This article is more than 1 year old

Turning sustainability ambitions into meaningful action

Higher education is ambitious in setting sustainability targets, but with so many issues to deal with it can be hard to stay focused. Dain Son Robinson thinks the answer lies in embedding sustainability in everything we do
This article is more than 1 year old

Dain Son Robinson is a sustainability specialist in Moorhouse’s Sustainability Team.

In 2010, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), Universities UK set a collective and ambitious target of a 43 per cent carbon reduction by 2020, against a 2005 baseline, for higher education providers in England

However, as the Guardian noted, this year’s People and Planet university league table shows that nearly 60 per cent of universities have been unsuccessful in meeting these carbon reduction targets – including the universities that ranked highly in the People and Plant league table.

Universities are under increasing pressure from within and outside the sector to not only reduce their carbon footprint but to demonstrate broader sustainability action – often against the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

While we have seen progress in bringing sustainability to the top of the agenda across the sector, maintaining this is a difficult challenge. Clearly there are other important competing pressures, both internally such as increasing employability and transnational education opportunities for students, and externally with the cost-of-living crisis, reduced government funding, uncertainty following Brexit, and the urgent need for digital transformation following the pandemic. These are all huge challenges for any institution.

Despite this,  universities can still turn their sustainability ambitions into meaningful action – while staying focused, ambitious, responsible, impactful, and transparent

A strategy for all

Although many institutions have now set sustainability or sustainable development strategies, not all have, and some will be due a strategy refresh soon. Setting a robust sustainability strategy with clear targets and delivery plans is an essential starting point for embarking on your sustainability journey. The strategy will not only hold those responsible to account, but also provide assurance for your internal and external stakeholders, on your university’s values and position around sustainable development. Doing this will lead to increased opportunities for research funding, donations and attract more prospective students.

And as with any institution-wide initiative, internal and external stakeholder engagement is essential to realise this strategy. Engaging with a broader set of stakeholders outside of the sustainability team or the estates department to better understand wider needs, concerns and priorities can shed light on the challenges and barriers are to meeting your sustainability targets. Clearly articulating the institutional and individual benefits of your chosen initiatives with your stakeholders will help to remove any blockers and encourage collaborative working.

For example, many university libraries are energy and carbon-intensive due to their size, long opening hours, use of equipment, purchasing activities, and heating needs – all to support students in studying throughout the day and through the year. By starting conversations with your library colleagues in order to bring them on your sustainability journey, you may be able to explore options to reduce opening hours outside term time, create a switch-off policy for equipment, offer more digital options, and rethink heating strategies to avoid unnecessary energy use. This would not only benefit your institution’s carbon reduction targets, but would also reduce operational costs and increase the digital accessibility of your library’s offerings for students.

Building a sustainable future

Setting a sustainability strategy and engaging with your stakeholders are important steps, but this alone is not sufficient to bring about a sustainable future. Developing a portfolio of prioritised activities to deliver sustainability initiatives will help provide a clear view of the action that needs to be taken, and the financial and human resources required for successful delivery, helping you measure the benefits and impact.

There are many areas within a university’s portfolio of activities where sustainability can be embedded. For example, you may decide to provide more plant-based options in your canteens, divest from fossil fuels, provide training and resources to increase your students’ green skills from underrepresented backgrounds, or embed education for sustainable development (ESD) across all courses. There are so many options to make a positive impact  – but with dwindling resources to support projects, which should you prioritise? By clearly defining the scope of each activity, the time and resources required, as well as the benefits and impact of successful delivery, you will be able to prioritise high-impact projects  according to what is most material to your university.

Data matters

Tracking progress on your sustainability journey requires rich data and effective data analysis. Before you can analyse your data, setting a data strategy with a clear scope on your data requirements will get you closer to obtaining a holistic picture of your emissions activities. For example, are energy and water metres installed and functioning across all your estate? Are the carbon emissions from business travel data being collected? Are all your courses providing ESD? Your systems and processes should allow you to answer those questions quickly through your data architecture.

Once you have a clear picture of existing data and the gaps in data requirements, you can then start asking if there are more insights that can be extracted from existing data within your institution. Enhanced understanding of data on the spikes in energy usage across the student halls throughout the year, the carbon impact of your procurement activities provided by suppliers, and your students’ interest and passion for sustainability will support better decision-making.

Holistically meeting sustainability ambitions needs to be embedded across the individual institutions. It can no longer be seen as the sole responsibility of your sustainability teams or estates department. The agenda needs to be approached as an institution-wide transformation – setting a clear strategy, engaging with key stakeholders, delivering the required change through a methodical approach, and making data-driven decisions.

Doing so will accelerate the sector’s progress towards sustainable development and lead other sectors and society more broadly to meet our collective 2030 ambitions for sustainable development.

One response to “Turning sustainability ambitions into meaningful action

  1. Thanks for this really interesting piece. In my university it feels like we have a committed senior leadership team, huge numbers of mostly well-targetted initiatives and passionate buy-in from the majority of staff and students. I could point to dozens of examples of effective changes made, and more in the pipeline. But the P&P report is salutary reading: for every area in which we excel there’s another where we’ve done very little, and the bottom line is that we’re not on track to meet the carbon reduction targets. Obviously we should tackle the areas we have neglected, but it remains unclear to me if it is actually feasible to meet the necessary targets just by doing things differently, or if there’s an element of wishful thinking distracting us from harder questions about what we do in the first place. I fear there may be aspects of our core business (e.g. high energy research projects, particularly travel-intensive degree programmes or even admitting long-haul international students?) which simply can’t be made sustainable however smart we are in our approach. If so I guess society needs to have an honest conversation about which of these things it values enough to subsidise by using limited capacity to offset elsewhere.

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