KU Leuven has launched its first Sustainability Report: a detailed overview of the current situation at our university in the broadest sense of the word. Engineer Karel Van Acker teaches circular economy and is chair of the Sustainability Council. He speaks on behalf of the nearly sixty colleagues who wrote the report: “Now that we have this document, it’s clear what we need to do next.”
Taking sustainability to heart requires more than simply installing solar panels and encouraging the use of reusable water bottles, Professor Van Acker begins. “Those are very tangible actions, but we also do a lot behind the scenes. Because these initiatives are so scattered across the different faculties and services, it’s often not really clear what we’re actually doing.”
“Sustainability also encompasses much more than reducing CO2 emissions. Topics such as gender, poverty, inclusive education and health are also addressed. In brief: everything that has to do with the seventeen sustainable development goals of the UN. When writing the report, we were surprised by how much is already happening. That is why it's good that we now have an overview that spans our four policy domains: research, education, public outreach and internal management.”
The chapter on education lists all the KU Leuven programmes and courses on sustainability. “We see that the attention to sustainability is mostly limited to the master's programmes. Think of the Interdisciplinary College for Sustainable Development, for instance, a series of lectures intended mainly – but not exclusively – for engineering science students. Or service learning, a teaching method that combines traditional learning with social commitment. We're already offering fifteen service learning courses, such as ‘Arts for the World’, in which third-year medicine students help vulnerable groups during the summer break.”
A course like materials engineering can organise classes on recycling. But apart from this, you also need specific courses that provide students with basic knowledge of global challenges. - Karel Van Acker, chair of the Sustainability Council
“The Sustainability Council has now decided to pay more attention to sustainability in our bachelor’s programmes as well. This can be achieved through relevant courses. A course such as materials engineering can organise classes on recycling, for instance. But apart from this, you also need specific courses that provide students with basic knowledge of global challenges.”
This basic knowledge is a priority in times of polarised debates and fake news, says Van Acker. “Young people have to acknowledge the current global issues and rely on correct information. At the same time, they have to be able to see everything in the right context and think of possible solutions. The many examples listed in the sustainability report already indicate that there are plenty of options.”
Drawing from his background as an engineer, he adds: “Sustainability takes more than technological innovation. You could advocate for green IT, which uses less materials, for instance. But if you know that after only three years, laptops lose their economic value, it’s clear that this wider context also needs to be addressed. Sustainable solutions usually require a combination of initiatives , not one or the other.
This approach is not only evident in education, but also in research. “Sustainability should be an obvious aspect of excellent research. It helps that interdisciplinary collaborations are encouraged, for example in our interdisciplinary institutes. But interdisciplinarity needs more incentives, as does the cooperation with social stakeholders: for instance through Leuven 2030, a platform of actors who strive for a climate-neutral city.”
“We shouldn't be afraid to use ourselves and our environment as living labs. A good example of this is an ongoing project that looks at how we can make historical buildings in Bruges more energy-efficient.” Van Acker refers to the renovation of the residential area ‘De Schipjes’, which consists of twelve almshouses built in 1908. Making the houses more energy-efficient is no easy task, seeing as they’re historic heritage. To develop scenarios for the heat supply of the houses, the Thermal System Simulations Research Group led by Professor Lieve Helsen teamed up with the engineering firm Boydens Engineering. But the social aspect of this living lab is equally important: the houses will be occupied by people with a disability as well as a number of senior citizens. They will receive guidance during and after the renovation.
The university is the ideal place to combine ideas from various fields and experiment with technological advances in combination with societal change or policy changes.
“This is an example of a living lab in which we have to develop and test various methods in consultation with the people who will eventually use it,” says Van Acker. “It’s important to realise that the best approach can differ from one group to the next. That’s also the case in my own field. Take car sharing, for instance: needs greatly differ depending on whether someone lives in the city, the suburbs or the countryside. Again, the sustainable solution will require interdisciplinary collaboration.”
“The university is the ideal place to combine ideas from various fields and experiment with technological advances in combination with societal change or policy changes. We have much to offer to society in terms of sustainability, and it’s this potential that we have to realise.”
This communication was first published 31 October 2019 by KU Leuven.