Concerns UNSW Falling Behind in Sustainability

UNSW has again failed to make a list of the country’s top environmentally friendly tertiary institutions, missing out on inclusion in The Australian’s “Ten Greenest Universities.”

Higher Education Editor at The Australian, Julie Hare, told Tharunka the universities which had made the list had well-developed operational practices, green buildings, embedded sustainability in the curricula and high-level research in the area.

Chancellery welcomed increased media interest in environmental sustainability, but disputed the methodology The Australian used to compile the list. According to Aaron Magner, the Director of Sustainability at UNSW, the criteria for ranking universities on environmental sustainability had yet to become standardised and transparent. “It’s not clear what methodology The Australian used to compile its Green Universities table. It appears highly subjective and not particularly rigorous,” he said.

Hare asserted that universities remained at the forefront of sustainable practice in Australia. She explained that “the fact that UNSW didn’t make the list is not a criticism of the university.  It can’t be interpreted as a lack of commitment. Its dedication is obvious. But a top 10 can only have 10 on the list.”

However, UNSW also failed to make a series of similar sustainability shortlists in the last year, despite launching a series of environmental programs. One such award was the 2011 Green Gown Award, compiled by Australasian Campuses Toward Sustainability. Despite dozens of tertiary institutions being shortlisted in six categories, UNSW was only nominated for the Student Initiatives and Campaigns prize, for work conducted by Arc’s Environmental Committee.

Whilst there was no doubt, according to the SRC’s Environment Officer Luke Marshall, that UNSW was a leader in research into environmental science, climate science and renewable energy, sustainability on campus was still lagging behind other institutions.

“It is disappointing that the administration have not yet recognised the demand for and many benefits that will come from a focus on sustainability at UNSW. Students and staff want a university with adequate waste management, powered by renewable energy and with access to decent bike facilities and public transport,” he said.

Neil Morris, Executive Director of Campus Services, said the university believed the list was incredibly subjective at best.

“If you put our Dean of Science and the Dean of Engineering in the same room, and Les Field, the DVC of research, they would probably say our flagship research would make us number one in environmental credentials. The sort of research we are renowned for, on a world-class level. The photovoltaic, ground-water research,” he said.

According to Morris, however, there was room for improvement for on-campus sustainability initiatives. He pointed to a rollout of commingling recycling bins early this year as one project the university is pursuing.

“I think the difficulty we’ve had with our environmental management plan and targets are that they were terrifically ambitious. They were designed in 2005 and you know a lot of them were feel-good factor stuff, not really achievable, certainly not costed, in no way costed, and they were basically written as some sort of feel-good document that you must have,” he explained.

The Ten Greenest Universities list, however, pointed several times to the high targets set by some tertiary institutes on the use of renewable energy and natural gas.

In its latest environmental plans, the University of Melbourne has already converted several of its satellite campuses to 100% renewable energy, whilst the overall campus statistic rose from 15% to 20%. Charles Sturt University, with campuses across regional NSW plans to be carbon neutral by 2015.

A series of environmental plans prepared for UNSW since 2007 have seen the Universities renewable energy targets reduced from 5% to 2.5% in 2009. Morris says this will change with the energy technologies building. “They’re going to get a six star energy rating for that building, the photovoltaic on the roof will power a certain percentage of that building,” he said.

Magner told Tharunka that the 2005 – 2010 Environmental Management Plan was difficult to achieve. “EMPs help institution learn and build capacity in environmental management over time. The lessons learnt from prior plans will be incorporated into future Environmental Management Plans,” he outlined.

Whilst the University cannot rely on renewable energy alone, says Morris, there are other ways that campuses can make energy and cost savings. One proposal may be that the University of Sydney, UTS and UNSW pool their purchases to be competitive on the cost of electricity and the portion of that energy that is renewable.

As Tharunka went to print, the Green Building Council of Australia announced that the new Tyree Building had secured the six star green rating. A new Environmental Management Plan is expected by mid-2012.

Kylar Loussikian
Twitter: [twitname]kloussikian[/twitname]