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Sustainability & Covid-19 – A Setback or the Cusp of Change?

Sustainability & Covid-19 – A Setback or the Cusp of Change?

17 December 20
 | 16 MINS

NUI Galway’s Community and University Sustainability Partnership (CUSP)  is a multi-disciplinary, voluntary team of over 30 students and staff from across the campus and community, with the common aim of establishing the university as a leading institutional model for sustainability. CUSP has been at the heart of a vital pillar of the university’s strategy – a commitment to sustainability as one of four underpinning values for everything that the university does (alongside respect, openness and excellence).

NUI Galway’s Community and University Sustainability Partnership (CUSP)  is a multi-disciplinary, voluntary team of over 30 students and staff from across the campus and community, with the common aim of establishing the university as a leading institutional model for sustainability.

CUSP has been at the heart of a vital pillar of the university’s strategy – a commitment to sustainability as one of four underpinning values for everything that the university does (alongside respect, openness and excellence).

Our student community has been the driver of this high-level commitment to sustainability. It is their generation that faces the consequences of climate change and loss of biodiversity. They rightly demand that we leave the world a better place than we find it.

With growing optimism that the end of Covid is in sight, we pose the question ‘what are the consequences for sustainability?’ Will a Covid-induced recession reduce investment in sustainability – or is it possible that the pandemic will lead to accelerated change for the better?

We in Ireland are not alone in noting a willingness to ‘do things differently’ post-Covid. But will we see a meaningful shift in policies and practices? Or is the post-Covid horizon a mirage?

The good news is that Covid-19 has proven that change can be both rapid and radical. In the face of a crisis that erupted in March, global economic orthodoxy had been jettisoned by April. Apparently sclerotic organisations in both the public and private sectors sent most of their people home – and then carried on doing business as well as ever.

More good news comes from the history of pandemics. We know that pandemics of the past have brought about significant social, cultural and scientific advances. Plague breeds all manner of innovation.

If the global economic tanker can be turned around in a trice, surely we can engineer a coordinated recovery that is driven by environmental sustainability measures such as climate action and protection of biodiversity. If we have learned anything from the crisis it is that we live in an interdependent world where nature, society and the economy must serve each other, rather than compete with each other.

Even more good news comes from the fact that government policy and a legislative framework are in place. In October this year, the Government published the Climate Action Bill, which commits Ireland to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by at least 7% per annum for the next ten years.

In the words of Sharon Finegan, Principal Officer of the Climate Action Unit at the Department of the Taoiseach, “these are really significant targets and milestones showing that there is a plan from Government, and it is being implemented with over 200 actions, broken down into 600 measures.”

Sharon was speaking to Cois Coiribe about NUI Galway’s sustainability focus. She makes the point that there are “huge opportunities for Galway to provide testbeds for innovation, supporting the national economic strategy and future jobs by developing Ireland’s capacity as a leader in research and innovation in this space.”

Sharon Finegan is right. Here we look at just three outstanding sustainability initiatives from NUI Galway.

Sustainability & Covid-19 – A Setback or the Cusp of Change?
Sharon Finegan, Principal Officer, Climate Action Unit, Department of the Taoiseach, BA 2002


We know that poor air quality is a major health risk, causing lung and cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. We have now learned that poor air quality is a risk factor in the severity of Covid-19 infection.

The Ryan Institute’s Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies (C-CAPS) and Mace Head Atmospheric Research Station began 2020 with the release of their revolutionary new StreamAIR air pollution app, which informs the user of the air quality in their local area.

C-CAPS and Mace Head are under the directorship of Professor Colin O’ Dowd. Colin is a world-renowned expert on climate and air pollution, ranked in the Thomson-Reuters top 1% cited and ‘most influential scientific minds’ in the world.

Mace Head Atmospheric Research Station is located on the Atlantic edge at Carna in County Galway, the entry point for the cleanest air into Europe with the prevailing westerlies. Professor O’Dowd says that the location ‘allows us to conduct key air pollution and climate research in the air, which is both the least perturbed, and also the most perturbed in terms of pollution, as Europe exports pollution over the north Atlantic. In other words, we measure how dirty is the cleanest air in Europe.’

On Covid-19 and air pollution in Ireland, Professor O’Dowd says that ‘lockdown provided an opportunity to evaluate how the air pollution system would react to a reduction in some emission sources such as traffic. Traffic activity reduced to approximately 75% as did related Nitric Oxide emissions and resultant concentrations. The same reduction was not seen in either ozone or Particulate Matter, both of these exhibiting an increase.’ Professor O’Dowd says this surprising outcome highlights how complex the air quality system is and stresses ‘the need to run advanced Air Pollution models in conjunction with high quality measurements.’

"Lockdown provided an opportunity to evaluate the effect of reduction of traffic on air pollution."

GEMS (Global Energy Management System)

Formed in 2013 and led by Dr Marcus Keane, Dr Noel Finnerty and Mr Ronan Coffey, GEMS (Global Energy Management System) has empowered Boston Scientific Corporation to become the first global medical device company to commit to being carbon neutral by 2030. Boston Scientific Corporation in its commitment to be Carbon Neutrality by 2030, has become an industrial leader in climate change, making the bold statement that: “it is no longer acceptable that the manufacture of our products has a negative impact on the planet.”

GEMS (Global Energy Management System) is delivered through scientific research and development led by NUI Galway’s College of Engineering and Science, Ryan Institute and Insight Centre for Data Analytics, and Boston Scientific Corporation (BSC).

Continued research and innovation over the next ten years will enable GEMS to contribute to knowledge and decision making relating to a broader scope of the Green House Gas protocol, as defined by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainability, which will encompass the energy and carbon impacts across the entire supply chain within the BSC global network.


GEMS Successes

GEMS has contributed to all of BSC’s Materiality Aspects and the 17 UN SDG’s, achieving top sustainability rankings that include the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), Forbes Just 100 and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

2019-2020 saw BSC voted industry No. 1 under Forbes Just 100 in the Climate Change category with GEMS a being a major contributor to this ranking. Renewable Energy included the US Virtual Power Purchase Agreement, which was signed in March 2020, delivering 100% renewable electricity to meet all of BSC’s US operations;

Sustainability Rankings saw BSC ranked 38th, up from 324th in Newsweek’s – America’s Most Responsible Companies list in 2020, and 6th in the Health Care sector. And in 2021 BSC was added to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for North America in recognition of commitment to sustainable economic, environmental and social practices

GEMS 2013–2030 Ramp to Carbon Neutrality: 100% renewable electricity for BSC in the US; 45% reduction in carbon emissions achieved; 50% renewable electricity by 2021 – already exceeded; 100% renewable electricity by 2024; 90% renewable energy (all sources) by 2021; 100% renewable electricity for BSC’s European footprint (operationally and commercially); Roadmap to decarbonize thermal energy stream; Drive energy efficiency in BSC operations in Marlborough, Quincy, Spencer and Dorado and grow Green Real Estate.

Speaking about the ambition of GEMS, Brad Sorenson, Senior VP, BSC’s Global Manufacturing and Supply Chain, US said in a Fortune article:

“Carbon neutrality is the right thing to do for our patients, customers, employees, communities, and, most importantly, for the world we share. GEMS, a centralized management process developed in collaboration with National University of Ireland Galway, helps the company meet its global energy improvement and carbon reduction commitments.”

Brad Sorenson


Dr Jamie Goggins is based at the Ryan Institute which promotes interdisciplinary excellence in environmental, marine and energy research. In 2019-2020, Engineers Ireland funded a project for NUI Galway to consider Engineering in 2040, during which the team focused on the Engineering programme outcomes.

Jamie says, “We developed a tool to analyse the level at which SDGs [United Nations Sustainable Development Goals] are embedded into all of the Engineering degree programmes at NUI Galway, while also doing a deeper dive into the Energy Systems degree programme.”

In July 2020, Engineers Ireland published its Sustainability Framework 2020-2023, which has been significantly influenced by adapting NUI Galway’s ‘learn-live-lead’ model.

This has led to a new programme area on sustainability in the Engineers Ireland Accreditation. Criteria for third level engineering programmes – Engineers Ireland accredits more than 200 third level engineering programmes – and will result in a sustainability training series of new and existing CPD courses and events, aligned with the SDGs.

Sustainability & Covid-19 – A Setback or the Cusp of Change?
Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, President NUI Galway signing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals Accord

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