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Global Sustainability Challenges

The role of universities and student learning at NUI Galway

Michelle O’Dowd Lohan
Prof Frances Fahy
Prof Pól Ó Dochartaigh
Community and University Sustainability Partnership, NUI Galway

Éist le fuaim na habhann agus gheobhair breac
(Listen to the sound of nature and you will catch a trout)

We have about twelve years left to act on climate change. That’s the stark warning contained in a landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a network of climate experts convened by the United Nations (UN). The world is 1°C hotter than it was in the pre-industrial era, and the IPCC determined that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, global warming could reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030. Exceeding 1.5°C will lead to irreversible loss of the planet’s most delicate ecosystems and will significantly intensify the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat, and poverty for several hundred million of the most vulnerable people by 2050 (IPCC, 2018a).

The IPCC report says that ‘limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible’, but doing so requires ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’. Human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall ‘about 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050’, it says. ‘Limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared with 2°C would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being’ (IPCC, 2018b) – but this requires emissions to ‘decline rapidly across all society’s main sectors, including buildings, industry, energy, transport and agriculture’. The IPCC (2018c) lists some actions towards this end: ‘phasing out coal in the energy sector, increasing the amount of energy produced from renewable sources, electrifying transport, changing food systems and developing green building infrastructure’.

The news on biodiversity is equally grave. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) studied the global state of biodiversity and wrote in its 2019 report: ‘Biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history. Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before. One million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction, many within decades.’ While significant achievements have been made in reducing poverty in recent decades, over 700 million people – 10% of the global population – ‘still live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.90 a day, and they are struggling to gain access to the most basic needs like health, education, water and sanitation’ (UN, 2019a). The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (2019) says that ‘over 820 million people suffer from hunger’. ‘If nothing changes,’ the One Planet Network (2019) tells us, then ‘in 35 years, with an increasing population that could reach 9.6 billion by 2050 we will need almost three planets to sustain our ways of living.’

Ní neart go cur le chéile
(There is no strength like co-operation)

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of seventeen global goals adopted by 193 member states in 2015. The SDG framework is the global community’s agreed new action plan for the next fifteen years to address the urgent economic, social, and environmental problems facing the world, from climate change and biodiversity loss to extreme poverty and hunger. The SDGs are universal: a call for action by all countries, developing and developed, rich and poor, to recognise that global challenges require global solutions and that we must all work together to promote prosperity and safeguard the planet.

The SDGs are interconnected and integrate all dimensions of sustainability. They recognise that ‘ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs, including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection’ (UN, 2019a). According to the UN Foundation (2019):

The SDGs recognise that specific global issues like health, finance, conflict and the environment are deeply connected, and our understanding, appreciation, and responses should be shaped accordingly. The interconnectedness of these issues is at the heart of the SDGs, and to make progress we need to break down silos and improve how we work together across issues and across sectors.

Gach dalta mar oiltear
(Every student is as they are trained)

While we all have a role to play in building a sustainable society, universities can play a significant part in the transition. Universities have a particular responsibility to promote sustainability through education, research, knowledge exchange, and corporate social responsibility. They can shape future agendas and play a central role in achieving the SDGs. According to O’Malley (2019), ‘None of the SDGs can be achieved without the contribution of higher education through research, teaching and community engagement.’ He adds: ‘To increase the likelihood of success for the 17 SDGs, higher education institutions worldwide must teach and train today’s students – tomorrow’s decision-makers – to think both critically and ethically, to learn to cope with ethical dilemmas and apply systems-thinking approaches to serious and complex societal problems.’

To become successful SDG implementers, students require knowledge and understanding of the SDG framework, complemented by competencies in systems thinking, critical thinking, problem-solving, entrepreneurship, social responsibility, and partnership (SDSN, 2017). The real challenge for universities is to identify ways to integrate sustainability into the learning experience for all students and not just those who take subjects related directly to sustainability: ‘All students need to be aware of the local, regional and global contexts in which they live and make decisions. A single course in college can only ever be a beginning’ (Levi and Rothstein, 2018).

Learn–Live–Lead: The NUI Galway sustainability journey

At NUI Galway, our Learn–Live–Lead approach to sustainability recognises the important role that students play in advancing the SDG agenda. The model places students at the heart of the sustainability journey and promotes sustainability scholarship, environmental stewardship, and global citizenship as key student attributes. The aim with learn is to embed sustainability literacy into all aspects of university practice, learning, and research, so that students gain the knowledge and skills necessary to foster and demonstrate sustainable thinking and decision-making even after graduation. The aim with live is to implement the principles of sustainability through campus operations, so that graduates understand the importance of sustainable living in all aspects of their lives and value their connection to the physical environment, ecosystems, and biodiversity. The focus of lead is on graduating students who are societally aware and valued for their world-readiness. This is achieved by developing the campus as a role model for sustainability and fostering partnerships between community and university that promote greater civic engagement among students and staff. Through the leadership of students, staff, and graduates, NUIG aims to scale sustainability successes beyond the campus walls, acting as a leader on sustainability locally, nationally, and globally.

Below are five examples of measures that can be taken across the Learn–Live–Lead model, to support students to develop the skills and competencies needed to become sustainability role models, advocates, and leaders in their service to the outside world.

  1. Embed sustainability in the curriculum

Sustainability principles can be embedded in the academic curriculum in a number of ways: by developing new, sustainability-focused modules and programmes; integrating sustainability content into existing courses; increasing the extent of sustainability learning outcomes in academic programmes; and integrating sustainability values into student graduate attributes. Concepts of sustainability need to be incorporated broadly into courses so that students see it in a holistic way, from environmental, social, and economic perspectives.

By offering a sustainability curriculum that is relevant to the needs of society and responsive to the changes taking place, universities can play a pivotal role in equipping students with the knowledge and skills necessary to address complex sustainability challenges. A good starting point is to review undergraduate and postgraduate modules contained in the online curriculum management system, to determine baseline sustainability teaching. This can involve identifying keywords such as ‘environment’ and ‘nature’, and applying the search terms to all active and approved modules. Involving students in the process generates awareness of the scope and scale of sustainability-related teaching. Sustainability is taught across disciplines in all colleges at NUI Galway, and the number of modules that raise awareness of the environment, nature, and sustainability rose from 196 in 2015 to 231 in 2018.

  1. Use the campus as a ‘living lab’

‘Living lab’ is a concept that ‘aims to establish partnerships or programmes that connect the academic activities of the institution (i.e. teaching & learning, and academic research) with non-academic partners,’ according to the EAUC (2019). ‘Non-academic partners can include internal university operations, estates departments, local communities, businesses, charities and voluntary groups.’

Using the campus buildings and estate as a ‘living lab’ is a great way for students to apply sustainability practices learned in the classroom to real-life experience. With a living-labs approach, students can develop problem-solving, critical-thinking and systems-thinking skills and learn to collaborate, build partnerships, and work with a team. Examples of living-lab projects rolled out at NUI Galway include environmental students compiling inventories of biodiversity, engineering students investigating resource use in buildings, business students working with catering contractors to reduce food waste, and marketing students developing sustainability awareness campaigns.

Students require guidance and mentorship when using the campus as a living lab. But while it is important to provide clear and measurable goals and to supervise the work, giving students time to work on ideas can allow creativity and innovation to flourish. Creating a central database of sustainability questions that need answering is a good way to involve all the campus community. Developing projects that align to the university’s core sustainability objectives can also progress the sustainability agenda.

  1. Set up a student internship award programme

A sustainability internship programme extends sustainability beyond the classroom and enhances students’ academic, career and personal development. Offering students an opportunity to create and improve campus sustainability operations, via a summer internship with an expert in the field, fosters student leaders in sustainability, develops their sustainability knowledge and skills, and enhances their employability skills. Students benefit by gaining hands-on sustainability work experience. The university benefits by securing meaningful contributions from motivated students and by gaining student sustainability advocates, role models, and leaders to empower other students.

Internship projects can include developing online platforms and social media campaigns to engage students on sustainability, working to reduce waste, analysing energy- and water-consumption data and identifying opportunities to implement efficiencies, and developing initiatives to connect students to nature on campus. Providing paid internships and opening the programme to students from a wide variety of backgrounds helps promote equal access for all students. A student summer sustainability internship programme has been running at NUI Galway since 2016.

  1. Develop the role of sustainability officer

The sustainability officer (SO) of the university can make a significant contribution to student learning on sustainability. From focused engagement during new-student orientation, to supporting the work of sustainability-themed clubs and societies, and incorporating sustainability awareness workshops as part of the formal curriculum, there are lots of opportunities to involve the SO at different stages of a student’s university journey. The lead author was recently appointed community and university sustainability officer at NUI Galway; the post was created as a lead role in educating and engaging students on sustainability. Among the functions of the role are:

  • engaging prospective students on the subject of sustainability as a core value of the institution at university open days
  • including sustainability as part of new-student orientation programmes
  • developing and delivering sustainability workshops and awareness days throughout the college year
  • supporting student organisations to promote sustainable development through activities and events
  • working with key community groups to develop outreach and volunteering opportunities in sustainability.
  1. Provide students with a platform to contribute to policy development

Students are a university’s greatest resource, brimming with ideas, enthusiasm, and expertise. They play a vital role in establishing a sustainable university as key developers and drivers of change. Students best understand the challenges and opportunities for sustainable activities in their everyday lives. Providing them with real and meaningful opportunities to contribute to policy development ensures that the student voice is central on the sustainability journey.

The experience at NUI Galway demonstrates that students are more likely to become role models and leaders in the transition to a more sustainable campus when they are given continuous opportunities to become involved in sustainability implementation and governance, including through thematic working groups and campaigns, rolling out a student-centred sustainability engagement and awareness campaign, and setting up student-led sustainability demonstrator projects. In a recent NUI Galway survey of students, staff, and stakeholders to determine values that the campus community share, students identified sustainability as one of their top-priority strategic themes to guide and structure the university’s strategic plan beyond 2020.

Is maith an scéalaí an aimsir
(The weather is a good story-teller – time will tell)


Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC) (2019) ‘Living labs: Opportunities, benefits and challenges of different models globally’.

IPBES (2019) ‘Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the IPBES’. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

IPCC (2018a) ‘Summary for policy makers’. In: Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C.

IPCC (2018b) Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C.

IPCC (2018c) ‘Frequently Asked Questions’. In: Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C.

Levi, L. and Rothstein, B. (2018) ‘Universities must lead on Sustainable Development Goals’. University World News, 9 November.

O’Malley, B. (2019) ‘SDGs “not attainable without contribution of HE”, UN told’. University World News, 20 July.

One Planet Network (2019) ‘About: Rethinking how we consume’.

Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) (2017) Getting Started with the SDGs in Universities: A Guide for Universities, Higher Education Institutions, and the Academic Sector. Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Edition.

UN (2019a) Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 1: No Poverty.

UN (2019b): Sustainable Development Goals. ‘About: The Sustainable Development Agenda’.

UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) (2019) The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.

UN Foundation (2019) ‘Global issues are connected, and that matters’.

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