Universities must help secure a sustainable future for our planet

- June 15, 2019

The concept of sustainability may not be on the minds of every university staff member or student, but in light of significant global challenges, universities must do all they can to help protect our planet and those that depend on it for survival.

In an era when students and the public are more likely than ever to challenge universities on where their capital is invested, the concept of sustainability has outgrown its roots. Far more than simple operational concerns when constructing a new building or tendering for new suppliers, today ‘sustainability’ ranges from combatting carbon emissions and eliminating single-use plastics, to investing in the local community and targeting procurement at small- and medium-sized enterprises.

These are just some of the commitments made by the University of Edinburgh as part of our approach to social responsibility and sustainability. Our mission is to deliver impact for society through our research, our teaching and our operations, to make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to the world.

We take a whole-institution approach and look at the global picture. What’s the point of teaching students about the benefits of renewable technology if we aren’t using it ourselves? Why fund research into biodegradable alternatives to plastics if we only serve coffee in disposable cups? Why celebrate successful community projects in the developing world if we aren’t able to say we’ve done the same in our own city?

It’s for these reasons that we have committed to becoming a zero-waste university by prioritising the circular economy. We aim to eliminate single-use plastics where possible by 2030, and are committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2040. We will also transition out of fossil fuel investment by 2021. 

We also believe that our research should inform our teaching and operations. Students should get opportunities to learn about – and suggest improvements to – our operations as part of their education, and we must ask the local community how we can best support them through our research and student outreach, rather than through philanthropy alone.

Results so far show that our approach is working. Over 99% of waste from our academic estate is now diverted from landfill, and we were the first university to adopt a formal conflict minerals policy. We’ve also invested strongly in the local community – our £1.5 million social investments include local social enterprises and £150,000 to community-led projects proposed by local residents.

It is these achievements and our whole-institution ambition that led to Edinburgh being named Sustainability Institution of the Year at the EAUC Green Gown Awards, which recognise exceptional sustainability initiatives being undertaken by Universities and Colleges in the UK and Ireland, and we were honoured to work subsequently with EAUC to produce a guide to persuade other institutions to follow suit.

To make further progress, universities must provide opportunities for individuals to learn more about sustainability. At their core, universities are networks of people. By improving the links between students, staff and the local community, together we can build a strong foundation from which to tackle the challenges we face.
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