Committing to SDGs can energise research-intensive universities

Newcastle has made environmental justice a core value, aligned all its work with UN goals and built partnerships to drive sustainability and innovation, says vice-chancellor Chris Day

May 24, 2023
Source: Getty (edited)

Browse the full Impact Rankings 2023 resultsTo participate in next year’s Impact Rankings, email us

I think we can all agree that immediate action is needed to tackle the climate crisis and that everyone must play a part in protecting people and our planet. Environmental degradation and disastrous climate-related events are impacting people across the world and are often being felt most severely by the more vulnerable and under-represented.

When we, as a university, declared a climate emergency in 2019 alongside our partners in the city, we committed to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2040 and set out to achieve this by improving activities and infrastructure. Just two years later, recognising that we owe it to future generations and to our planet to act much faster, we brought this deadline forward to 2030. It is not only right but also a question of justice for us – here in the north-east of England, the heart of the UK’s former coal mining industry – to take urgent action to address this most pressing issue of our time and to attempt to protect those most devastatingly affected by climate change across the globe.

In 2020, we stepped up our commitment to sustainability by embedding environmental justice, alongside social justice, as one of our core values at the heart of the organisation, aligning our work with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and holding ourselves up to scrutiny through a dedicated committee. One of the principles of the SDGs is that the goals are indivisible, and we are trying hard to ensure that sustainability action is not confined to issues such as our campus energy use and waste but rather is understood as part of our wider role in reducing social inequalities in our region, nationally and across the globe.

We have committed to the core values of social and environmental justice – embedding them across everything we do. And I think it is significant that one of the driving forces behind this was the call from our students, not just our academics, for Newcastle to lead the way on the biggest global challenge facing their generation.

It is important that our words are backed up by action. I see the SDGs as a framework that we can use to support us in realising our vision for our university and measuring our success. We have ongoing projects relating directly to every one of the 17 SDGs. Our core values closely match the SDGs on gender equality and reduced inequalities, and naturally as a university, SDG 4, quality education, is central to everything we do. Through our research, we actively contribute to all the goals around health and well-being, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy and so on.

We know that the best way to ensure that the work we do is of benefit to society is to work with partners, here in the region, nationally and around the world. By working together we can support climate action, climate resilience, climate education and, crucially, climate justice. It is important to us that our partners include those communities already suffering loss and damage caused by climate change. We are working especially closely, for example, with Small Island Developing States, a group of states facing unique social, economic and environmental challenges, as well as with the Adaptation Research Alliance and also the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

We were the first UK city to have all major anchor institutions declare a climate emergency, and we continue to collaborate with partners including the city council and Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to develop low-carbon solutions at the city scale, such as new district energy systems.

In collaboration with our many partners in industry, we are now poised to place the north-east of England at the heart of the electric vehicle and renewable energy sectors over the next decade.

These are real examples of how, through partnerships, our research can be a catalyst for the ambitions for industry, innovation and infrastructure, as set out in SDG 9.

Internationally, examples such as our leadership of two UK Research and Innovation Global Challenges Research Fund hubs in river deltas and water security are helping governments around the world fulfil the promise of the eighth goal, decent work and economic growth, among many other goals. It is also the sort of work that will, we hope, eventually help to reduce poverty, which is the aim of the first SDG.

I’m very proud that, since 2018, our university has been recognised by the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings as a global leader in sustainable development. But we cannot rest on our laurels, and we all need to push further and faster on environmental sustainability alongside our commitment to reducing social inequalities to achieve environmental justice.

Chris Day is vice-chancellor of Newcastle University.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities