Bringing sustainability in universities up to the next level

Do sustainability rankings work or are they just self-congratulatory gestures?

University College Cork  ranked ninth-best university in the world on the UI Green Metric  sustainability index. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

University College Cork ranked ninth-best university in the world on the UI Green Metric sustainability index. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


Sustainability has become a buzzword in universities around the world as third-level institutions write sustainability strategies and policies into their strategic plans – and pit themselves against each other in international ranking systems.

But what exactly do these ranking systems tell us about how much universities are actually doing to reduce their use of energy and water, manage their waste and, crucially, reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through initiatives such as sustainable transport and green procurement? And is there any real value in comparing the sustainability of, say, a university in Indonesia against one in Ireland or the United States?

University College Cork has been blowing its trumpet on its sustainability status recently. The Cork city campus ranked ninth-best university in the world on a sustainability index which ranks third-level institutions across operations, educational and research activities in 2018. UCC was also named the first university outside the United States to win a gold standard in the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS) from the Association for the Advancement for Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

It’s hard not to be impressed by these accolades but, the question is, what lies behind these global ranking systems and how exactly are they calculated?

Green campus

Prof John O’Halloran, UCC deputy president, registrar and chair of the Green Campus Forum, says the reason for the success is because the college’s sustainability agenda is “student-led, research-informed practice with key partnerships between buildings and estates, academics and the student body”. The college also has a “Living Laboratory” fund which funds Master’s research into projects which demonstrate green campus initiatives.

The UI Green Metric Ranking – which ranked UCC ninth-best university in the world and Dublin City University (DCU) 12th -best university in the world – was developed by the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. The scores are calculated from the combined results over six categories. These are: setting and infrastructure; energy and climate change; waste; water; transportation; and education. The calculations are based on self-reported data backed up by photographs, documents and web pages, but the data is not publicly available.

The University of Limerick, National University of Ireland at Galway and Maynooth also submit data to the UI Green Metrics Ranking system and UCC will host an international UI Green Metrics conference in April 2019.

In 2018, UCC also became the first university outside the US and Canada to attain a gold standard in the STARS assessment. This system, developed by AASHE in the US, looks at the university’s sustainability performance across academics (ie number of courses and research projects dedicated to sustainability), engagement with sustainability issues on and off campus, operations (energy use and efficiency in buildings), governance and innovation.

“The submission requires the completion of a number of inventories, for example sustainability inclusion across all modules taught at the university, purchasing and carbon emissions calculations. It took us six months to gather all the data and make the submission,” explains Dr Maria Kirrane, the full-time sustainability officer at UCC.


Kirrane says much of the data submitted for both of these sustainability ranking systems comes from the ISO 14001 environmental management system and ISO 50001 energy management system used by UCC. The former provides a framework that any organisation can follow rather than establishing environmental performance requirements, while the latter assesses energy use of the buildings on campus and is externally audited every year.

Mark Poland, UCC’s director of building and estates, explains that the ISO 50001 assesses the heat, light and small power (computers etc) in each building but notes universities with a lot of historic buildings would find it difficult to compete with universities with mostly new A-rated buildings.

“For example, in STARS we are benchmarked against Arizona State University which has PV arrays which supplies a large per cent of their energy,” he explains. Arizona State University has also committed to eliminating 100 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions from building energy and waste by 2025, and 100 per cent of its carbon emissions from transportation by 2035.

Pat Barry, chief executive officer of the Irish Green Building Council, says robust multicriteria ranking systems such as the UI Green Metrics and STARS have the benefit of forcing organisations to consider aspects of sustainability that they might have otherwise overlooked.

All universities need to work out a proper methodology to count our carbon footprints

“So, an organisation might be really good at energy efficiency, but they might not have thought about water efficiency, indoor air quality or green cleaning policies,” he says. “By ranking universities against each other, the highest-ranking university creates a mobile benchmark which universities can then aim to better,” Barry says. He adds that before you can create international benchmarks for sustainability, you need to have data which set levels of ambition and best practice.

Strategic plan

Samantha Fahy is the full-time sustainability officer at DCU, which ranked 12th in the world in the UI Green Metrics Ranking system. DCU’s strategic plan 2017-2022 is committed to putting sustainability at the core of the university’s activities, and DCU’s green campus targets include maintaining and improving the ISO 50001, reaching the 33 per cent reduction in energy use in public sector by 2020, and increasing green procurement.

However, in spite of DCU’s high achievement in the UI Green Metrics Ranking system, Fahy is somewhat sceptical of these initiatives. “Systems like the UI Green Metrics are great to recognise and encourage institutions on the pathway to sustainability, but we need to push it further. All universities need to work out a proper methodology to count our carbon footprints because greenhouse gas emissions are the ultimate key performance indicators,” she says.

Rather than have universities compete with each other on rankings schemes, science-based targets to reach zero carbon by 2050 is what’s needed, Fahy adds. “In Ireland, we need a national greenhouse gas calculator for higher level institutions. Only then can we understand the areas we are falling down in and invest money in these areas.”

What universities can do to become more sustainable

1. Include sustainability modules and courses across academic programmes.

2. Fund research into sustainability issues and use the campus as a demonstration site for such research.

3. Offer sustainable food choices in on-campus cafes and develop on-campus community gardens and farms supplying produce to these eateries.

4. Grow trees and leave wild areas on campus to improve biodiversity.

5. Improve waste segregation and recycling, and ban single-use plastic items on campus.

6. Improve energy efficiency of buildings and introduce renewable energy into the mix.

7. Conserve water and consider waterless green cleaning systems.

8. Develop a green procurement policy for purchases and contractors working on campus.

9. Promote sustainable modes of transport for staff and students.

10. Set up bike-lending schemes, install electric vehicle charging points, and publicise public transport routes to and from campus.