80 sustainability research topics for students to explore green campus issues

Summary: You’re planning your thesis, paper or capstone? You want to do student research project with impact. Learn about sustainability research topics, specifically focused on how to green your campus. Take action to make your university more sustainable!

Sustainability research topics: Education

Some sustainability research topics on education for sustainable development:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of different definitions of sustainability education? Which definition could your university adopt?
  • To what extent is sustainability education already implemented in the curriculum of your university?
  • What are the potential and limitations of advancing sustainability education within your curriculum?
  • Where does your university stand with regards to sustainability education compared to other institutions of higher education?
  • What is the demand among students for more, different or better sustainability education?
  • How can existing sustainability projects on campus be used for educational purposes, e.g. visit solar cells on rooftops as part of engineering classes?

Research

  • What definition of sustainability research should your university embrace?
  • To what extent is sustainability research already practised at your university?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the institution’s sustainability research portfolio compared to other institutions of higher education?
  • What are the drivers of and barriers to sustainability research at your university?
  • How could sustainability research help to study sustainability issues on campus and inform practical change projects?
  • What are the opportunities and costs associated with promoting sustainability research? How could a plan of action look like to strategically advance it?

Community

Some sustainability research topics on community engagement and awareness:

  • What are the perceptions of and attitudes towards sustainability by students and staff?
  • To what extent are students and staff aware of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
  • How aware are students and staff about the institution’s sustainability ambitions?
  • What are the benefits and disadvantages of approaches to communicate the university’s sustainability efforts better?
  • What are the challenges to involve students and staff in the university’s sustainability efforts?
  • What ways to increase engagement exist?

For inspiration, read our post on 10 projects to engage students on the SDGs.

Inspire more students to do research on sustainability through a Green Office

Operations

Explore sustainability research topics on different issues related to greening campus operations:

Energy

  • What are the opportunities and costs of improving the building insulations to save energy?
  • What lights are installed in buildings?
  • What lighting systems exist on the market that are more energy efficient?
  • How would a business case look like to install a new lighting system?
  • Where are the main consumers of energy?
  • What innovative energy technologies are developed at the institution itself?
  • To what extent could those be directly installed and tested in buildings?
  • What lux values are sufficient for work and study places so that places are appropriately lit without wasting too much electricity?

Buildings

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of different sustainable building standards?
  • Which building standards would be most appropriate to inform the institution’s sustainable building policy?
  • What are the costs and benefits associated with different types of green roofs?
  • On which buildings could green roofs be installed?

Catering

  • To what extent are catering and food products certified as organic or fair trade food?
  • How much and why do students attach importance to organic and fair trade products sold in the cafeteria?
  • How can students and employees be made more aware of the multiple benefits – e.g. health, environment, economics – of sustainable (organic, fair trade, local) food?
  • How much are students willing to pay for more organic or fair trade products?

Waste

  • What types and amounts of waste are produced by whom and where at the institution?
  • How did waste streams develop over the last years?
  • What are innovative practices in reducing waste going to landfill or incineration? How could those be applied?
  • What are the costs and benefits associated with waste recycling?

Paper

  • What are options to switch from paper-based to more digital forms working and studying to reduce paper consumption?
  • What are the environmental, economic and social benefits and disadvantages of different options to advance more digital working and studying?

More sustainability research topics on campus operations:

Biodiversity

  • What species live at different campus locations?
  • To what extent do students, faculty and staff value this biodiversity?
  • What are ways to enhance biodiversity on campus?

Greenhouse-gase (GHG)

  • What are the pros and cons of different GHG accounting standards?
  • Which standard should the institution use to develop a GHG emissions inventory?
  • Where are GHG emissions released at the institution?
  • How big is the institution’s GHG footprint?

Procurement

  • What does sustainable procurement mean in the context of a university?
  • How is procurement currently organised? To what extent are sustainability criteria already applied in tenders?
  • To what extent could the university implement sustainability criteria that go beyond the legal minimum to advance the environmental, economic and social benefits of tenders?

Water

  • What are the largest consumers of water?
  • What is the direct and indirect water-footprint of the institution?
  • What are opportunities and costs to reduce water usage?

Transportation and mobility

  • How do students and staff currently travel to the university and as part of their study or work?
  • What is the environmental impact of these travel behaviours? How could the impact be reduced?
  • What best practices exist among companies and other institutions of higher education to reduce staff travel or incentivize different travel behaviours?

Behaviour change

  • What is the potential to reduce resource consumption through behaviour change?
  • What are the best practices of behaviour change interventions at institutions of higher education?
  • To what extent could these projects be also applied at your university?
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Governance, strategy and reporting

Sustainability research topics on governance issues:

Strategy

  • What does sustainability mean for institutions of higher education?
  • How does a comprehensive concept of a sustainable institution of higher education look like?
  • How could the university’s long-term sustainability vision look like?
  • How could this vision be realized through a roadmap?
  • What are innovative ways to develop sustainability strategies for a university through a bottom-up approach?
  • What ethical imperatives would demand that institutions of higher education care for their impact on the planet, people and profit?
  • What are the responsibilities of institutions of higher education to contribute to global challenges, such as poverty and climate change?

Monitoring and reporting

  • What data is important to monitor the institution’s environmental impact?
  • How can this data be collected and analysed?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of different sustainability reporting standards?
  • Which standard should the university adhere to?
  • What are efficient ways to organize sustainability reporting within the organization?
  • How to communicate results among students, staff and outside actors?

Financing

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of different methodologies (e.g. payback or Net Present Value) to calculate the financial costs and benefits of sustainability investments?
  • Which methodology should the institution apply?
  • To what extent could sustainability projects be financed through a revolving loan fund?
  • What are the possibilities to involve outside organizations through energy contracting?
  • What subsidies are available at the European, national and city level to develop a green campus?
  • How could the university use these financing options to advance its energy transition?
  • What are approaches to integrate negative externalities into the accounting schemes of the university?
  • What would be the opportunities, benefits and risks associated with establishing an energy company that’s owned by the university?
  • What are the best practices to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at public institutions around the world?
  • How can incentive schemes be changed so that energy end-users directly benefit from reductions in energy usage?