Comment & Analysis
Sep 6, 2018

Students Are in the Future of Sustainability

Provost Patrick Prendergast writes that universities have a vital role to play in finding the big solutions to environmental issues.

Patrick PrendergastOp-Ed Contributor

We have had a summer of wildfires across the globe, even as far north as the Arctic, while sand and dust storms in India killed several hundred people. It is now impossible to deny that our environment faces serious threats, as climate change begins to create more extreme weather patterns. We have had our own Irish examples last year: Storm Emma lashing part of the country, and snow as late as St Patrick’s Day.

Universities have an important role in finding the big solutions to these and other problems but we must also change our behaviour in small ways to reduce our impact on the planet. I’m glad to say, Trinity is tackling both tasks: the big and the small.

Trinity’s third annual sustainability report highlights the significant gains made in recent years including a decrease in paper use by 50 per cent since 2011, a reduction in water consumption of 41 per cent since 2010 and a 26 per cent improvement in energy efficiency since 2008. These benefits have resulted in a substantial reduction in our environmental footprint at a time of increasing student numbers.

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I established the Advisory Committee on Sustainability and Low Carbon Living in February 2017, with staff and student representation. It provides leadership in advancing the sustainability objectives in the College’s current Strategic Plan, especially on environmental and carbon footprint topics. We have appointed both a sustainability champion Prof Paula Murphy and sustainability advisor Michele Hallahan, to encourage and link behaviours, projects and initiatives throughout the college.

Universities have an important role in finding the big solutions to these and other problems but we must also change our behaviour in small ways to reduce our impact on the planet

In addition to our own on-campus activities, it is important Trinity plays a major part globally in making new discoveries that sustain a liveable planet, for diverse life forms and not just human beings. Universities provide a crucible where pioneering and original technologies can be tested and showcased. With access to all disciplines including the humanities, engineering, science and medicine, Trinity is already in a good position to find solutions to the complex problems created by accelerating climate change in a world with diminishing resources.

That strong position will improve in the coming years after the Naughton family, other donors and the Government gave Trinity generous funding earlier this year to build the E3 Learning Foundry on the campus. The foundry and our even more ambitious plans to build a €1bn Grand Canal Innovation District (announced by the Taoiseach this summer) containing the Engineering, Energy and Emerging Technologies (E3) Research Institute will further improve the ability of Trinity graduates to find balanced solutions for a better world.

While Trinity will soon be in an even better position to help solve the world’s problems, we are already playing a significant role in the search for solutions.

One example is the Trinity-led Connecting Nature project, which has 29 partners drawn from industry, local communities, NGOs and researchers in 16 countries. Led by Prof Marcus Collier from the School of Natural Sciences, this €12m project aims to position Europe as a global leader in the innovation and implementation of nature-based solutions to the challenges facing our urban settings. Using engineering and ecology to produce nature-based solutions, the project is addressing issues such as air pollution, unsustainable urban development, climate change and natural disasters.

This research is just one way in which Trinity is helping to realise the UN sustainable development goals. These goals outline a vision for the future of people and the planet.

Trinity is striving to reach the goals set by the UN in a myriad of ways. For example, the sixth goal calls on organisations to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. A recent programme to install filtered tap water in offices around Trinity was successfully implemented. In the coming academic year we will increase the number of filtered water taps, and in the coming weeks an online consultation will be run by the Sustainability Advisor regarding the best location for these new water filters.

Additionally, the seventh goal calls for the provision of sustainable and modern energy for all. Today, 8 per cent of Trinity’s energy needs are met by renewable energy.

Furthermore, the 12th goal calls for sustainable consumption and production patterns. Here, Trinity has established a Green Procurement Working Group, which is looking into sustainable consumption and part of that work will be the provision of education to staff involved in procurement, enabling them to make environmentally preferable purchases.

Students everywhere are in the vanguard of sustainability actions. Trinity students clearly have a vital role to play here

The 13th goal calls for urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Here, in response to a student-led petition, Trinity’s Board voted to divest from fossil fuels in 2016 – the first Irish university to make such a decision.

Finally, the 15th goal calls for sustainably-managed forests, combatting desertification, halting and reversing land degradation and stopping biodiversity loss. Here, the Campus Pollinator Plan addresses the biodiversity aspect of this goal and commits Trinity to eliminating herbicide use across campus – with the exception of sports pitches – and increasing pollinator-friendly practices and habitats.

Students everywhere are in the vanguard of sustainability actions. Trinity students clearly have a vital role to play here. Earlier this year, we successfully polled students on the next steps to make the campus plastic free and you voted to get rid of plastic cups in the Buttery this autumn. We intend to consult again with students in the coming academic year to hear from you about how we can best move forward as a College community.


Dr Patrick Prendergast is the Provost of Trinity.

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