Sustainability research that aims to change the world

Pursuing knowledge can build expertise in a field, or it can change the world. Professor Manfred Lenzen explains how the University of Sydney’s purpose-first approach to sustainability research helps students tackle tough global challenges.

sydney lightning strike
A lightning storm rips across Sydney's skyline. The University of Sydney's sustainability research examines pressing global issues such as climate change, environmental justice, responsible business, and inequality. Image: Leorex, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sydney University professor Manfred Lenzen earned his PhD in nuclear physics from the University of Bonn in 1995, but these days, his research interests are a long way off from the world of atoms, protons and neutrons. 

As professor of sustainability research at the University of Sydney’s Integrated Sustainability Analysis (ISA) research cluster, Lenzen’s work today involves crunching numbers with the help of high-performance computers in order to examine the link between environmental, social and economic issues. 

His research touches on issues such the links between inequality, responsiblity for carbon emissions and vulnerability to climate impacts. One of his more provocative findings is that rising incomes have a far greater impact on emissions than population growth.

So how did someone trained in the study of miniscule particles of matter end up with a career that delves deep into shared global challenges such as climate change and economic inequality?  

In a recent interview, Lenzen tells Eco-Business that this shift is thanks to inspirational advice from a former lecturer who told him: “You don’t come here just to learn equations or how to operate a computer; you must be politically active.” 

Lenzen says this advice had a heavy hand in guiding his own shift towards exploring renewable energy, climate change, and socio-economic inequality issues. He also sees a strong sense of purpose reflected in much of the sustainability research conducted by his colleagues at the university. 

This mindset empowers students enrolled in the university’s postgraduate Sydney Sustainability Programme—for which Lenzen is the course co-ordinator—with the motivation to confront the tough, complex challenges that the future holds, he adds. 

Taught as an 18-month full-time Master’s degree or shorter Graduate Diploma and Graduate Certificate programmes, the Sydney Sustainability Programme’s core curriculum spans seven disciplines, including Life and Environmental Sciences, Medicine, Law, and Business. The course culminates in a research initiative known as the capstone project.

“The people who teach in the Sydney Sustainability Programme don’t just do so for the sake of knowledge,” he says. “They teach to make a difference in the world, through their own research as well as by equipping our students with the skills to change the world when they leave university.”

“There is a very strong sense of purpose in the programme,” adds Lenzen. 

Research with a cause

Many of the staff who lecture in the programme also conduct sustainability research in other departments and institutes in the university, meaning that students have a direct connection to this expertise and emerging knowledge, Lenzen explains. 

An academic’s standard workload is equal parts research and teaching, so when lecturers teach students, “they don’t just do it from second-hand knowledge; they are actually involved in the research”, shares Lenzen, who himself lectures in a course on Ecological Economics and Sustainability Analysis.

“Students can feel that the knowledge they are receiving is first-hand, not just something out of a textbook,” Lenzen says. “It gives them a sense that they are involved in something cutting-edge and contemporary.”

While Lenzen and his ISA colleagues are based in the university’s physics building for easy access to supercomputers, a whistle-stop tour of rest of the university’s sustainability research includes stops at the law, engineering and information technology, chemical and biomolecular engineering, geography, and agriculture departments, to name a few. 

The Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law, for instance, researches issues like water market regulation, and how to compensate the victims of natural disasters. 

The engineering faculty-based Centre for Sustainable Energy Development develops clean energy technologies and products with a low environmental impact, while the Laboratory of Sustainable Technology, based in the School of Chemical and Bioengineering, researches pathways to zero-emission products, nanotechnologies, as well as a ‘hydrogen economy’.

At the Sydney Institute of Agriculture, researchers tackle critical issues related to the future of food and forests. Examples of this include how to produce more food and fibre in a sustainable way, increase food and nutrition security and agricultural profitability worldwide, and improve standards of food safety, processing, and storage across the supply chain. 

Over in the humanities, Sydney University’s geographers explore the dynamics between humans and environment, how to build resilience against natural disasters in the Asia Pacific region, and how environmental challenges such as changing agricultural patterns and resource scarcity shape global development, livelihoods and poverty alleviation efforts. 

The stand-alone Sydney Environment Institute pursues research topics such as climate adaptation and environmental justice—that is, the disproportionate impact that environmental damage and climate change have on vulnerable communities—while academics at Sydney Business School study how individuals and business managers understand and respond to the climate crisis. 

For Lenzen, it is these last two topics that represent a new and exciting research frontier—the societal and psychological reasons for contemporary environmental problems. 

Technology and policy solutions like carbon trading, renewable energy, and carbon pricing have been around for several years now, but emissions have not gone down, observes Lenzen. “This research tries to address the problem from a new, different perspective.” 

The people who teach in the Sydney Sustainability Programme…teach to make a difference in the world, through their own research as well as by equipping our students with the skills to change the world when they leave university.

Manfred Lenzen, professor of sustainability research, University of Sydney

Complex problems, diverse solutions 

In addition to their knowledge, Lenzen says that the university’s academics also bring to the table an extensive network of collaborators from institutions across Australia, and the world. 

For instance, Lenzen has for many years conducted regular trainings for government officials from the Pacific Islands on energy efficiency and storage; the sessions were conducted on Norfolk Island, a tiny offshore island in the Pacific Ocean.

So when a former student in the Sustainability Programme wanted to look at the potential of energy storage technology to boost Norfolk Island’s energy independence for her capstone project, Lenzen was able to connect her with local collaborators and officials to make her research aims a reality.

Looking to the future, the university is constantly on the hunt for new research frontiers when it comes to environmental issues, says Lenzen. This is inevitable in a field that is as rapidly evolving and shifting as sustainability. 

But even as the body of research evolves, one thing is constant: A broad approach that brings together knowledge from multiple academic fields, says Lenzen.

“We must focus our interdisciplinary research on the big questions, such as climate change, soil loss, biodiversity decline, and the role of business,” says Lenzen. “More importantly, we must further engage research that is currently operating in silos to discover links across faculties and bring about powerful new synergies.” 

This is essential, because “the problems we are facing demand multidisciplinary experts to deal with them; there is no other way”, says Lenzen.

He adds: “We are trying to produce graduates that are able to communicate across various disciplines, and speed up global problem solving.” 

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