How can universities become sustainable?


A WUN-supported research project has examined five strategies higher education institutes could employ to support the creation of a more sustainable future.

Education in a Warming World is a collaboration of academics[1] with expertise in education, sociology, climate change, science communication, health, sustainability and human behaviour.

With human-induced planetary warming and the destruction of ecological systems posing severe threats to societies, especially the most vulnerable, higher education institutes (HEIs) have critical roles to play. They will drive adaptations to avoid worst-case climate change scenarios and build resilience. Although many dedicated individuals in HEIs are already driving meaningful action, there’s been a “growing consensus that sector-wide change is needed to ensure that aspirational declarations and positive individual actions translate into sustainable and transformative change,” says Dr Orla Kelly, Assistant Professor in Social Policy at the University College Dublin School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, who is leading the consortium.

The consortium’s Tertiary Education in a Warming World report illustrates how third-level educational institutes can become “truly sustainable organisations.” It shows how “change is achievable” and calls for “a paradigm shift in higher education.”

“WUN’s support enabled our consortium to launch this resource for academics and policymakers,” adds Pim Martens, Professor of Planetary Health at Maastricht University and member of the research consortium. “It features examples and reflections on how third-level educational institutes can work towards creating a more sustainable future.”[2]

The report covers five strategies: (i) innovative approaches to climate change education; (ii) research agendas for societal transformations; (iii) providing climate change education for professional development; (iv) supporting public intellectuals; and (iv) investing in whole-systems approaches to greening the campus.

Another key project output was the Coping with Catastrophe podcast, featuring discussions with researchers, educators and activists. The podcast and report drew on project partners’ examination of “good practices in managing climate anxiety, especially among students, and young people, and motivating effective action,” adds Martens. “We investigated initiatives to provoke behaviour change and considered arguments around how climate change is taught and communicated.

“For example, poetry, film and the arts are effective science communication tools, especially in fostering dialogue between scientists and communities often excluded from discussions.

“Because of the relationships we developed within this project we have been able to apply for international funding together. It was also a catalyst: in the Netherlands we were able to start a larger, transdisciplinary project, MANTRA, addressing the complexity of the climate crisis in rural areas, drawing on experience gained in the Education in a Warming World project.

“Part of my work is on mathematical modelling. It’s been valuable to work with researchers with different approaches. Education in a Warming World inspired me to do this in our Dutch project. We worked with artists using storytelling techniques to help imagine a variety of scenarios. ‘What if…’ prompts and game-based sessions engaged people to understand the actions they can take.”

The consortium’s paper, A transdisciplinary model for teaching and learning for sustainability science in a rapidly warming world, outlines the benefits of using arts-based approaches both in public engagement and education. Such approaches can be effective in levelling hierarchies of intellect by creating a shared sense of vulnerability, and creating spaces where all voices can be heard and acted on. Introducing arts-based approaches to teaching can also facilitate transdisciplinary learning, participation and opportunities for creative expression and peer and co-learning.

Martens has become an advocate for new and alternative ways to communicate about the actions needed to address the climate emergency. “The podcast generated a huge amount of attention. Many more people listen to podcasts than read scientific papers. It helped spread our reflections about how everyone, including IHEs, can work together towards creating a more sustainable future.”

Dr Sam Illingworth, Associate Professor in the Department of Learning and Teaching Enhancement at Edinburgh Napier University, adds, “Bringing together researchers from diverse fields in this project has been transformative, particularly in platforming creative methodologies. The podcast, a prime example of these creative methods, has played an important role in converting academic insights into actionable knowledge for a non-scientific audience, demonstrating the power of creativity in communicating complex ideas.”


For Dr Orla Kelly, the project consortium “has been enriching both personally and professionally.” Kelly expects continued collaboration: “Our group members share a commitment to transdisciplinary work dedicated to understanding the evolving role of education in this era of rapid climatic change and overlapping socio-ecological crises, which has created a sense of community across national and institutional contexts.”

Despite his concern about the severity of the environmental crises and societies’ limited action, Martens has become more optimistic:

“I used to talk only about ‘doom and gloom’: biodiversity loss, ecological destruction, the effects of a warming world. This message needs to be told and we must address the causes of climate change. The science is accepted. We need to show there can be hope. Young people are well-informed about the climate emergency and filled with anxiety. We need to show them what we can do and how we can change.

“It’s not about denial. It’s about understanding our collective interdependence with nature, taking responsibility to be a keystone species and adopting a nature-first mindset. Young people are interested, know the issues, take a practical approach and don’t wait for governments to act. As institutions apply and adopt the five strategies in our Tertiary Education in a Warming World report, this project will lead to more hope and action.”

What next?

  • Sign up to the WUN newsletter to get the latest stories about our members’ research, three times per year.
  • For more information about the project click here.
  • The consortium’s 2022 publication, Tertiary Education in a Warming World is available here.
  • Listen to the Coping with Catastrophe podcast on Spotify or Podbean.
  • Dr Maud Huynen (Maastricht University), Dr Orla Kelly (University College Dublin), Prof Pim Martens (Maastricht University) and Dr Sam Illingworth (University of Western Australia) participated in the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference in May 2022. Their round-table reflected on the learnings, activities and outputs that have resulted from this collaborative project.
  • Read more about the CliMate AdaptatioN for HealThy Rural Areas (MANTRA) project:
  • Read the academic publications:
  • Kelly, O., White, P., Butera, F., Illingworth, S., Martens, P., Huynen, M., … & Cowman, S. (2023). A transdisciplinary model for teaching and learning for sustainability science in a rapidly warming world.Sustainability Science18(6), 2707-2722.
  • Kelly, O., Illingworth, S., Butera, F., Dawson, V., White, P., Blaise, M., … & Cowman, S. (2022). Education in a warming world: Trends, opportunities and pitfalls for institutes of higher education. Frontiers in Sustainability3, 920375.

[1] The research consortium lead is Dr Orla Kelly. Other members are Dr Sam Illingworth (Edinburgh Napier University), Prof Fabrizio Butera (University of Lausanne), Prof Vaille Dawson (University of Western Australia), Dr Maud Huyden (Maastricht University), Prof Pim Martens (Maastricht University), Prof Julia Steinberger (University of Lausanne), Prof Mindy Blaise (Edith Cowan University), Dr Glenn Savage (University of Western Australia), Dr Geertje Schuitema (University College Dublin), Dr Susan Bailey (Edith Cowan University), Dr Peta White (Deakin University).

[2] The Tertiary Education in a Warming World report.