Universities, climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals: A framework for action

By: Professor Duncan Ivison   |   Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) The University of Sydney   |   https://www.sydney.edu.au/

“We need to change the way we live and reimagine the things we value.’’

When the devastating bush fires swept through the east coast of Australia over the summer of 2020, the world was transfixed by a vision of what our planet faces without further action to address our warming climate.

But the challenge is complex. There is no easy technological fix. It will also require radical social, cultural, economic and policy innovations.

Photo of Professor Duncan Ivison, 
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research)
The University of Sydney
(Supplied: Professor Duncan Ivison)

At the University of Sydney, over 500 academics mobilised to apply their research expertise to some of these profound questions during the height of the fires and their immediate aftermath.

Many of our climate scientists, ecologists, biologists, mathematical modellers and environmental experts provided advice to government departments and ministers, as well as providing expert commentary in the media. But our political scientists, lawyers, philosophers, computer scientists, mental health experts and biomedical researchers also responded.

All of our researchers grasped the complex, multidisciplinary nature of the problems we face in tackling climate change – as well as the kinds of solutions we’ll need. 

Among the key areas that we have identified for future work include thinking through what a ‘green new deal’ might mean for Australia; reimagining the Australian landscape given our changing climate; developing a deeper understanding of natural ecosystem resilience, and addressing ‘ecological distress’ and anxiety in our communities by supporting both physical and mental health and resilience.  

That work is continuing because the challenges continue – now, of course, overlaid with the colossal, global impact of COVID19.  

Universities like ours have a special responsibility to address these challenges. By definition, given our mission, we take the long view. The University of Sydney has been teaching and conducting research for over 160 years.  We are home to literally thousands of students and staff who care passionately about the pursuit of knowledge, as well as the importance of asking deep, hard questions about our world and our society. 

We also have a responsibility to continue to engage locally, nationally and globally – especially at a time when borders are closing and there is a rising tide of nationalism and suspicion of global institutions. One way we have been thinking about this is aligning more of our work with the United Nation’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  (And we were recently ranked first in Australia and second in the world for our contributions by the recent global Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings, based on the SDGs).  

Why are the SDGs important to us and to helping address the challenges we face today?  

First of all, there is now a remarkable global consensus on the importance of the seventeen domains identified by the SDGs and the challenges we face in ensuring the well-being of our people and our planet. The framework provides a way for governments, industry, civil society and universities to consider how they can contribute to achieving sustainable development – which is vital if our planet is literally going to survive over the next century. At their best, they provide focus and purpose in acting practically in pursuit of global justice. But we shouldn’t be complacent about what this consensus amounts to.

Talk is cheap.  Many of the challenges underlying reducing global poverty, or tackling global warming, involve deep disagreements and conflicts between powerful sectors of the global economy. According to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for the Asia Pacific, for example, our region is going backwards in relation to some of the most important SDGs – including improving clean water and sanitation and responsible consumption and production – and stalled on many others.  

Second, research-intensive universities like Sydney are increasingly expected to demonstrate how our research and education is contributing to solving some of the most pressing challenges we face today.  In Australia, a horrific bush-fire season and now the Covid-19 crisis has made this abundantly clear. The publics we serve expect great universities to do this. It’s a difficult challenge. Funding for public universities is in decline, even as the expectations and demands placed on us increase.

The SDG framework, however, makes vivid the kind of contribution universities can make, especially when we work together and with other partners, both locally and globally. The value of global collaboration is a difficult sell in a world in which politics is dominated by fear and a rush to close our borders. But if the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t solve our greatest challenges without new modes of cross-national collaboration and coordination. The vaccine that will eventually protect us against COVID-19 will emerge as a result of this kind of collaboration, not a denial of it.  Universities are exemplars of this spirit and approach.  

Finally, the SDG framework can help governments, industry and the general public understand the impact of our research and teaching. Measuring impact is now a ubiquitous feature of higher education assessment regimes around the world. It is an inherently difficult thing to capture. And we should be wary of the potential downsides of a too-narrow focus on impact - especially if that means less support for basic, discovery-oriented research which produces the kind of deep, transformative outcomes that have the greatest impact in the long term.

But the focus provided by the SDGs, as well as the targets that accompany them, provides a useful set of benchmarks against which to measure ourselves. There are limits to what universities can do and the SDGs don’t capture everything about the impact of our research. But they provide a framework that the global community values, and that many of our staff, students and alumni also value.

Even more importantly, the SDGs promote a culture of co-design and collaboration between governments, industry, universities and civil society in tackling these challenges. They promote innovation, not for the sake of innovation itself, but for the public good. 

Photo of the United Nation’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
(Supplied: National Geographic).


Apr. 30, 2020

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