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Planting the Seeds of Sustainability: How Europe’s Universities are Combating Climate Change

by Diana Petrucci Europe Mar 29th 20216 mins
Planting the Seeds of Sustainability: How Europe’s Universities are Combating Climate Change

While the pandemic dominates headlines, global warming rages on. Vaccines are at last being distributed, but what is needed next, according to the UN Secretary General — is a global recovery that seizes on the “opportunity to do things right for the future.” The UN sustainable development goals are a powerful tool in this endeavour and universities in Europe have a vital role to play in marshalling the continent’s response to climate change. As ever, one of the greatest levers of change is educating the leaders of tomorrow.


A Symbol of Sustainability

One of these universities in Europe ushering in more sustainable thinking about climate change is Spain’s IE University. “Education is key to sustainable development,” explains Santiago Iñiguez, president of IE University. Students at IE are exposed to an education model that aims to help them think and behave as responsible global citizens engaged with sustainable and social practices. A number of initiatives, sustainability courses, social entrepreneurship projects, and university-wide policies, put sustainability at the centre of the IE identity. 

By doing this, the university contributes to the fight against climate change by developing leaders who not only understand the importance of sustainability, but understand the practicalities of how to effectively deploy and maintain sustainability practices.

“Our goal is to make an impact on their lives and on the world through inclusive, equitable and quality education, and to promote lifelong learning opportunities in line with the objectives of the United Nations,” Iñiguez explains.

A testament to this undertaking, IE’s ‘Ten-Year Challenge’ sets a university-wide goal of becoming a model for sustainability, allocating €1 million a year for relevant projects.

2020 was IE’s year of reduced consumption. Isabela Alcázar, IE’s global head of sustainability, explains that this year the business school wants its individual students to understand the power of their combined actions.

“At IE University we seek our purpose of fostering positive change through education, research, and innovation […] The 2021 challenge will be community building,” Alcázar says.

This is also the year that IE University will inaugurate the IE Tower, a symbol of grand ambitions and a physical embodiment of sustainability values.

The 180-metre-high education centre comprises 35 floors and 7000m2 of green spaces over a 50,000m2 campus in the heart of Madrid’s financial district. One of a select few high-rise university structures in the world, it was developed to extoll the IE values of peak innovation in education and sustainability in design.

Along with maximum energy efficiency, IE Tower will exploit as much natural light as possible. Adding to the low environmental cost of its operations are efficient lighting, air conditioning, elevators, and low consumption water systems.

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The tower’s 64 classrooms will be embedded with IE’s renowned state-of-the-art technology, bringing virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the latest innovations directly into the learning environment.

IE’s Liquid Learning model, deployed in all of the university’s campuses, is a hybrid approach to education that is hyper flexible and modular in terms of how, when, and from where students attend classes. The model uses synchronous learning — working together during class time — and asynchronous learning — working individually and at any time — leveraging innovative technologies like the IE Wow room, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality.

Combinations of digital transformation and sustainability action like this are viewed by many as a winning strategy for overcoming climate change: the double helix of a viable future.

Philosophies of Change 

The philosophy that underpins our actions is as important as the technology we develop through research and development. At Oxford University, sustainability is being fostered through ground-up student initiatives, environmentally conscious building policies, and green innovation projects.

“We have a real strong opportunity to commercialise novel technologies that can address the world’s more pressing environmental problems,” says Dr Robert Montgomery.

Montgomery is a research fellow at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall and a professor of wildlife conservation, who has worked to bring the OXGAV partnership to life.

OXGAV sees Oxford University and innovation aggregator Global Accelerated Ventures teaming up to create a clean, green tech start-up foundry. The aim is to develop up to 20 university spin-out companies dealing with technology that can positively impact climate change and biodiversity loss.

“The technologies that we are capturing and supporting are just as broad as the environmental problems that we are experiencing,” says Montgomery.

OXGAV is one of a number of Oxford University projects aimed at pushing sustainability objectives further. For staff and students, there is also the Green Impact engagement and reward scheme, which aims to encourage environmentally positive initiatives throughout all of University’s campuses. Example actions include changing to recyclable paper in offices, embedding sustainability knowledge into staff onboarding processes, introducing bike pooling schemes and creating biodiversity spaces. 

Oxford has also started deploying the Passivhaus methodology to construction of new buildings on its campuses.

The idea is that “the heat losses of the building are reduced so much that it hardly needs any heating,” explains Dr. Wolfgang Feist, head of energy efficient construction at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, and director of the Passive House Institute in Germany — “Passive heat sources like the sun, human occupants, household appliances […] cover a large part of the heating demand.”

A More Sustainable World

Another one of the universities in Europe hoping to make a positive impact against climate change is Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in The Netherlands, which aspires to explore the potential of nature to improve quality of life. As an example of this precept, the university makes use of geothermal storage on campus by storing heat and cold in underground sand aquifers. In summer, buildings are cooled with the water; the system then provides sustainable heating during winter. 

“Education is not just there to serve the economy but should contribute to ecological basic education and the ability to leave a more sustainable world,” argues Arjen Wals, WUR professor in social learning and sustainable development.

Along with an active sustainability curriculum of courses, Wageningen students enjoy the Green Office Wageningen: a student-led, faculty-supported initiative that connects people for sustainability projects.

“Learning for sustainability is about education where students learn to think critically, are engaged with their environment, have space to discover, and learn through immersing themselves in local and global issues,” Wals explains.

WUR acts on a strictly sustainable construction policy and is world-renowned for its pursuits in environmental research, including investigations into the development of sustainable university campuses.

 Engagement at All Levels

At University College Cork (UCC), in Ireland, the approach to a sustainable campus takes a different form: the Living Laboratory Programme. The idea is to promote real experimentation on environmental initiatives. The project aims to use knowledge and research produced at UCC to make the campus more sustainable, generating iterations of sustainability projects that improve on one another.

The university also has a host of yearly energy, water, and climate targets, such as increasing the percentage of total water reuse (5%, 2018) and the proportion of campus energy from renewable sources (15%, 2018).

Between 2008 and 2018, UCC reduced its energy consumption per student by 40%, and water per student/faculty member by 25%. The Green Campus initiative promotes sustainability, with UCC EnviroSoc student members helping to drive engagement and leading by example on community projects. 

“The framework adopted at UCC incorporates a bottom-up approach — activism, matched with top-down leadership, support, and strategies. […] This approach has mobilised and inspired a university to contribute towards creating a sustainable future,” says John O’Halloran UCC Green Forum Co-chair.

These are just some of the approaches being taken at prestigious universities in Europe to fold sustainability and climate change consciousness into their day-to-day operations. By steeping students in the innovation and philosophy that support sustainable development, European institutions are preparing future leaders for the pressing needs of our time.

Featured image by: Flickr 

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