Sustainability Mission Integration and shooting for the STARS

The University of Tasmania (UTAS) has increasingly upped its commitment to deliver/exemplify sustainability, but from 2019 there has been a step change for broader and deeper institution-wide action to deliver a leading sustainable university. Our collective sustainability commitment, based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, is embedded in our University Strategic Plan 2019-2024. Our University Council endorsed our first holistic Strategic Framework for Sustainability (2019) and a new principles-based Sustainability Policy (2020). To lead the change, our University Executive established the Sustainability Mission Integrator role (2020).

In 2020, UTAS was the first in Australasia to attain a Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) rating to ensure transparency, establish a baseline and clarify action areas leading to 49 co-designed cross-institution initiatives underway in 2020-2021 alone. With a Gold rating goal for 2022, initiatives cover curriculum, research, student/staff, and community engagement, completing divestment, emissions reduction plans, and operational improvements.

>  The initiative

The University of Tasmania (UTAS) has increasingly upped its commitment to deliver and exemplify holistic sustainability over the past 11 years, but from 2019 there has been a significant step change for broader and deeper institution-wide action to deliver a leading sustainable university. To deliver a clear direction to embed sustainable thinking and action across the University, a coordinated approach led by our senior management has been unfolding as described below.

Leadership and Governance

UTAS has proclaimed a strong commitment to a holistic understanding of sustainability and the need to provide leadership in our sector and communities. This commitment is evidenced through:

  • Our collective commitment to be an exemplar and have a positive impact around sustainability as included in our new University Strategic Plan (2019), specifically naming up the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to guide our actions and supporting a new Sustainability Policy and Framework.

The UTAS Strategic Framework for Sustainability, endorsed by our University Council in late 2019, provides a collective focus on activities in and for holistic sustainability action across the University and in so doing encapsulates our commitment across four areas that align with the ACTS-supported Learning in Future Environments (LiFE) Index and the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS):

  • Goal 1: A leader in sustainability governance and implementation
  • Goal 2: A leader in sustainability education and research
  • Goal 3: Partnerships and engagement activities deliver sustainability outcomes
  • Goal 4: A university committed to sustainability in its facilities and operations management.

A commitment to applying a holistic framework saw UTAS become the first Australasian university to have achieved a STARS rating (Silver) in August 2020. STARS was chosen over other methods of sharing our sustainability performance as reports are completely transparent and fully searchable by anyone with internet access for specific proof of action.

To empower further holistic and targeted action, the University Executive established a new role of Sustainability Mission Integrator (SMI) in 2020 and elevated the Sustainability Manager to an Associate Director to undertake the role.  The SMI is one of five members of the high-level Sustainability Steering Group alongside the Vice-Chancellor and other senior staff who ensure bi-monthly review of progress. To ensure sustainability is a key focus across all areas of the University, the SMI is included in the Chief Operating Officer Executive group and is the Chair of the University-wide Sustainability Committee. The SMI also regularly reports to the University Executive Team and the University Strategic Forum to provide updates on progress and receive feedback on efforts and focus areas.

The SMI has broad scope to progress a range of initiatives (49 developed to date) with most included in the internal initiatives and milestone management system, on par with College and Divisional initiatives. These initiatives cross the four goal areas above, plus innovation, for implementation in 2021 to contribute to improved sustainability performance as well as achieving a STARS Gold rating in 2022 and Platinum in 2024. With only 11 (out of 1,100) global universities achieving a Platinum STARS rating, this is a significant and far-reaching aim.

Inclusion of sustainability in the core Risk Appetite procedure and detailed guidance statements (not publicly available) support the new principles-based policy approach for the entire University to guide decision making at all levels. This new approach was only allowed to include 30 policies (down from 129), with the Sustainability Policy being named up early as a critical one to keep and its nine principles ensuring a holistic focus.

UTAS support for sustainability is evidenced by the recent growth of the Sustainability Team despite budget constraints resulting from the global pandemic. In addition to the creation of an Associate Director – Sustainability role, two Sustainability Officers were promoted to a more senior level and a new Horticulturalist and Community Gardens Coordinator role was approved. A single part-time Project Officer has been expanded to part-time positions at all three main Tasmanian campuses to support on-site student projects, staff and student engagement, and operational activities.

Community Leadership and Impact

UTAS actively supports its staff to be leaders in the sector as well as within our communities to advance systemic sustainability. This is exemplified in many ways, including:

  • Our Climate Futures group leads the nation in fine scale climate change impact mapping and was one of the first of its kind internationally. Project modelling is made available to many sectors of the community including government, emergency services, businesses, and researchers. Academic staff regularly present to company Boards and CEOs.
  • The Tasmania Project and Wellbeing Toolkit focus on gathering information and providing resources, respectively, to help Tasmanians work together through the pandemic and support recovery for a strong future.
  • Tasmanian Policy Exchange coordinates submissions to ensure a regard for current research in major government programs and legislation, such as the Tasmanian Renewable Energy Action Plan (2020) and the Tasmanian Climate Change Act review (2021).
  • Tasmanian Societal Impact effort in partnership with Elsevier is developing ways to measure the University’s impact on society by first piloting the approach in two areas, to further understand the role our teaching programs play in reducing carbon emissions and increasing the awareness of the effects of climate change in Tasmania.
  • Global Climate Change Week, led by UTAS since 2020, aims to encourage university communities in all disciplines and countries to engage with each other, their communities, and policy makers on climate change action and solutions. In the first year under UTAS stewardship, the number of participants increased almost 10% compared to previous years.
  • Redmap Australia (Range Extension Database and Mapping), led by UTAS, is an innovative collaboration between over 80 scientists, thousands of citizen scientists and 15 institutes around the country. Redmap provides an early indication of how our marine ecosystems are changing with climate to better prepare to adapt to these changes.
  • Social sustainability and inclusivity are also part of our sustainability approach, with our Safe and Fair Community Unit supporting several programs and initiatives, including our Ally Network, winner of a 2021 Dorothies Award for inclusive practices in education. UTAS also provides training to Behaviour Contact Officers as a valuable first point of contact for anyone who may have experienced discrimination, harassment, bullying or other inappropriate behaviour.
  • Investments: UTAS is a sector leader by applying both a negative screen to fossil fuels and a positive screen for investments contributing to the SDGs. By late 2020, 98% of funds were divested and on track for 100% by end 2021.
  • Both the ACTS President and Treasurer are UTAS Sustainability staff, and one of our senior sustainability officers represents both ACTS and UTAS on the AASHE STARS Steering Committee. UTAS Sustainability team members also provide the facilitation roles for the internal Education for Sustainability Community of Practice and the externally focused IGGA-winning Education for Sustainability Tasmania (a UN-recognised Regional Centre of Expertise) focused on educative organisations in Tasmania as well as the UN SDG Tasmania Network (UN SDG TAS) made of councils, state government, government business enterprises, industry, education bodies and others.

Members of our Procurement Team are active in the Australian University Procurement Network (AUPN) to ensure inclusion of sustainability as a focus for the sector.

Facilities and Operations

Examples of sustainability initiatives include:

  • Construction: With over $800m committed to developing new campuses across the state over a 10-year period, the positive impact of a focus on sustainable development is clear. Key examples are the first green roof on a public building in Tasmania and a minimum 25% reduction target in embodied carbon emissions in all new buildings; UTAS has already achieved a 34% reduction in two new buildings under construction in Launceston.
  • Operational Action Plans for Transport (focusing on electrification, micro-mobility, and community partnership), Energy, Waste and Natural Environment (to protect and enhance biodiversity).
  • Transport: UTAS was the first Tasmanian fleet to include electric cars and the first to install electric bike charging starting in 2012 (min 10% of parking spots). We have also provided electric car charging in all Tasmanian campuses. The 2014 GGAA winner UTAS Sustainable Transport Strategy implementation led to an increase of use of sustainable transport modes, as demonstrated by the University’s Travel Behaviour Survey, which provides the longest and best transport data in Tasmania and is shared with our stakeholders, including governments and service providers. For example, our Southern campuses showed an increase of 4.4% for students and 4.3% for staff in sustainable transport choices.
  • Resources and waste: The first UTAS Waste Minimisation Action Plan has a target of a minimum 25% reduction of waste to landfill by 2025. Initiatives being implemented include deployment of organics waste collection in all buildings; expansion of the Recycling Walls for non-standard recyclables; installation of bin sensors on skips to reduce collection frequency; use of products with recycled content such as Reconophalt™ asphalt for new carparks at our Inveresk campus that has diverted over 710,000 plastic bags and 20,700 toner cartridges from landfill and uses reclaimed asphalt as well as aggregate and sand from street sweepings and hydro-excavation materials; Interface® carpets throughout as recycled and recyclable; and designs with ‘deconstructability’ for materials re-use when buildings are decommissioned in the future. Our Re-Use Program started in 2016 with furniture and has since then expanded in number and types of items being relocated or donated generating over $500,000 in savings already. Sustainability with a circular economy focus is also embedded in the new Asset Management Procedure (2021) and a Clean out and Disposal Process Guide (2020).

Learning, Teaching and Research

UTAS includes sustainability within our new curriculum, both with specific degrees and within the broader curriculum. The Diploma of Sustainable Living, introduced in 2019, quickly became the most subscribed diploma at UTAS (1,247 enrolments in 2019 and 3,512 in 2020). The Diploma’s success led to a 2021 Certificate offering and Academic Senate approval of a Masters in Sustainability from 2022. Micro-credentials and short courses, such as Science of Gardening, Sustainable House Design, Wellbeing Toolkit, Science of Climate Change, and others, launched before and during the pandemic to support community resilience.

UTAS has a strong record in environmental research that addresses local and global issues.  For example, UTAS is at the forefront of global understanding of climate change. Five UTAS-linked scientists are among just 20 lead authors from Australia for the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Research of this quality has been made possible by the strong collaboration between UTAS, CSIRO, and the Australian Antarctic Division.

Partnerships and Engagement

  • Students are directly involved in a wide range of sustainability projects through the Sustainability Integration Program for Students (SIPS) (2,253 students between 2010 and 2020) and have benefited through the real-world application of their studies to meaningful sustainability projects.
  • Students for Sustainability is a working group of the Sustainability Committee consisting of student representatives from colleges, campuses, and student clubs and societies to support a broad student voice in sustainability.
  • Our new University Community Experience Model (2020) will transform how we engage with students and deliver an authentically distinctive experience, with Sustainability and Social Responsibility being one of five thematic areas. Staff and student community engagement leaders in this model liaise with the Sustainability Team to ensure alignment with our holistic sustainability agenda and co-design of programs and activities.
  • 2021 also delivers the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Sustainability for staff in recognition of working innovatively and collaboratively to advance the University’s sustainability framework.
  • ACTS Green Impact Program for UTAS staff started in 2018 with expansion to include a bespoke program for students in 2021; UTAS staff and students have won three Australasian Green Impact champion awards in 2019 and 2020.
  • Behaviour change initiatives have been a core focus as well to engage our staff and students (e.g., Holidays Switch Off, Ride2Work days, sustainability tours and biodiversity mapping days).
>  Environmental and social benefits

Since 2016, UTAS has offset 157,081 t CO2-e and banked an additional 1,053 tonnes. Quantifying total avoided emissions from years of initiatives before our detailed inventories is difficult but reported quantified avoided emissions are 6,700 t CO2-e since 2016. Additional operationally derived environmental benefits include reduced waste to landfill from reuse, composting and recycling efforts, contributing to the University’s journey towards zero waste and a circular economy.

Some of the social benefits include:

  • Health benefits from increased used of sustainable transport for commuting. Travel Behaviour Surveys data shows an increase of 4.3% and 4.4% on active and public transport for staff and students respectively between 2013 and 2021.
  • Staff and student advocates for UTAS to become carbon neutral certified and declaring a climate emergency (hundreds if not thousands of students and staff represented) were empowered when they felt listened to by senior management.

Our ramped-up approach and holistic focus has led to increasing support based on clear demonstrated wins/outcomes.  That is, senior management from across the University have demonstrated ‘buy-in’ that now has them actively seeking and driving the agenda to focus on additional sustainability initiatives across all Colleges and Divisions as described above.

>  Leadership and engagement

UTAS has elevated sustainability to the fore internally and delivers sector leadership. Sustainability is embedded across College and Divisional strategies and plans and in governance instruments (e.g., policy, risk appetite guidance). UTAS  has provided strategic funding for staff, projects, and students to deliver rapid step change in the past three years after eight years of incremental improvements. On a maturity scale, UTAS went from average in 2018 to major achiever by 2021. Our STARS rating and other assessments clearly identified where the gaps are in our performance, but we now have a collective understanding of those gaps that has supported a structured and resourced approach within current University management systems to address these in the near term. The goal set by our leadership team to achieve ‘a good base level’ (translating to STARS Gold rating) by early 2022 is commitment in action. A Platinum rating by 2024 goal is already driving continued focus and embedding sustainability systemically.

>  Wider societal impact

Our activities are not just internally or sector focused. UTAS exists for Tasmania and the world, as clearly stated in our University Strategy document. That is, our endeavours are expected to deliver positive impacts across all our activities. For example, sharing sustainability-related data and research with our broader communities has also led to impactful partnerships and addressing issues. For example, our 10 years of Travel Behaviour Surveys data has been instrumental in shared resources with state and local governments as well as NGOs for everything from bike hub development to improved bus stop shelters and services, while our Sustainability Surveys have uncovered a broader food insecurity issue among our students than thought, especially influenced by the pandemic.

We clearly state and actively support student and staff involvement in our journey to be a leading sustainable university. Student voices are encouraged and heard across many areas, but most sustained and far-reaching in relation to climate action as demonstrated by student-led forums, workshops, and petitions (e.g., ‘Student Perspectives: A Carbon Neutral UTAS’ forum in 2017, ‘Go Fossil Free’ petition by Fossil Free UTAS in 2019).

Furthermore, the Sustainability Integration Program for Students engages hundreds of students and staff annually through paid internships and curricular projects to engage in our living labs and sustainability journey. These students will carry their passion and learnings to their jobs and communities, resulting in flow-on impacts to the wider society.

Top 3 learnings
  • Bold moves can capture attention and generate excitement and support.

  • The importance of leadership and whole of university commitment.

  • Value of everyone seeing how their ‘piece of the puzzle’ fits into the big picture.

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