ASU leaps to No. 2 globally for UN Sustainable Development Goals, retains top US spot

ASU also leads universities worldwide in categories of sustainable cities and communities, life on land and life below water in Times Higher Education ranking

Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

Arizona State University has been recognized as a global leader in sustainability efforts, coming in second in the world and first in the U.S. in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings released Wednesday.

The annual international publication of university rankings looks at impacts made addressing 17 specific goals aimed at achieving a better world by 2030, known as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Adopted by all 193 United Nations member states in 2015, these goals provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.

“Our health and the health of our planet are intertwined — each is dependent on the other. There is no us without the Earth; it’s as simple as that,” ASU President Michael Crow said. “How do we undo some of the damage that has been done? How do we redefine solutions that are useful throughout society? How do we rethink the very role of the university to secure a healthy, positive future for every creature on this planet?

“That is what we’re aiming to do here at ASU — working toward solutions that benefit all, not just an elite few, and producing the type of knowledge and connections that will help us change the present trajectory that we’re on. Because we don’t have unlimited time to right this ship. There is urgency in what we do, but also a great deal of hope.”

Video by Knowledge Enterprise

Driven by the university’s efforts on such issues as poverty and hunger, gender equality, clean water and air, and climate change, ASU made huge strides in the global ranking, signaling a new era for the university. In one year, the university went from ninth to second in the world out of 1,406 institutions from more than 100 countries, ahead of University College London, the University of Toronto and the University of Queensland, among others — and behind only Western Sydney University in Australia. The global ranking included nearly 300 more institutions this year, compared with 2021. The next highest U.S. institution on the global list is Michigan State University at No. 33.

For 2022, ASU’s score of 98.5 out of 100 points put it at No. 1 in the U.S., coming in ahead of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Michigan State University and Penn State University. It’s the third year in a row that ASU has held the top national spot.

“At a time of multiple complex challenges, from the war in Ukraine to the climate crisis, the rapid growth of university engagement in support of the global development agenda gives me hope,” said Amanda Ellis, former UN Ambassador and co-chair of ASU’s SDG & Beyond Task Force. “I am so inspired by ASU’s growing impact and the power of our partnerships.”

Among the 17 goals, ASU ranked No. 1 in the world in three SDG categories: sustainable cities and communities; life below water; and life on land.

"Our planet is pushing back on us. We are learning that our planet is not limitless; it’s trying to tell us something through droughts, wildfires, viruses and more," said Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of Global Futures. "At ASU, we are focused on shaping futures in which life can thrive on a healthy planet. We are dedicated to supporting life on Earth’s physical, biogeochemical and societal systems, and we are honored to see this work reflected in the Times Higher Education Impact ranking."

ASU’s efforts placed it in the top 10 in seven total SDGs. In addition to the three No. 1s, ASU was No. 4 in climate action, No. 6 in no poverty, No. 7 in clean water and sanitation and No. 9 in peace, justice and strong institutions.

On the university level, ASU is breaking new ground on buildings, programs, initiatives and partnership programs:

  • Rob and Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health: ASU opened its largest research facility — a new headquarters that serves as the enabler for shaping tomorrow, today. It was also home to ASU’s recent Earth Week, featuring both urgent calls to action and messages of hope including keynotes by Jane Goodall and Conservation International founder Peter Seligmann, all in recognition of the solutions being developed by the university’s researchers and global network of partners.
  • Allen Coral Atlas: Led by Greg Asner, the Allen Coral Atlas is the first global habitat tool to map the world’s tropical, shallow coral reefs. By combining satellite imagery, advanced analytics and object-based analysis, global collaboration has resulted in maps that show the marine ecosystem's benthic and geomorphic data in unprecedented detail.
  • MechanicalTree: Developed by Carbon Collect in partnership with ASU and its Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, the world’s first MechanicalTree was installed on ASU’s Tempe campus to collect carbon from the atmosphere in order to help mitigate global warming. The MechanicalTree — which was developed based on the research of ASU carbon-capture pioneer Klaus Lackner — will rise to a height of 33 feet (10 meters) to passively collect carbon from ambient air, not using energy to drive the capture. Once loaded with carbon, it will retract into a canister that is 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall, where the carbon drawn from the air is able to be stored for other uses. If widely deployed, many of these trees could have a positive impact on our planet by mitigating the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • ASU-Starbucks Center for the Future of People and the Planet: Building on a long-standing partnership, the ASU-Starbucks Center for the Future of People and the Planet launched to leverage ASU’s applied research, networks, expert faculty and innovation through shared aspirational commitments to the betterment of people, the planet and our global communities.
  • Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences: In October 2021, ASU’s Global Futures Lab partnered with BIOS, the premier deep-ocean observatory in the Western Hemisphere, to advance the understanding of the ocean’s contributions to Earth’s overall health and explore what is needed to secure these services into the future.
  • WE Empower UN SDG Challenge: The WE Empower UN SDG Challenge welcomed a new cohort of female entrepreneurs and leaders from around the world who are pushing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals forward through sustainable business practices.
Two people smiling

Dave White (left) and Michelle Schwartz represent Arizona State University at the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking 2022 announcement in Stockholm, Sweden. “Sending special thanks from Sweden to the ASU Times Higher Education Impact Rankings committee convened by Dr. Sheila Ainlay and Dr. Scott Brenden for their dedication to this effort,” White said on April 26. Photo courtesy of Dave White

Here are a half-dozen of the many other ways in which ASU is working to help people and the planet prosper:

  • The Global Carbon Removal Partnership, led by Thunderbird School of Global Management Director-General and Dean Sanjeev Khagram, is a group made up of policymakers, members of the private sector and civic society seeking to influence policy and market environments to support the rapid scale-up of carbon-removal actions. ASU is also home to the international public-private alliance New Carbon Economy Consortium, focused on harnessing innovation to drive a carbon-neutral to carbon-negative world.
  • The Connective is a consortium that is building a first-of-its-kind “smart region” for the greater Phoenix area with the Thunderbird School’s Phoenix Global Rising initiative — a multistakeholder partnership advancing Phoenix’s global capacity. With the support of Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, ASU is helping deploy equitable and scalable technology solutions that support the Valley’s goals of sustainability and improving quality of life.
  • Modular gender education training for parliamentarians and global changemakers: These videos aim to eliminate discriminatory laws against women around the world and are now used by the nearly 200 member countries of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the UN partner agencies.
  • The Decision Center for a Desert City is focused on advancing research, education and partnerships for urban water transitions through the power of data. Complementing its work is the Kyl Center for Water Policy, which promotes research, analysis, collaboration and dialogue to build consensus on sound water stewardship for Arizona and the West.
  • The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems provides research and education options to address the integrity of the agriculture systems and the well-being of farmers, producers and providers, and to help drive policy-relevant knowledge to ensure food safety.
  • The Global SDG 5 Notification Tool, designed by ASU's Erin Carr-Jordan and implemented by the Luminosity Lab, which provides insight into country-level progress on legal gender equality with the ability to compare 190 countries at a granular level. With data on local laws provided by the World Bank, parliamentarians and others, this tool is used by the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review to hold countries accountable to their commitments.
  • The Knowledge Exchange for Resilience builds community resilience through the sharing of knowledge across sectors, driving discovery through responsive research, and supporting the development of agile solutions that enhance our shared capacity to withstand, respond and transform through both sudden shocks and long-term stresses.

Top photo: A bird’s-eye view of Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii. Photo by Greg Asner/ASU

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