Climate change, natural disasters, and increased energy consumption have created unprecedented challenges for society. While the pandemic has naturally directed attention elsewhere, higher education institutions are now facing renewed pressure from students, institutional stakeholders, and their governments to evolve into greener campuses and meet difficult-to-achieve sustainability standards.
EAB’s Michael Fischer spoke with Kathleen Packer, the Director of Facilities Management at the University of Wollongong (UOW), to learn how her university achieved a top-six position in the 2021 Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings and what’s next for the institution’s sustainability journey. Kathleen also shared her recommendations for university leaders hoping to make progress in their own sustainability planning. Review Kathleen’s top recommendations for university leaders below or listen to EAB’s conversation with Kathleen in full here.
Prioritise attainability over ambition
A common pitfall for universities working to improve their sustainability is creating plans that are ambitious but not achievable. Kathleen emphasised that, in light of the stresses that COVID-19 has placed on both university staff and budgets, any goal a university sets for sustainability must be one that it can meet.
Prioritising sustainability projects that benefit a university on both environmental and financial fronts increases buy-in for sustainability measures—and sets the stage for further investments. UOW garnered support for one of its recent achievements, an energy system overhaul, in part because of the project’s financial benefits. UOW invested close to $8 million AUD in solar photovoltaic and LED lights in 32 buildings across its campuses. The university expects to see a return on investment from this project by the end of the decade, an initiative that is helping to keep UOW on track to reduce its energy consumption by 20% before 2035.
Align the interests of activists and institutional leaders to drive impact
According to Pew Research, climate change is top-of-mind for Generation Z; their advocacy is taking place both on- and offline. Higher education leaders are seeing that activism play out on campus as students push their universities to take greater action on climate change. However, many university leaders report a disconnect between students’ demands for change and what can feasibly be done by the university in a realistic timeframe.
UOW has harnessed the energy of its student activists to drive change on campus by creating the Youth Climate Change Project. It unites students and staff at UOW to develop the university’s climate change commitments and establishes a set of climate change demands on the local, national, and global level through the Youth Climate Statement. The statement will be presented at the UN’s 16th Conference of Youth on Climate Change and serves as a roadmap for UOW’s future sustainability endeavours. The interaction between university leaders and students via the Youth Climate Change Project ensures that the climate change commitments developed in the plan are achievable for the university and compelling to their greatest champions.
Youth Climate Statement commitments
UOW commits to:
- Engage in a profile of its emissions
- Establish a carbon neutrality working party within the Vice Chancellor’s Unit to explore the changes that need to occur to commit to carbon neutrality by 2030. The working party will engage in diverse consultation extended to the student body and coalesce the wealth of academic research and knowledge within the University
UOW commits to:
- Commence the transition of its vehicle fleet to electric and hybrid vehicles
- Increase the electric vehicle charging capacity on UOW campuses
- Work with local government authorities to reduce the requirement of new parking spaces as part of development on UOW campuses
- Investigate an air travel emission offset target of 100%
Students at UOW commit to:
- Utilise active and public transport solutions where practical and accessible
UOW commits to:
- Improving effective use of surplus renewable energy and engaging in a renewable power purchasing agreement by 2025.
UOW commits to:
- Addressing global issues in collaboration with industry, government, and the wider community. We commit to cultivating research excellence in climate change and associated solutions.
UOW commits to:
- Improving awareness and understanding of climate change among its students, staff, and the wider community. Through its delivery of education, the University aims to facilitate access to information on a changing climate and empower people with the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes required to act as agents of change.
Advocate for sustainability beyond the campus boundaries
Sustainability initiatives are often left to the most passionate individuals on campus to execute. Of course, such initiatives are more effective when viewed as a community responsibility. A Johns Hopkins sustainability study on the relationship between community buy-in and urban farming identified engaging the community as one of the most crucial strategies for building successful urban farms. University sustainability plans require the same buy-in from both internal and external stakeholders to achieve their greatest results.
In addition to forming an operational sustainability committee to involve more campus leadership in sustainability planning, UOW is hoping to serve the needs of the local community in addition to its campus through the Illawarra-Shoalhaven Smart Water Management project. The project uses smart technology solutions and data analytics to respond to stormwater management challenges in the Illawarra-Shoalhaven region, an area that has experienced a major increase in serious floods over the past 50 years. The project is a regional collaboration between Federal Government, Wollongong City Council, Kiama Municipal Council, Shoalhaven City Council, Shellharbour City Council, and Lendlease. UOW’s research project directly involves community leadership and meets local needs, ensuring both UOW and the local community and invested in the program’s success.