While pandemic emergencies prompted many higher education institutions to pause large-scale sustainability efforts, recent disasters, rising energy costs, and pressure from students and university stakeholders have brought sustainability planning back to the forefront of institutional priorities.
But with so many pressures competing for resources and mindshare, how can universities move forward in a way that delivers meaningful impact?
From EAB’s research, three major challenges hinder progress on sustainability. First, university plans often suffer from scope creep as the array of possible sustainability initiatives expands.
Second, institutions set lofty goals for themselves that may not be feasible to achieve or easily measured.
Finally, sustainability initiatives are often overseen by a sustainability office that is too often under-resourced and siloed from the rest of the institution.
Thankfully, hope is not lost. Leaders across the sector have successfully combatted these challenges with some simple fixes to their sustainability strategies that can also be leveraged to make progress at your own institution.
If the shoe fits, wear it
Given the “big tent” of sustainability opportunities, universities have a wide range of initiatives to consider when looking to move the needle on climate issues. Institutions that have realised demonstrable impact tend to concentrate their efforts on themes that align with institutional priorities.
Our research shows four major themes that commonly play out as best-fit opportunities for HE providers:
Reducing emissions and environmental footprint: Reducing overall emissions is one of the most common – and impactful – sustainability goals, and opportunity is often rife on university campuses. One highly effective strategy for reducing emissions is implementing building automation systems to optimise heating, cooling, lighting, and appliances.
As an example, Ball State University (BSU), a public research university in Indiana in the US, built a geothermal heating and cooling system that cut their emissions in half. Prior to the project, BSU’s aging coal-fired boilers used 36,000 tonnes of coal annually, at a cost of $3.2 million (£2.4 million) per year. BSU’s new thermal system now connects all 47 buildings on campus. In addition to reducing the campus carbon footprint by 50 per cent, BSU is also saving $2.2 million (£1.65 million) in annual energy costs.
Advancing sustainability research and education: This theme aligns well with universities’ raison dêtre and seeks to embed sustainability into the entire learning, teaching, and research ecosystem of the institution. HEIs making progress here incentivise sustainability education by offering grants for instructors to develop sustainability-related workshops or seminars, or to embed sustainability content into their lectures.
University College Cork in Ireland has offered its campus as a “living laboratory” for sustainability experimentation to interested students, academics, and professional staff. The university offers grants for short- and long-term sustainability research projects. Those that prove successful are implemented across campus, including a comprehensive waste prevention program that piloted initiatives such as a bulky item reuse system.
Enhancing community visibility: Sustainability efforts require community input and buy-in to succeed. Publicising sustainability efforts increases awareness and expands your overall impact. Universities that don’t invest here open themselves up to criticism for “not doing enough” and may be overlooked by external entities interested in funding sustainability work.
For example, Goldsmiths displays the carbon footprint of dining options on campus using a traffic-light labelling system, pointing students and staff to low-carbon alternatives. (An avocado shipped from Thailand would have a red light to denote the food’s relatively high carbon footprint.) The initiative ultimately led to new sourcing decisions for the university; in 2019, Goldsmiths eliminated the sale of beef on campus as part of its goal to go carbon neutral by 2025.
Ensuring financial ROI: Prioritising sustainability projects that benefit a university on both environmental and financial fronts increases the likelihood of an initiative’s success and makes a strong case for further investments.
Emory University, a top-tier American research university, built a hydroponic treatment system that cleans and recycles wastewater. The system was built at no capital expense to Emory through a Water Purchase Agreement between Emory University and a water reclamation and reuse solutions company. The system recycles 40 per cent of Emory’s water usage and reduces its draw from the municipal water supply by more than 663 million litres per year. The project is expected to save the university millions of dollars in water utility costs over a 20-year period.
Talk metrics to me
To ensure a balanced portfolio of sustainability efforts, institutions should first prioritise projects that fit into one or more of the above themes. The next step on the sustainability journey is to break those plans into actionable steps with defined outcomes.
Slotting projects into an existing assessment and reporting framework, such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, can be helpful for setting targeted and achievable goals and aligns with assessments such as Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings.
Universities can also foster accountability by tying sustainability goals to unit-level plans.
One example to consider is the University of Wollongong in Australia. Its Environmental Management Plan outlines clear targets and performance indicators for each sustainability strategy. As part of its environmental management plan, Wollongong improved its campus environment by cascading target goals down to specific owners. Those owners then oversaw improvements ranging from increasing student satisfaction with the campus environment to more than 90 per cent, to planting about 50,000 trees and shrubs on campus.
I’ve got friends in low-carbon places
Regardless of your specific campus goals, sustainability leaders need the support of the entire institution. Structuring a sustainability committee so that various stakeholders are responsible for specific goals is a good first step.
The University of Tasmania’s approach is one to consider. Its sustainability committee assigns committee members to working groups that align with each individual’s skills and passions. For example, the working group on sustainable food systems is led by a lecturer in Food, Nutrition, and Public Health. Her work on the committee is focused on establishing a sustainable food culture at the university. The committee also created working group report templates so that stakeholders could report their progress and recommendations on initiatives to the committee in a standardised way.
Beyond a formal committee structure, institutions should recruit broader student and staff populations to participate in sustainability initiatives.
One example is University College London’s Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF), a set of standards that labs can implement to improve their sustainability and earn a certification. In LEAF’s pilot year, participants at UCL and 16 other institutions saved more than 620 tonnes of carbon by committing to switch from plastic to glass containers and to use chemicals which are made from renewable (i.e. plant-based) sources, rather than other, equivalent chemicals originating from petrochemical sources.
As universities adjust to a post-pandemic normal, sustainability must have a central place in institutional goals.
Our sector’s relevancy – not to mention our students’ futures – depends on it. Ensuring that your sustainability goals are aligned with institutional priorities, tied to widely known frameworks with clear goals, and supported by a broad network of stakeholders is a good place to start.
EAB recently compiled a compendium of 100+ sustainability initiatives in the sector. Download a copy.