No Danish university alone is equipped to train sustainability professionals

No Danish university alone is equipped to train sustainability professionals

Katherine Richardson, professor and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre at the University of Copenhagen, Member of UN Panel of experts writing the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report.

Danish university education is built up around the conviction that this education must be research-based

The advantages (not least of which that it ensures students become versed in the absolute newest knowledge in their fields) of a research-based education are obvious. A problem with this educational philosophy emerges, however, when we want to train professionals in the field of sustainability. As companies increasingly embrace the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the associated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they are also looking for professionals to help them in implementing these goals in their activities.

The challenge then arises that research is carried out within specific disciplines and this results in university educational programs usually being offered within specific disciplines. The SDGs, on the other hand, “cut across” disciplines. Furthermore, the SDGs are interconnected. Therefore, true implementation of the SDGs in any business context cannot be based on simple “cherry-picking” of the SDGs where a company sees the greatest potential for positive impact. Sustainable business development is NOT simply a question of finding and exploiting synergies (“win-win”) between a company’s activities and the SDGs. Just as important is the reduction of the impacts of the inevitable trade-offs (negative impacts) that that company’s activities generate with other SDGs.

The SDG’s represent a paradigm shift in relation to how we understand global development

Never before in a global convention have global leaders acknowledged that the Earth’s resources upon which we depend are not infinite. The SDGs can be regarded as a vision for how to share the Earth’s limited resources among not only the soon to be 9-10 billion humans but also all other living organisms that also are dependent on these resources.   

This means that each SDG addresses a societal challenge. In some cases, these challenges are best understood from a natural or health science perspective. For other SDGs, the challenge is best understood from a humanities or social science perspective. For each SDG, specific metrics can be used to assess progress against the goal. Often, but not always, these metrics are developed within the technical sciences. Finally, true implementation of SDGs in any business setting requires that activities maximizing/minimizing synergies/trade-offs with the goals become incorporated in the business model. Thus, no single discipline, university institute, or faculty in Denmark incorporates the breadth of competences necessary to educate sustainability professionals.

So far, this challenge has been addressed in Denmark by the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), the Danish Technical University (DTU) and Copenhagen Business School (CBS) joining together and developing electives (e.g.,) that can be chosen by students from any discipline and from any of the three universities – provided their study board will accept the course for credit. The idea behind the courses is that UCPH research is good at describing sustainability challenges, DTU research is good at developing metrics to assess progress against SDGs and CBS research is good at incorporating the knowledge created at the other universities into business models. However, numerous administrative barriers exist for such initiatives. If this is to be educational model of choice for sustainability practitioners, then Danish laws and administrative practices at the various institutions need to be modified to better accommodate such educational cooperation. Other models for training sustainability professionals also exist. At Stockholm School of Economics, for example, a sustainability module is a requirement for ALL students.

Regardless of which model (or models) for training sustainability professionals will ultimately be adopted, there is first a need to acknowledge that the traditional Danish approach to university education is not equipped for the cross disciplinary training needed to deal with sustainability issues. This recognition will come most easily to universities if those companies recruiting sustainability professionals make their needs and expectations better known. 

Written by:

Katherine Richardson is a professor in biological oceanography at the University of Copenhagen and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre (  She was Chairman of the Danish Commission on Climate Change Policy which reported in 2010 and presented a roadmap for how Denmark can become independent of fossil fuels by 2050. At present, she is a member of the Danish Climate Council and a member of the United Nations Scientific Panel to draft the Global Sustainable Development Report, published in 2019.