‘Utrecht University is working to contribute to a better world.’ That is the first sentence of the University’s mission. In line with this mission, in the 2016-2020 strategic plan the University placed sustainability at the heart of its core tasks of education and research and in its business operations. The transition to a sustainable society has now become one of the challenges of our time. Countries like Ireland and the United Kingdom speak of a ‘climate crisis’, under pressure from public protest.16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg has been on the cover of Time Magazine and the Netherlands has had a climate minister since 2017.
What challenge do we face?
First of all, it concerns climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to stay within a 2 – preferably 1.5 – degree temperature increase. 195 countries agreed on this in 2015 in the Paris Climate Agreement. IPCC reports – to which researchers from Utrecht University also contributed – show that an increase of more than 2 degrees this century will have far-reaching consequences for mankind. According to the same panel, we are now heading for a temperature increase of 3 degrees.
The challenge is about more than just climate change. The seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2015) highlight the extent of today’s social, economic and environmental challenges. Issues such as biodiversity, access to clean drinking water, education and gender equality are also major international challenges that need to be tackled by the year 2030.
The seriousness of the situation becomes all too clear if you look at the problem through the prism of planetary boundaries theory. In 2009, Rockström and Steffen* introduced nine boundaries within which humanity must move in order to be able to continue to make sustainable use of the resources that the earth has to offer for the time being. Many of these boundaries have been exceeded: temperature rises, biodiversity loss and nitrogen are already at dangerous levels.
A major boundary concerns our ecosystems and the rate of biodiversity loss both in far-flung corners of the globe and closer to home. All over the world, many, many animal species are becoming extinct. In 2018, in the Delta Plan for Biodiversity Recovery, a broad coalition also sounded the alarm about the state of the natural environment in the Netherlands. There is a great sense of urgency to act now. The question is what role a university can play in this challenge.
Utrecht University as an agent of change
For 383 years, Utrecht University has spearheaded a large number of discoveries and scientific breakthroughs. Generations of students have been trained by the University, and they now make their own contribution to society. The university of today is not an ivory tower and is well aware of its position in society; it is a public institution that can actually be an agent of change on themes such as sustainability. While scientists within the Pathways to Sustainability strategic theme are working on solutions for the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, the University wants all students to come into contact with sustainability themes, regardless of the subject they are studying. Students will then take this awareness with them when they graduate and play an active role in society.
With research and education as its core business and a broad social responsibility, it is only logical that this has an impact on business operations and the management of the campus. Here, too, the potential role of a university as an agent of change emerges. The University not only manages its own buildings, but is also responsible for the entire Utrecht Science Park, where approximately 27,000 people work.
Within the context of sustainability, the University is committed to integrating these three roles: research, education and business operations. The aim is to transform the University into a Living Lab where researchers, students and managers work together to find solutions for a sustainable campus and, by extension, society.
This report illustrates Utrecht University’s contribution to sustainability. A huge challenge lies before us. Visit this website to find out what Utrecht University will be doing in 2019.
* Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from Australian National University lead a group of earth systems and environmental scientists.