Moving towards a sustainable future is not separate from our work as academics – both in terms of our research and our actions. So, how can we promote sustainability within academia?
Individual actions as a researcher
As a researcher and inhabitant of this planet, your actions matter. I’d like to invite you to calculate the carbon footprint of your household, if you haven’t done so already. You will see that various categories of how much carbon you spend are directly related to work:
- Conference travel: When I first calculated our household footprint, I found out that 75% of our emissions as a family came from flights. This realization came as a large shock to me, and I’ve since then tried to make more conscious choices for conference travel and other work-related trips that require a flight. Since COVID-19, more options are available for virtual conference attendance.
- Commute: Your commute may be another major contribution to your household footprint. If you need to drive a long distance to campus, you can consider working from home part of the week. We’ve all learned during COVID-19 that working from home can work well, if you plan your days on campus accordingly.
- Lunch choice: The products you buy and your choice of lunch matter. The UN carbon calculator indicates that beef and palm oil production are among the largest contributors to pollution due to deforestation. Your carbon footprint reduces if you take the vegetarian option a few times a week, and if you opt for local fruit and vegetables instead of imported produce.
Bringing sustainability to the table in your university
How is sustainability considered in your university? Your university may have a clear plan towards net zero carbon emissions in 2030 or later, or your university may have not considered sustainability at all. In the latter case, you, as a member of your campus community can gather like-minded fellow academics, and bring your concerns to the administration. You can think of the following topics:
- Mapping the footprint of your university: If no data is available, you can request small internal funding to determine the carbon footprint of your university. If possible, try to involve students in this study as well.
- Determine goals for your university: Once you know the baseline of your university’s carbon footprint, the working group can set a target year in the future to become net zero and map out the various actions that are necessary to meet this goal.
- Promote sustainable transportation: If transportation of students and staff to campus is a major contributor to the university’s carbon footprint, discuss which campaigns will have the most effect. Certainly, the best choice depends on the local circumstances. My university in the Netherlands has a long-standing policy of supporting those who commute by bike, whereas my university in Ecuador has recently introduced various bus routes for students and staff.
- Rethink energy contracts: When are your university’s energy contracts expiring? If they are expiring in the near future, sustainability of the provider can become a major point of negotiation. If your university can move away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy, that would be a major positive step forwards.
- Promote the discussion with the campus community: As your university starts to take a leading role in the discussion on sustainability, involving all members of the campus community is important. Discussions can, for example, be related to guidelines for conference travel (requesting travel by train instead of by plane if the venue is within x hours or x miles from university), phasing out the use of polluting chemicals in laboratories, or introducing Veggie Thursdays on campus.
Embracing sustainability in your research and teaching
As researchers and teachers, we can also steer the direction of our work in a way that sustainability becomes front and centre of what we do. Here are some ideas that you can put in practice:
- Research sustainable alternatives in your industry: If you are a STEM researcher, you are living in times of rapid change. Plenty of opportunities are available to gear your research towards the development of sustainable solutions. As such, you can put your research in service of society.
- Link your research to the UN sustainable development goals: You may think that your research has nothing to do with sustainability, but have you had a good look at the 17 UN Sustainable Development goals? You will find that work in many different areas contributes to making these goals possible, and revisiting these goals can help you find greater meaning in your work.
- Discuss sustainability in class: As teachers, we have the responsibility of bringing the discussion on sustainability to the spotlight. I invite you to reflect on the impact of the course(s) that you teach, and see how you can open the debate with your students on the role of your industry in sustainability. For example, in my Reinforced Concrete II class, I have set aside various lectures to address this topic. Cement, a main ingredient of concrete, has a large carbon footprint. As such, I provide my students with information about cement-free concrete, recycling of concrete, and reusing of concrete elements, and ask them to develop a case study for the local application of a sustainable solution for the concrete industry.