NYU Abu Dhabi head: we’re ready to lead thinking on SDGs

As MENA adapts to global warming, regional universities, especially in the UAE, are preparing to embrace a climate leadership role, says Mari?t Westermann

November 6, 2023
Mari?t Westermann, New York University Abu Dhabi
Source: NYAUD

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The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 are a boon and a bane to higher education. The 17 SDGs are of sweeping ambition, designed to address poverty, hunger, health, education, gender inequality, clean water and clean energy. That’s just the first seven, with the others addressing economy and workforce as well as a complex of climate conditions, not to mention peace and justice.

No one can argue with the urgency of the SDGs, but therein lies the difficulty for universities. Many of the problems the SDGs are meant to solve are too systemic for any one country or institution to tackle, and most require governments to act in their own countries and come together with others to promote a sustainable future for all living beings. How can any of these goals be met by 2030?

Despite this overarching challenge for the SDG movement, on balance it is a great prompt for universities. The targets concern the sorts of global problems that universities routinely tackle in courses and research. Great universities have long looked beyond the borders of their countries and addressed big global issues in their teaching and research. Students from many countries bring local knowledge into classrooms. University scholars work in international research frameworks that allow fast exchanges of data and ideas. During the grave global crisis of Covid-19 we saw the power of academic networks in the rapid development of viable vaccines.

On the cusp of , the SDG foremost in my mind is number 13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” If setting climate targets was a priority in 2015, the year of the Paris Climate Accords, it is an inescapable imperative today. To tackle the greatest threat to existence that humanity has faced, we need to begin meeting goals, not deferring them.


We have just experienced the hottest summer on record, with the highest temperatures, fastest rates of ice melt, most dramatic wildfires and highest incidence of extreme weather. Water shortages, crop failures and species extinction are news of the day, and with them come forced migrations that test our humanity. The MENA region is severely affected, with its traditional warm climate, water shortages and desert landscapes, but this is no reason to throw up our hands in despair. Precisely because global warming is so present in our region, MENA universities must be at the forefront of fighting the causes and consequences of climate change.

When I joined New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) in 2019, I?pledged that our institution would redouble its efforts to mitigate climate change and its ill effects. We started with a simple move: inventorying everything already being done on our campus, from research, courses and building management to sustainable dining, student initiatives and UAE community engagement. I?appointed a director of sustainability and stewardship to connect the extraordinary collective and individual commitments to climate action across our campus. He has the environmental engineering chops and interactive skills to bring dispersed people together for our common climate purpose.


Last year, we launched Our Commitment to a Liveable Planet, an initiative to galvanise further climate research and encourage institutional and personal responsibility. This year, we launched a comprehensive Climate Action Plan aimed at achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. We strive to make globally significant contributions that also advance sustainable development in the United Arab Emirates, the MENA region and countries around the world. We can build on the UAE’s longstanding initiatives to produce renewable energy and sustainable fresh water, and to advocate for nature preservation and biodiversity. This year is the UAE’s Year of Sustainability, which will culminate in the country’s hosting of COP?28 in?Dubai.

NYUAD is intentional about serving as a thought leader for the SDGs. Whether in the sciences and engineering, the social sciences or the arts and humanities, our faculty and students pursue questions of sustainability and equity and seek real-world solutions. Our researchers are developing new technologies to monitor the climate crisis and develop remedies. We seek to limit our campus environmental impact through a comprehensive road map on carbon, energy, water, food, waste and transport.

We know we are not alone – universities have huge potential to nurture climate innovation and to encourage youth to express their views and contribute to policy discussions about issues that affect their futures. Universities in the UAE have unique opportunities to advance the conversation and support the country’s efforts on sustainable development.

In the lead-up to COP 28, 27 institutions of higher education so far in the UAE have come together to showcase climate research and encourage youth engagement. The Universities Climate Network (UCN), chaired by NYUAD, is a collaborative and inclusive platform for young people to serve as climate leaders. Through the network, student participants discuss climate change in all its ramifications, from climate diplomacy and circular economies to urban systems in the Gulf. UCN is just one of numerous UAE-based organisations that universities can join to amplify and accelerate their work on climate, renewables and biodiversity.


Often, the best thing university leaders can do is to follow their students, who bring smarts, energy and commitment to climate work. NYUAD students won a global bid to host the world’s largest Student Energy Summit 2023, just before COP?28, and three of our students serve in the cohort of 10 UAE Youth Climate Delegates. Our student group Green House sponsors a competition in which teams develop and present cases on sustainability challenges and solutions in different industries.

Universities in the UAE have critical roles to play in imagining and shaping sustainable development for the region. Universities can model collaborations that transcend institutional and disciplinary boundaries. By actively engaging with COP?28 and the country’s climate initiatives, our scholars and students can drive sustainability discourse and catalyse innovation. Universities regularly invite people from across the UAE to their campuses and take initiatives into the community. At NYUAD, climate initiatives for all range from free lectures and exhibitions to citizen science programmes and an annual nurdle hunt (if you don’t know it, Google NYUAD Nurdle Hunt!).

As momentum builds towards COP 28 in the UAE, universities across MENA have a golden opportunity to embrace climate leadership and bend the trajectory of regional development towards a sustainable future.

Mari?t Westermann is vice-chancellor and chief executive of New York University Abu Dhabi.


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