Campus sustainability key to India’s commitment to sustainable development

campus sustainability and sdgs
Indian universities must look beyond curricula, student intake, faculty development and infrastructure building to focus on campus sustainability.

A road map for campus sustainability: What are the policy imperatives for a developing economy which experienced loss of lives and livelihoods to the Covid-19 pandemic? What are its policy options in health, incomes, inflation, and environment? Remember there are trade-offs that make it look like a catch-22 situation for these economies. But can they afford to ignore the environmental concerns in the face of the climate change threat? Wouldn’t it be an error of judgement not to focus on the risks posed by extreme weather events?

The United Nations Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR2022) in its sixth edition confirms the doubling of climate associated disasters during 2000-2019 compared with the previous 20 years. More distressing is that eight of the 10 countries suffering dire consequences from such events are developing countries of Asia. India experienced more than 400 disaster events in the last two decades and as per the World Risk Index (WRI) 2022, India has the highest risk profile after Philippines.

Given this, how can India steer through these challenging times where coping and adaptive capacity thresholds warrant immediate action? Is there a framework that can help India take care of domestic challenges and yet contribute genuinely to sustainable development?

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Ruenna Haynes, a climate negotiator at the recent Conference of the Parties (COP27), says the myriad issues surrounding climate change require commitments that go beyond the means of developing countries to adopt. The Indian government, however needs to be lauded for its focused actions and policy nudges prioritising transition towards a circular economy such as production linked incentives (PLIs) for businesses taking up the cause of renewable energy, sovereign green bonds scheme, and the proposed national emission trading system.

Rigorous application of these measures and their success, in turn, depend on micro-level efforts in line with India’s strategic argument at this year’s COP27 deal to foster individual responsibility towards climate resilience through operation LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment).

Elizabeth Wathuti, Njuguna, Farzana Faruk Jhumu, Licypriya Kangujam, Sophia Kianni and Ayesha Siddiqua were among the people represented their nations aiming to shape outcomes at COP27. Lifestyle transformation and its effectiveness depend on the youth who have to be involved as part of the solution to ensure that the efforts towards sustainable development are not mere green washing, or green wishing. The focal point of this piece is to propose a three-pronged strategy to spotlight critical actions required for universities and higher educational campuses.

What is campus sustainability

The most important step of this road map is understanding campus sustainability — to deliberate on what sustainable campuses are and what they constitute. According to a 2006 article in the Journal of Cleaner Production, universities are considered as real-time training grounds for future citizens. In fact, universities can be perceived as mini cities having distinct culture, ecosystem, economy as well as governance.

Indian higher education scenario, for instance, shows the acute nascent stage of the sustainable campus concept as most of the universities still focus only on curriculum, student intake, faculty development, facilities & infrastructure etc. Therefore, the starting point of our strategy aims at making the campus sustainability aspect a familiar one in the Indian higher educational setting where most of the youth can be found.

The second step in the approach involves evaluating campus sustainability. To be labelled a sustainable campus, the teaching learning activities, operations, management and other policies of the institution need to be environment oriented. Several global universities have followed and implemented one or the other framework.

Most popular among the developing economies is the University of Indonesia initiated UI Sustainable Metric World University Rankings. The other green rating programmes include the DEA-Green metric, STAR, Environmental Management System (EMS) ISO 14001, and Sustainability Framework of United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

Mahatma Gandhi National Council for Rural Education in association with the Ministry of Human Resource Development came up with a Swachh campus manual for ranking of Indian higher educational institutions in 2018. However, a comprehensive analysis of the pan-India exercise based on the aforementioned template is far from complete. Choosing an assessment framework — domestic or international can result in more enlightened approaches to measurable parameters viz; energy efficiency, water & waste disposal, research, transportation and infrastructure etc., as one size does not fit all.

The last and the most crucial dimension to the action plan involves strengthening campus sustainability. This encapsulates investment in climate action plan through dedicated expenditure for resources, green buildings, affordable climate tech, climate conscious adaptation and innovation, decarbonization plans, creating awareness, skilling, reskilling and upskilling of the individuals underpinned by the need to strengthen the local connections of the institution with the immediate society.

Universities constitute an integral part of the urban ecosystems and campus sustainability experience, assessment and reporting will provide environmental benefits and offer campuses an opportunity to deliver on their sustainable urbanisation potential. Thus, our university campuses can play a pioneering role in driving sustainable development and climate change adaptation.

So far, the June 2022 mandate of the government to continue to fund only NAAC-graded institutions has improved academic quality and research vigor. A similar ranking for the sustainable campuses on the basis of certain common criteria is a sustainable and a sure shot way of creating awareness and balance between human activity and the environment. This would improve the quality of life for all the stakeholders (academic and non-academic staff including students) and will help India to meet climate commitments in the long term, keeping youth at the heart of the solution.

(Prof Kawal Gill and Dr Gurleen Kaur are faculty at Sri Guru Gobind Singh College of Commerce, University of Delhi. Currently they are involved in a project titled — Campus Sustainability: From Understanding to Assessment and Action.)