‘UG can and should do much more to save the earth’

Thinking only in terms of sustainability creates the impression that if we can only make our energy consumption ‘greener’, business as usual can continue. But much more is needed, and the UG should lead by example, argues master student Saoirse Ivory.

This past summer, Europe suffered some of the most extensive climate change-related disasters in its history, from extreme floods, to out of control wildfires, to its highest temperatures on record. Meanwhile, at the 26th COP climate conference in Glasgow last week, the message being touted by delegates in Glasgow was clear: everyone must act now, and act together.

Here in Groningen, the UG’s Green Office aims to be part of the change. Their new Sustainability Roadmap for 2021-2026 outlines goals that promote sustainable energy use, sustainable buildings, sustainable food, sustainable transport, sustainable employment, and so on. Sounds sustainable right?

But, in the context of a literally burning world, it’s important to start asking: is ‘sustainability’ enough, and more importantly, what exactly it is that we are trying to sustain?


The 1987 UN Brundtland Report defined sustainability as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This is the definition of sustainability adopted by the Green Office in their new roadmap. ‘It means that your children, and your grandchildren, will have something to live on’, explains Dick Jager, programme manager of sustainability at the UG.

But this definition glosses over the fact that what is ‘needed’ to maintain lifestyles in wealthy countries is vastly different from the needs of people and ecologies elsewhere. To put this in perspective: according to the Worldometer, the average Dutch person uses 9.62 metric tons of CO2 each year, while the average Indian person uses 1.75.

In his paper on the inequality of carbon emissions, Lucas Chancel writes that the richest 10 percent of the global population emits nearly 48 percent of global emissions in 2019, the top 1 percent emits 17 percent of the total, while the poorest half of the global population emits only 12 percent of the total.


Dick Jager acknowledges this disparity: ‘I totally agree, it’s not what it should be.’ But for him, and for Irene Maltagliati, project coordinator of sustainability and behaviour at the UG, speaking in terms of ‘sustainability’ is necessary for clear communication and organisation. ‘We use it, but we don’t completely agree with everything’, says Irene.

the current crisis is being driven by the lifestyles of a small subset of privileged humans

While communicating clearly about greener practices is important, thinking only in terms of sustainability creates the impression that if we can only make our energy and consumption ‘green’, business as usual can largely continue. The reality is that the current crisis is being driven by the lifestyles of a small subset of privileged humans, and it’s time to reckon with the fact that more fundamental changes are urgently required.

The energy-intensive European ‘standard of living’ did not develop in a vacuum. Although ‘official’ decolonisation occurred largely in the post-war period of the 1950s, the exploitative relations that were established then remain with us and are maintained through unfair international trade rules and the crippling demands of global neoliberal capitalism.

Sad irony

Leaders from the ‘least developed’ countries have long since drawn attention to this sad irony: they are hit hardest by climate change impacts while bearing none of the responsibility for the emissions causing it. At the COP26, leaders of developed countries once again failed to take responsibility for this injustice by blocking a ‘loss and damages’ provision that would have required them to pay for the adverse effects of climate change already hitting vulnerable communities around the world.

As climate change finally starts to knock on European doors, universities are uniquely positioned to shape how these problems are addressed. The Green Office is working to devise practical measures for a greener university, but if the UG wants to take the ecological crisis seriously, it needs to acknowledge its place within historical colonial relations and start directing resources towards imagining ways of life not dependent on exploitation.

It’s time to move beyond the language of ‘sustainability’ and instead take leadership in tackling these fundamental issues.

Saoirse Ivory (Ireland) is a master student modern history and international relations



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