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What are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and How Can Students Achieve Them?

It's news to no one that the world is in desperate need of change. The climate crisis is reaching a point of no return. Social inequality has been exposed like never before with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Poverty and hunger grow while the most powerful people stay still, growing richer and often doing little to help those in need. To guide the world into a just and sustainable future, where poverty no longer exists, the earth is no longer degrading and we have achieved global peace and prosperity, the United Nations created the Sustainable Development Goals. Read below to learn what they are and how students can help to achieve them…

Sep 6, 2023
  • Education
What are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and How Can Students Achieve Them?

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

In 2015, the United Nations joined to discuss what action we as the human race needed to take in order to end poverty and ensure peace and prosperity for all by 2030. From this emerged the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs or Global Goals), a set of 17 objectives designed to guide us towards a brighter future. According to the UN, the SDGs are "a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the planet."

The Global Goals encompass issues such as equality, inclusion, education, health, culture, climate action, sustainability, economy, and many others. All 17 of them are integrated, which means no goal is entirely independent of the others. According to the UN, "they recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability."

Higher education plays an integral role in promoting research and innovation, so here is how students can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals...

Student activism

For a long time, student activists have been at the forefront of demanding and creating social change. Students have participated in movements like Black Lives Matter, the Women's March, the #MeToo movement, the March for Our Lives, Fridays for Future, and many more in the past decade. Recent campaigns have tackled racism, sexism, gun control, climate action, immigration rights, and fair wages. Through extensive protesting, participants pressure local and global politicians and businesses to take action against society's biggest problems.

But students don't always need to take to the streets to promote change. A lot of the positive changes we see today come from community collaboration, research labs and classrooms.

Universities make a difference

The role higher education plays in providing future leaders with the knowledge and the tools necessary to create positive change is essential. Through education, universities help students understand the SDGs and address them and provide academic and professional training geared towards SDG solutions. Through research, universities encourage students to pursue interdisciplinary projects related to the SDGs and support new sustainable development solutions. Universities also promote events to engage with the local community and raise public awareness of the sustainable development cause.

Many institutions have also incorporated into their curriculum undergraduate and postgraduate programs focused on sustainable development and the societal role of the Global Goals and how they can be implemented, preparing students to take on a more direct approach and create better solutions. Due to this trend, job opportunities in the area have expanded rapidly. Because the SDGs are so integrated and interdisciplinary, students with a degree in sustainability can pursue careers in the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities and help advance the Global Goals from any field. Whether you have a job in education, business, political science, technology, or clean energy, you can help your company adopt the SDGs and be an agent of positive change in the world.

University Global Coalition

Empowering students to become agents of change is an important role to play, but one thatloses its meaning when the university behind the students doesn't lead by example. This is why many universities, including York University, have joined and signed the University Global Coalition, a pledge universities have made to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals as institutions, changing their policies and addressing other issues within their own campuses.

The University Global Coalition describes itself as "A collaborative platform of globally engaged universities and higher education associations working in partnership with the UN and other stakeholders to create a more sustainable future for all."

The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings assess directly how universities worldwide incorporate the SDGs into their structure and evaluate the impact such institutions have in driving the world towards a more sustainable and equitable future. For example, York University, in Toronto, Canada, has been named a global leader in sustainable development for three consecutive years thanks to its extensive action in supporting SDG-related work. As a result of boundless efforts by YorkU’s professors, students, alumni, and staff, the university has made significant progress in advancing the Global Goals and developed internationally-recognized expertise in Climate Change research.

Empowering for a positive future

An institution of higher education has many responsibilities that go beyond the classrooms and research labs. Universities play an instrumental role in improving the lives of not only their students, but of the whole community that surrounds them.York University is committed to being a beacon of change and working at every level towards a more just and sustainable world. Offering a variety of research-intensive programs and degrees tailored specifically to strengthen students' capabilities in this regard, York's student-centric approach empowers them to achieve their full potential and become changamakers & leaders in their respective fields, through programs offered by its newly created, The Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

Established in September 2020, the new Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change was created as a call to action to respond to the most pressing challenges facing people and the planet. Its ethos is that positive change requires bold and diverse thinking, ambitious action, and community engagement. It is research-intensive, student centric, inclusive and devoted to making the world a better place for all.

Its new bachelors programs, for example, take an interdisciplinary approach to the environment, combining the arts, social sciences, humanities, arts, and natural sciences to engage with various environmental challenges, approaches, and actions. Faculty who teach the programs pursue research in fields as varied as visual art, community art, Indigenous communities, political ecology, development and regional change, extractive industries, food justice movements, documentary and video activism, infectious diseases, urban infrastructures, and urban governance and planning.The goal of these programs is to educate, train, inspire and empower students towards their future career paths with the skills and knowledge to make positive change.

If you are interested in exploring human migration, geopolitical power, economic development, and inequalities, you can pursue a BA in Global Geography. Students in this program combine humanities, social, and physical sciences to solve pressing problems related to urbanization, uneven development and inequality, environmental change, and others. Alternatively, you can pursue the BES in Cities, Regions, Planning and choose from three different concentrations: Urban Worlds, Urban Planning and Politics, and Urban Political Ecology - all of which focus on giving students the necessary tools to come up with more just and sustainable ways cities and regions can be planned.

You can also choose the BSc in Environmental Science to address urgent environmental and urban issues such as pollution, climate change, water quality, biodiversity, and conservation of species and habitats, or the BES in Sustainable Environmental Management to learn how to manage the environment, natural resources, and transition to more just and sustainable systems. Or, if you want to integrate a more artistic and social perspective into your degree, the BES in Environmental Arts & Justice combines literature, social science, media production, and performance courses with practical learning opportunities outside of the classroom to give its students the knowledge necessary to shape a better future for the environment.

For those searching for a shorter stream of study, the Certificate in Climate Solutions and Sustainable Energy can be completed in as little as two years. The program, supported by the Sustainable Energy Initiative, provides students with the training in energy efficiency, energy resources, and change planning necessary to create responses to the climate crisis through energy solutions.

For Sarika, an Environmental Management major, the program was a great fit. "I get the social aspect of the environment and the physical aspect of the environment," she says. "[The degree] will be extremely useful in the future, especially the way global warming is going and climate change. I feel like there's gonna be a lot of opportunities and doors open once I graduate to be able to do the things I want to do."

As Forest Whitaker, SDG advocate and UNESCO special envoy for peace, says, "It's a myth that each and every one of us doesn't have the ability to change the world dramatically and quickly." University students hold a privileged position that comes with the responsibility to use their knowledge to help advance the world around us. With the right university behind them to provide the necessary support and infrastructure, students have the power to lead change in their communities and eventually impact the future of our world.

Article written in association with the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change -- York University.

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Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change | YORK UNIVERSITY
Thaís Roberto


Thaís graduated with a degree in Language and Literature and is now pursuing her master's while working as an English teacher and freelance writer. She lives in an inland city in São Paulo, Brazil, and enjoys binge-watching TV, game nights with her friends, and learning how to play any musical instrument within reach