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Debate investigates AUT’s sustainability goals

by Vivien Whyte (she/her)

associate editor


It’s 2023. Long gone are the days when simply having a sustainability plan earns you brownie points and a pat on the back. The world is standing on the edge of a precipice. Te taiao needs us to be vigilant now, and that means that everyone has to do their part. Not only that, but we need ambitious action across the board.


Debate Magazine takes a critical look at our own university’s sustainability plans and declarations of a better world. We also did a cheeky stalk of other major universities in Aotearoa to see how we line up.


A quick internet stalk will take you to AUT’s Roadmap to 2025 - a plan which sets both external and internal targets for achieving AUT’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Our plans for Net Zero AUT and for creating “great graduates for a sustainable world” are pretty much in line with what everyone else is doing. One thing this plan does better than others is list examples of what each of our goals means. No wishy-washy goals without proper targets and actions to accompany them. As a tertiary institution, there is a heavy emphasis on the need for pioneering research and making sure there are more opportunities for students to have the green skills needed to achieve Aotearoa and the world’s sustainability goals.


Each year, AUT releases a report to update us on their progress along the ‘Roadmap to 2025’ and what measures they’re taking in order to achieve their goals. Between the 2021 and 2022 Reports, there seemed to be an obvious - and very welcome - change in how AUT framed sustainability. No doubt heralded by our new Vice Chancellor. Our Sustainability Roadmap - which was released in 2018 - has one glaring red flag, and only in the 2021 Sustainability Report do we see this rectified.


I’m talking about an understanding of our place in the world and the need to give effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. If we are to see sustainability realised in Aotearoa, it must be with an understanding that tangata whenua have been working with the environment for generations and have the knowledge and relationships with the environment to ensure it’s thriving for generations to come. Not only that, but Indigenous and marginalised communities already bear the brunt of the negative consequences of climate change. So it is no wonder that climate change solutions, when solely birthed out of Western notions of sustainability and capitalist structures, only fail Indigenous and marginalised communities. Yet, in the whole 13-page roadmap, there is only a singular line that even hints at any understanding of this: “work with Māori towards bicultural understandings and responses to the issues of sustainability for Aotearoa New Zealand.’


Moreover, environmental justice scholarship - of which we are now in the fourth wave - has been arguing for decades that sustainability is holistic. Being sustainable goes hand in hand with being equitable, community well-being and hauora. So solely relying on emissions reductions or producing research and graduates that see sustainability as black and white doesn’t create the ambitious action and the impact needed in the context of Aotearoa.


The 2021 Report makes it clear that sustainability from a te ao Māori perspective pervades all targets in the report, and that this is a priority. Our goals also expand to include holistic well-being to signal regenerative goals and reflect te ao Māori. This triumph of a holistic, living systems perspective over the UN’s Sustainability Goals as a basis for our sustainability goals is a most welcome and needed change.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a 2022 Report available to see how this change has been enacted. It’s also a shame because, although the 2020 and 2021 reports boast good progress towards our internal net zero and water-management goals, it’s hard not to be critical considering being net zero was probably a lot easier during COVID-19 when no one was actually on campus. It’ll be interesting to see how we do back in normal teaching conditions.


Like any corporation or institution, the line between greenwashing and actual meaningful change comes down to action. We won’t be able to tell until later whether anything has actually made a meaningful contribution. However, I am hopeful, and you should be too! But we should also be vigilant. In this world, ultimately demand creates change. If more students are asking about sustainable practices in their fields and what that means in Aotearoa, more money gets thrown at creating courses, collaborations and heightened opportunities towards sustainable development.

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