U of A ranked seventh in the world for impact on sustainability

Latest Times Higher Education rankings highlight university as a leader and partner in making progress toward UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Aerial view of Edmonton. (Photo: Richard Siemens)

The U of A ranks seventh in the world and second in Canada among universities striving to shape a more sustainable future, with particular strength in innovation, energy and global partnerships, according to the 2023 Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. (Photo: Richard Siemens)

The University of Alberta has been ranked seventh in the world and second in Canada for its ongoing efforts to tackle the critical sustainability challenges facing civilization today, according to the latest Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings.

This year’s ranking continues the U of A’s upward trajectory, with the institution moving from 11th internationally last year to enter the top 10 for the first time and climbing one spot in the national rankings.

“Being recognized as one of the top 10 institutions in the THE Impact Rankings is a wonderful achievement for the U of A,” says Bill Flanagan, president and vice-chancellor. “Our strong showing in several categories — and our overall global ranking of seventh — showcases our ability to collaborate as one university, bringing together diverse perspectives and knowledge to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.”

THE’s Impact Rankings assess universities’ performance against the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), based on indicators related to research, stewardship, outreach and teaching.

“As we face the more complex problems of the 21st century, we are finding that researchers and university programs need to be more targeted towards addressing complex societal issues. Pure research still plays a huge role, but more and more researchers are focusing their work on specific local and global challenges, from climate change to housing shortages to ending poverty,” says Bob Summers, academic director of the U of A’s Sustainability Council

“It’s this work that the Times Higher Education Impact rankings seek to measure, and clearly it’s an area where the University of Alberta excels,” adds Summers, who was among the speakers at a U of A-hosted panel event on “Global Issues in Energy Transitions” held May 29 at the Global Sustainable Development Congress ahead of the release of the new rankings.

(From left) Professor Gonzalo Zombrano, Sustainability Council academic director Robert Summers, External Relations vice-president Elan MacDonald, professor Sandeep Agrawal, professor John Parkins and professor Amit Kumar were among the U of A speakers at a panel event on "Global Issues in Energy Transitions" held May 29 during the Global Sustainable Development Congress in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Helmy Alsagaff)

(From left) Professor Gonzalo Zombrano, Sustainability Council academic director Robert Summers, External Relations vice-president Elan MacDonald, professor Sandeep Agrawal, professor John Parkins and professor Amit Kumar were among the U of A speakers at a panel event on "Global Issues in Energy Transitions" held May 29 during the Global Sustainable Development Congress in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Helmy Alsagaff)

Partnerships key to global effort

The U of A’s partnerships at all levels, including collaborations across faculties, within communities and on an international scale, led to a boost from third to first in Canada for SDG 17, Partnership for the Goals. The institution remains in the global top 25 for this SDG as well, working with hundreds of partners across six continents on a range of initiatives supporting the objectives in the UN 2030 Agenda, explains Cen Huang, vice-provost and associate vice-president (international).

“It is through these collaborations that we achieve many of our most substantial impacts, and that allow us to play a key role in the global effort to change our world for the better,” says Huang.

The U of A’s highest-scoring sustainable development goal was SDG 9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, for which the institution placed first in Canada and 19th globally. Researchers are working across disciplines and faculties to spark innovation and find ways to make both infrastructure and industry more resilient, inclusive and sustainable. 

One key step is to find creative ways to revamp existing infrastructure, seen in initiatives such as the University Commons project, which will see a century-old building transformed into a “living laboratory” that uses hardware and software to optimize controls and reduce energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and operating costs. 

Beyond campus, energy expert Amit Kumar is at the helm of research showing that blending hydrogen with natural gas for heating homes has potential for reducing carbon emissions without changing existing infrastructure.

A total of 104 active spinoff ventures have launched, highlighting the prevalence of researchers extending their impact and expertise to a wide range of industries and sectors.

Alberta’s leading role in the green energy transition is bolstered by the U of A’s strength in SDG 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, in which the university ranked first in Canada and 71st worldwide. The institution is home to the Future Energy Systems research group, comprising 167 researchers and 1,016 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and other highly qualified personnel who are developing energy technologies including innovations in biomass, hydrogen fuel cells, geothermal, solar, wind and smart grids.

An online course launched last year, “21st Century Energy Transition: How Do We Make It Work?” also makes the institution’s energy expertise accessible to curious learners around the world to help them engage thoughtfully with the complex issue.

Sustaining health and well-being

In addition to finding ways to engage in sustainability initiatives within industry, infrastructure and the energy sector, the U of A has taken major steps in addressing several SDGs related to human health and wellness. 

“The U of A is a university that has always existed to support the public good — this mission infuses all of our activities — and the SDGs provide an ideal framework to help us intentionally focus these activities towards tangible, positive and transformative outcomes and impact, in our local community and around the world,” says Huang.

The university is second in both Canada and the world for SDG 2, Zero Hunger, building on Alberta’s existing strength in agriculture by taking innovative approaches such as growing crops under solar panels

Sustainability is also woven through many course offerings including The Plate, the Planet and Society and Economics of World Food and Agriculture, providing the next generation of graduates with the knowledge to work toward ending hunger and achieving food security on a global scale. The U of A also scored high in the THE ranking in terms of low campus food waste and low student hunger, creating an environment where students can thrive.

The university also moved into the top 40 internationally for SDG 3, Good Health and Well-Being, a significant jump from last year’s ranking of 71st. Researchers are working with community partners to understand and address pressing health-care needs as they launch studies and programs aimed at everything from making sexual health testing more accessible to providing houseless emergency department patients a bridge to support services and permanent homes

Additionally, the Health Innovation Hub serves as an incubator for innovative researchers and entrepreneurs working on initiatives that target better human health outcomes, helping bring high-impact research from the lab to a wider audience through commercialization.

Ensuring the health of the planet as well as the people on it likewise remains a priority, with the U of A ranking second in Canada for SDG 15, Life on Land. Efforts in this area include the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute as well as research projects examining how tree diversity, shelterbelts and hedgerows can increase carbon storage and aid both sustainable farming and conservation efforts.

“Our researchers are leading the way in achieving the Global Sustainable Development Goals both locally and globally. The Impact Rankings are an important recognition of that work,” says Summers, noting that the Sustainability Council is developing a new, interdisciplinary master’s program in sustainability and has created an SDGs Info Hub to highlight the U of A’s collaborations and efforts toward achieving each of the 17 goals.

Nearly 1,600 institutions worldwide were included in the overall ranking, with three additional Canadian institutions joining this year.