survive 2019.” Silvio Funtowicz, Philosopher of Science, University of Bergen

During the first week of February, the University of Bergen in Norway hosted the 2nd National SDG Conference. Over two days, national and international speakers from academia, government, civil society, activism and the United Nations system, explored the roles of research and education in creating new approaches for shared commitments towards a sustainable global future. The conference aimed to mobilise participants to re:think the development path SDGs are calling us to follow and re:work  the tools and knowledge we need to achieve them.

Climate action and economic growth

Climate concerns were at the core of the discussions. Dr. Jason Hickel, from Goldsmiths University of London, referred to the recent reports from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), calling for 100% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This, he said, requires a radical and dramatic transformation – a total reconstitution of our energy system, which has relied on fossil fuels for over 200 years and now needs to be completely reorganised in 30 years. The question is, can we really decarbonise the entire global economy by 2050 while at the same time tripling its size (SDG8)? 

“This is not just about changing behaviour. This is about designing a new economic system for the 21st century… one that doesn’t require endless growth in order to flourish.” Dr. Jason Hickel

The IPCC suggests that we scale down material production and consumption, starting with high-consuming rich nations. Dr. Hickel’s answer to this challenge involves a ‘post-growtheconomy’. His proposal includes replacing GDP with a more ‘sensible’ measure of economic progress that takes into account various shared costs, such as environmental and social factors. He says that ‘redistributive justice’ is the antidote to the growth imperative, a principle absent from the Paris Accord, but which clearly sparked the yellow vest protests.

Can universities play a role in this shift to zero emissions? Yes, they can and experts in the field gave some ideas on the How:

  1. Travelling is the number one source of carbon emissions for universities — so they must adopt measuresto fairly reduce flights of their personnel;
  2. The circular economy is another concept that universities should incorporate in their policies by educating students how to create — and not only extract — value from the economy.
  3. Universities in the global North should commit to global equity by sealing long-term partnerships with universities in the developing world and helping them to catch-up.
  4. Moreover, students should be exposed to climate policy and political mobilisation around this issue and be taught how to change the world.


“Make climate solutions thinking and acting sexy!” Dr. Martin Visbeck, GEOMAR – Helmholz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

‘System thinking’ for universities

A real challenge for universities nowadays, according to Prof. Katherine Richardson, leader of the Sustainability Science Centre, is to avoid getting trapped in narrow, sector-specific approaches. She said that, according to university leaders, cooperation and transdisciplinary work spontaneously occurs simply by putting different departments under the same roof. Things are rarely this simple, of course, so new ways should be found to unify the range of disciplines in order to generate comprehensive answers to complex, global challenges.

This need for a holistic approach also applies to our work for the SDGs. At the very core of sustainability is the ‘well-being’ conflict between human needs (SDGs 1,2,3,4,5,6) and environmental needs (SDGs 13,14,15), said Prof. Richardson. Living in such a complex socio-ecological system requires an integrated approach that goes far beyond basic inter-disciplinary research. We need to carve out a new space for research, to respect the ‘non-linearities’, plurality of perspectives and irreducible uncertainty that characterise our system, added Mr. Funtowicz.

“SDGs are just a vision for how we want to share the Earth’s resources and every country is as far from achieving them as every other.” Katherine Richardson, leader of the Sustainability Science Centre.

At the end of the conference, the Rector of the University of Bergen, Dr. Dag Rune Olsen, announced the creation of a national platform for sharing best practices in university work on the SDGs, with a particular focus on education. This platform aims to give answers to the question, ‘What universities can do to engage with the 2030 Agenda?’ – by forming a national committee and promoting collaboration between different academic and public institutions. This announcement and the commitment for enhancing efforts for more national and international partnerships, closed the curtains of Bergen’s second conference on the SDGs.


Photo credits:

Eivind Senneset, for the University of Bergen
Maria Tomai, for UNU-MERIT
Flickr / H.Permana