“Universities are an integral part of society and our success is dependent on a society and world that is thriving, where human dignity and justice are paramount, all people are able to reach their full potential with nobody being left behind, and our development does not happen at the expense of our planet.” These are the words of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Tawana Kupe, following the recent publication of UP’s first Integrated Sustainable Development Report.
The report takes a wide-angle view of the University’s contribution to sustainable development, encompassing the operational aspects of sustainability for its campuses and surrounding communities, as well as its strategic commitment to broader societal development through its core functions of teaching and learning, research, and engagement.
“The key questions we ask ourselves as a university and to which we respond in the report are: how do we integrate sustainability into all aspects of our university and business, and how do we tackle the urgent and complex challenges associated with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?” explains sustainability and integration expert Dr Brian Chicksen, who is the special projects advisor to UP’s executive leadership and the lead author of the report. “These challenges, which universities worldwide need to address, require systemic transformational changes in how universities operate and advance sustainable development.”
On the operational front, in 2019 UP achieved a 4.2% reduction in electricity purchased on the previous year for the running of its seven campuses (including 884 buildings). It also achieved a 10.44% decrease in carbon emissions per person for all of its almost 6 000 full-time staff members and 52 000 students. Since 2014, the University has planted 1 800 indigenous trees on its campuses to help offset its carbon footprint. These are some of the gains that UP as the largest contact university in South Africa has made in improving its operational sustainability performance.
The improvements are underpinned by continually strengthening operational sustainability practices, and data-driven decision-making. The carbon footprint, for example, is measured according to the greenhouse-gas emissions Protocol Revised Corporate Accounting Standard (2013). Another example is that all newly designed buildings and refurbishment projects are required to have efficient designs for power and water usage. Any new structures must comply with a Four-Star Green Rating.
Over and above operational sustainability, the report reflects on the bigger societal role that UP plays through the creation of relevant new knowledge and the building of capability that contributes to shaping sustainable futures for a better world. “Our actions are achieved through our transdisciplinary focus, covering all the dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social, the environment and governance, together with our institutional networks and partnerships,” says Prof Kupe.
“Transdisciplinarity is not easy, but it is the most likely pathway to transformative action that can change the world,” adds Prof Kupe. “Intrinsic to this is the fourth industrial revolution and the emergence of new study fields such as bioengineering, which merges research and expertise in medicine, biology and engineering, and green chemistry – a blend of chemistry, biology and environmental science.”
Professor Anton Ströh, UP’s Vice-Principal: Institutional Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, adds: “In the report we showcase a few UP examples of transdisciplinarity that are linked to various aspects of sustainable development, such as the Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control in the Faculty of Health Sciences. The institute provides an exemplary model for sustainable transdisciplinary research, bringing together a vast network of researchers focusing on the interconnected aspects of vector, parasite and human beings.”
To support its direction, UP has developed a set of integrated sustainability principles to guide all faculties, and created four transdisciplinary collaborative platforms (Future Africa institute and campus, the Javett Art Centre at UP, Engineering 4.0 and Innovation Africa@UP) to drive partnerships that enable deep engagement with the SDGs. The report elaborates on this and provides an overview of the major multi-country networks the University is part of, including the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA). Some 44% of research conducted at UP is pursued with international collaborators.
Throughout the report there is detailed discussion of UP’s alignment with, and contribution to, the SDGs. Contributions include influencing the policy landscape, building capability to support implementation, and specific University outputs that contribute to achieving tangible SDG metrics. All 17 SDGs are covered and 10 are prioritised. For example:
In terms of SDG 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, UP is focusing on:
• energy conservation and renewables
• new building design and renovations to enable conservation
• technological innovation
• carbon footprint management
• community engagement and education
• knowledge-driven policy formulation
As for SDG 15, Life on Land, UP is focusing on:
• biodiversity, resilient ecosystems and impact management
• conservation, restoration and sustainable use of land and water
• community engagement and education
• integrated approach to natural ecosystems, food systems, poverty and hunger
The report concludes with a summary of areas of focus for prioritised SDGs.
“This is our first Sustainable Development Report,” says Prof Kupe, “and we are hopeful that it will offer insight into how we are striving to use our talents and creativity, and all the University’s infrastructure and assets, for innovative thought and solutions that contribute to achieving the world we all desire.”
The full report can be accessed here.