Accelerating towards net zero emissions: how to mobilise your university on climate action

John Madden provides insight on how universities can mobilise their intellectual and institutional capacities to accelerate towards net zero emissions

John Madden's avatar
University of British Columbia
11 Feb 2022
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Advice on driving institutional action towards net zero

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In response to the unprecedented threat posed by climate change, the UBC Climate Action Plan 2030 puts the University of British Columbia (UBC) on an accelerated path to net zero emissions for buildings and energy supply, as well as significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years – aligning with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

The UN secretary general declared a “code red” for humanity and stressed that we need to achieve steep greenhouse gas reductions before 2030 if we are to stay within 1.5°C. That window for accelerated action is less than 3,000 days and counting. Universities have a unique role to play through using their campuses as “living labs” to test and demonstrate rapid deployment of innovative and accelerated pathways towards net zero.

Institutions should encourage their students to mobilise on issues that matter and invite them to play a key role in influencing priorities and agendas for leadership. We have invested in programmes and awareness campaigns to engage more participants in sustainability and climate initiatives. More than 4,000 students, staff and faculty participated in the UBC Climate Strike in September of 2019, part of a worldwide movement that was a catalyst for Climate Emergency Declarations to be made globally.

Following the declaration, we created more than 10 specialised working groups on climate action, with significant contributions and inputs provided by students and faculty experts. This type of purpose-driven engagement builds a sense of distributed ownership and stewardship when it comes to implementing the plan. It’s important to identify faculty champions: whether your university is a large tier 1 research university or small liberal arts college, there are likely to be individuals with the knowledge, expertise and a “voice at the table” to help influence decisions through research and administrative capacities.

Here are some more strategies to mobilise your university community on climate action:

1. Create governance systems and structures that support alignment on climate action

  • Effective governance structures are critical in supporting systems-change that enables sustainable and equitable decisions to be made across the university. The right structures will help to prioritise and align university resources to take climate action. Despite having more than 20 years of significant progress on sustainability at UBC, the original governance structures prevented integrated decision-making. In 2018, we reviewed and restructured the decision-making structures to better align policy development, decision-making and resource allocation.
  • Create a Board Committee for Climate Action and Sustainability to oversee strategic decisions on responsible investments of the university endowment, climate programmes and policies, implementation, monitoring and reporting progress.
  • The establishment of interdisciplinary committees that include representation across both operations and the academy can also help to guide major sustainability initiatives. We have an Operational Sustainability Steering Committee (OSSC), a Campus as a Living Lab Committee (CLL) and Integrated Communications and Engagement Committee (ICE), which help to align decisions, allocate resources and assign priorities.
  • Remember that sustainability and climate change action is not “owned” by a single department or administrative unit – our achievements on addressing climate action have been the result of an integrated and distributed approach across the university.

2. Investments and carbon pricing to support accelerated climate action

  • Investments in climate action will make universities more resilient to the catastrophic impacts associated with climate events.
  • Consider an Internal Carbon Price (ICP) [MP1]  as part of your action plan. The application of this financial policy tool can result in more money being invested in climate-friendly systems that reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and it can also save money when factoring in the life cycle cost-benefits of the solution.
  • Demonstrate how green investments are helping to increase resilience across the institution’s core operations to disruptive climate events. This will incentivise further action. Our Green Building Action Plan and low-carbon district energy systems have helped UBC to continue operating core academic buildings despite wildfires and floods impacting regional energy supply grids.
  • Take proactive steps by requiring investments in “climate ready buildings” that are designed to withstand the impacts of more frequent and intense climate events.
  • Investments in climate action are not just operational but can be integral to supporting the academic mission by creating innovative platforms for teaching, learning and research through “campus as a living lab” projects. An example is the Bioenergy Research Demonstration Facility (BRDF), which produces renewable energy for our campus using wood waste biomass. This helps to reduce emissions, increases resiliency by diversifying energy supply and supports research projects on innovative clean energy systems.

We are fortunate to have a long legacy of thought-leadership, student engagement and executive support for climate action, which has enhanced the university’s global reputation through the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. Our commitment to climate action has attracted and helped us to retain world-class researchers, students and staff, allowing us to advance climate-related research and operational change. By working together for climate action, we can serve as an example for the world and accelerate the drive towards net zero emissions.

John Madden is director of sustainability and engineering, campus and community planning at the University of British Columbia.

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