“Sustainability? is the term given to a global concept which seeks to unite environmental protection, social justice and economic prosperity to the benefit of present and future generations. The United Nations and its member countries have been pursuing this principle for over 30 years and in 2015 they agreed on a groundbreaking, but non-binding, concretization of 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Universities in Germany can also gear their research, teaching, knowledge transfer and everyday operations to these Sustainability Goals.
Up to now, universities have not been obliged to adopt sustainability goals or concepts. Any such obligation would, in any case, have to take adequate account of Germany’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of research and teaching, notwithstanding the fact that universities also have the obligation to protect basic natural resources for present and future generations, in line with the German constitution, or Basic Law, and to observe the government’s climate protection goals. In the view of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, universities are central players in the great transformation required to achieve sustainability.
“The? sustainable university does not - yet - exist. What does exist, however, is a multitude of pioneering approaches facilitating universities’ orientation towards the Sustainability Goals. Some universities offer courses in sustainability or commit themselves to providing an appropriate introductory session on the issue (for example, at Leuphana University, Lüneburg). Centres of competence are being set up with the aim of pooling research and teaching on sustainability (University of Hamburg), or sustainability is defined as a task for the university administration (University of Cologne). Some universities have formulated sustainability as a goal and as a guiding principle for their activities (University of Oldenburg) or carried out a sustainability process (University of Duisburg-Essen). So far, only 13 universities have taken the opportunity of being recognized as an environmental management institution, certified as such under EU law.
There are already a large number of research projects relating to sustainability at the University of Münster, for example in battery research; in research involving solar cells in the field of nanophysics; in plant biology, where latex is being developed from dandelion or anti-bacterial packaging from chitosan; in economics and law, with control instruments in the fields of energy and climate; and in the humanities and social sciences, with studies on sustainability in connection with ethics, religion and history.
The University of Münster intends making sustainability goals, e.g. “clean water’, a subject of transfer activities such as events (“Münster Summit?) and collaborations with the city of Münster and the wider region. One of the things these considerations culminated in, in 2020, was the setting-up of a Sustainability Department reporting directly to the Rectorate.
In addition, university teaching staff established the Centre of Interdisciplinary Sustainability Research in 2015 with the aim of pooling university activities in the field of sustainability and, in doing so, increasing effectiveness and visibility. The number of members has grown from, originally, ten from five faculties to 22 from ten faculties.
Just like other universities, Münster could strengthen existing initiatives by means of a structured sustainability process covering all areas, as far as possible, from research and teaching to transfer and everyday operations, and analysing and evaluating them on the basis of sustainability criteria. There can, and should, be discussions - at both centralized and decentralized levels - on whether and how such a process should be initiated. There can hardly be any doubt that it should be essential at an innovative, forward-looking university. Ultimately, guidelines applicable to the entire university could be drawn up which set out goals, strategies and measures. This would enable the university to make its contribution to a wider social transformation towards sustainability - a contribution which would be entirely compatible with the freedom of research and teaching.
Prof. Sabine Schlacke is the Executive Director of the Institute of Environmental and Planning Law at the University of Münster.
This article was first published in the University newspaper wissen