UCC creates a sustainable future on campus

University College Cork is leading the charge on sustainability with a cohesive strategy that matches bottom-up activism with top-down commitment

Quad of University College Cork, Ireland. The campus operates a no or low mow policy depending on the main use of a particular area. On the lower grounds for example, a large part of the green space is completely wild. Picture: Getty

There was a time when organisations having a sustainability strategy was something of a rarity – as thinking about the environment was way down the pecking order of criteria.

But times have most certainly changed, and everyone is aware of the global concerns about climate change and the need for establishments across industry, academia and beyond to not only prepare a strategy on sustainability, but to actually act on it.

Dr Maria Kirrane is the Sustainability Officer for University College Cork who facilitates the delivery of the university’s Sustainability Strategy, which was launched in 2016.

It is currently going through a full review as organisers strive to increase sustainability by “embedding goals and targets across all aspects of the educational, research, ancillary operations, infrastructural developments, and interactions” within the college community.

“My role is to act as a broker to support the university community (staff and students) to embed sustainability into their own areas of influence,” she said. “For example, one of the programmes I lead is our Green Campus Living Laboratory Seed Fund Programme, which is open to the entire UCC community to undertake research or demonstration projects which relate to our sustainability goals.”

“The programme provides the funding and supports the awardees, but the projects are undertaken by members of our campus community – an example of one of these projects is our highly successful UCC Open Arboretum, which utilises UCC’s impressive and extensive tree collection as a teaching and outreach tool and is led by Dr Eoin Lettice and Professor Barbara Doyle Prestwich at our School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences.”

While most organisations are aware of the need to become sustainable, they may not fully understand how to manifest change in both the short and longer term and Dr Kirrane says the best way to do this is to ensure that the “principles of sustainability are at the heart of all decision-making” within the organisation.

“As a university, we have fully divested of fossil fuels and have signed the Principles of Responsible Investment, meaning we openly report on our positive investments each year – while a more visible manifestation of this would be our wildflower areas on campus as all UCC’s green areas are now managed for biodiversity,” she said.

“This means that we operate a no or low mow policy depending on the main use of a particular area. On the lower grounds for example, a large part of the green space is completely wild.”

“And we support our community to embed sustainability into their teaching and research. For example, we recently developed an SDG toolkit and accompanying Digital Badge course for teaching staff. These resources enable them to self-assess how sustainability is incorporated into their curriculum and provides the tools and information they might need to further embed it.”

Dr Kirrane says sustainability at UCC is “student-led, research-informed and practice-focused”.

“Our Green Campus committee is co-chaired by our Student Union deputy president and a representative from the Environmental Society, and it is vital that the student voice is central to everything that we do,” she said.

“After all, it was UCC students who were the original impetus for the university becoming the first in the world to be awarded a Green Flag from the Foundation for Environmental Education in 2010. Matching bottom-up activism with top-down commitment has been key to our success and our Green Forum is co-chaired by the University’s President, Professor John O’Halloran and director of buildings and estates, Mark Poland.”

The college’s impressive credentials were recognised earlier this month as it received the Sustainable Business (Medium – Large) Award at the PwC Business Post Sustainable Business Awards – an accolade which Dr Kirrane says was “a fitting recognition of the strategic importance placed on sustainability at UCC”.

“The application process required us to report on both the policy decisions being taken within the university, but also provide the numbers which would illustrate the impact of these decisions and a significant part of the submission concentrated on our sustainable procurement policies,” she said.

“This is incorporated into all our procurement processes and has led to some very innovative and impactful projects such as our Farm to Fork and Plastic Free Café with KSG Catering, and our move to remanufactured printers with Cantec printing.

“It was particularly important to see UCC compete against some of the best-known organisations (both public and private) for sustainability in Ireland and for us to come out on top.”

But being sustainable in the here and now is not enough for Dr Kirrane and the team at UCC. They’re thinking about the long term, and some impressive plans are in place.

“Our goals are to continue being a leading campus for sustainability and climate action and to work with other higher education institutions, as well as public and private sector organisations to drive the transition to a more sustainable future,” she said.

“Our refreshed Sustainability and Climate Action Plan sets out clear goals for becoming a carbon neutral and zero waste campus. We are in the process of developing carbon literacy training for all staff and students, which highlights the importance of collective action in achieving our climate goals.”

Dr Kirrane mentioned that transformation requires collaboration and therefore the institution is delivering innovative projects. One is its Sustainable Futures HCI programme which develops enterprise-informed curriculums across a range of postgraduate offerings.

“It’s in recognition of the fact that to achieve the change needed, we need to be educating, not just the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of today as well,” she said.

“Our Sustainable Futures research cluster will support innovation and the translation of research to tangible solutions to address with the aim of securing a better future for all.

“We are also working closely with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network to support policy-makers in delivering on the 2030 agenda.”