Universities talk about sustainability but few are doing anything to reach the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations, a sustainability expert has told The Fifth Estate.

In particular, university science labs are creating a sustainability challenge, says Leanne Denby, a director of Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability, an association committed to challenging universities to lift their game.

“Universities could be doing a whole lot more [to meet the UN SDGs],” Denby says.

“If you asked the vice-chancellors if they are aware of the SDGs and what they are doing, you would get some pretty blank stares. The same across the broader executive. And it is not for the want of sustainability development officers in universities trying to get them to do something about it.”

Not only are many universities in Australia failing to act, but they are also failing to report on their actions (or lack thereof).

The universities labs in which researchers are developing environmental solutions (such as solar panels) are especially backward on environmental standards.

Scientific research, it seems, is a dirty game. Chemicals, effluents and gases, contaminated water, and fridges full of animal and or human parts or samples are integral in most science laboratories. Their airconditioners run 24 hours a day. They pump out contaminated water and air into the environment.

“The university science lab is the most difficult to deal with,” Denby says. “The lab is set up in accordance with research requirements. If they are researching a strain of virus that needs to be kept at constant temperature 24/7, there is not a lot you can do. The same with research that involves running water. You have to be cognisant of the requirements.”

Scientific research, it seems, is a dirty game.

Universities could be doing a substantial amount more given their place in society and their remit to educate for the future

Nevertheless, the universities are not leading the way, Denby says. “They could be doing a substantial amount more given their place in society and their remit to educate for the future. It is a missed opportunity.”

A call to action to implement the SDGs

In 2017, sustainability leaders across five Australian University campuses published a call-to-action to all universities to lift their game. Called “Universities must act now on sustainability goals”, the article notes: “Universities are uniquely positioned to assist with implementing the [United Nations] SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals].

The problem for many universities, however, is their aging buildings, says Mark Roehrs, education and science sector leader for the global architecture practice, Hassell.

“Generally universities are working at very high standards,” he says. “The challenge for universities working with older facilities is making sure they maintain compliance, that renewal of their infrastructure is meeting contemporary standards.”

Campuses nationwide are scattered with cranes as the universities respond to the challenge. “There has been a massive rebuilding program in universities to upgrade their infrastructure.”

Universities have no excuse not to act to bring their buildings up to scratch. The organisation that Denby is part of, Australian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS), formed in 2011, produced a guide to kickstart action in 2017 called “Getting Started with the SDGS in Universities“. It has 37 members out of Australia’s 43 universities

The guide provides a solution in five steps:

  1. Mapping what they are already doing
  2. Building internal capacity and ownership of the SDGs
  3. Identifying priorities, opportunities and gaps
  4. Integrating, implementing and embedding the SDGs within university strategies, policies and plans
  5. Monitoring, evaluating and communicating their actions on the SDGs

But the results are patchy. Denby says it depends where in the country the universities are. “Victoria is leading the way,” she says. The rest of the country, by implication, has not achieved much. But how would we know?

Universities have no excuse not to act to bring their buildings up to scratch

No public accountability

Even the “good universities” lack any kind of transparency on sustainability. Monash University has set a goal to reach net zero emissions by 2030 and has several highly regarded sustainable buildings, but has yet to provide a report card on its progress. Its ESG report is about how it teaches sustainability, not how it achieves it. And its Sustainable Campuses link appears to not be working.

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) sustainability home page contains several dead links. We approached the UNSW for comment. A spokesperson provided the following:

“The UNSW Green Lab Environmental Compliance Program works directly with faculties and schools to ensure relevant staff are informed of their legal responsibilities in regards to environmental compliance. The program also offers training for students and staff who use the laboratories and environmental auditing of campus laboratories.

A range of energy efficient equipment and infrastructure is used in the university’s laboratories to reduce the environmental impact and improve UNSW’s sustainability performance, including:

  • Energy efficient chillers
  • Energy efficient lighting
  • High-energy efficiency heating, ventilation, and airconditioning
  • High-energy star rating computers and equipment and energy saver settings
  • High-efficiency fume cupboards
  • Fume cupboard efficiency sticker programs to reduce sash height resulting in major energy savings (where applicable)
  • BMS [building management system] controlled airflow management in laboratories and low air flow when labs are vacant
  • Bore water used for cooling and non-potable uses in labs
  • WELL rated fittings for taps and other fixtures (4 star and above water efficiency rating)


“There are a number of amazing dedicated people who work extremely hard to get stuff done with limited resources.”

Sustainability is not at the table

The appalling lack of commitment to meeting SDG goals and reporting is not from lack of effort of the dedicated but often under-resourced sustainability officers, Denby says.

“There are a number of amazing dedicated people who work extremely hard to get stuff done with limited resources.”

The problem is that most university vice-chancellors are not interested. Why? Denby says the first issue is that sustainability expertise is “not at the table”.

“Someone in the executive group must be responsible for sustainability and bring the conversation to the table,” she says. “And, underneath them, universities need the framework to implement their sustainability policies.”

The lack of executive care is, quite simply, because of lack of leadership from government, Denby says.

“There needs to be something from government, a guarantee that universities must ensure students have a sustainability mindset to take into the workforce. It is not only about building energy, water efficiency, and waste effectiveness. It is about how they are contributing to solving global challenges, like climate change and food waste.

“If the government is not asking, the universities will not do it.”

League tables get the attention of Vice Chancellors

In the United Kingdom, a “green league table” challenged universities to prove and compete on their environmental credentials. The rankings are created by a charity, People & Planet, based on its own methodology.

While the universities complained, the rankings produced much greater effort and transparency. The current league leader, Manchester University, provides a detailed breakdown of its efforts.

Even Manchester, however, lacks an overall report card that includes a baseline and tracking efforts towards clear goals.

“If the government is not asking, the universities will not do it.”

From laggards to leaders

Australian universities are bastions of innovation and leadership on many issues, including sustainability.

There is plenty of talk about sustainability on the university websites, but even a cursory attempt to get behind the spin leads to dead ends (including dead links). It is window dressing. Most universities are not walking the talk.

Among the worst environmental performers are the science labs where the work towards environmental change is being done.

Those who are closest to the frontline, the universities sustainability officers, are ignored and under-resourced. Australia is yet to see leadership from its vice-chancellors when it comes to taking the action that their scientific research demands.

The environmental problems faced by university science labs

Building sustainable science labs is a massive challenge. But it can be done, according to experts in the field, such as Mark Roehrs, education and science sector leader for the global architecture practice, Hassell. Modern innovation in sensor technology, for example, make it possible to monitor air quality and temperature with greater accuracy and use the data to reduce energy use. The principles of best practice fall into three broad categories, says Adam Garnys, principal consultant at CETEC, a technical risk management consultancy. These three categories are:

  1. Environmental impact
    An analysis of the impact of effluent from the labs, whether air or water. What are the impacts of what comes out of the stacks and goes down the drains? Garnys says it’s not just a matter of getting the EPA (Environmental Protection Authority) stamp. “There can be projects where a building goes above and beyond the norm to create a showpiece about what can be done to minimise environmental impact.”
  2. Energy and water usage
    In research, there are real challenges because of the nature of the work. Refrigeration and airconditioners typically run 24 hours a day (not best practice). Best practice will look at what can be done to reduce use and to draw energy and water from renewable sources.
  3. The health of the occupants and the researchers themselves
    Researchers work long hours, surrounded by dangerous chemical and gasses. Universities must give much consideration to their health and well-being, air quality, access to light and comfort, and acoustics. In some cases, researchers are stuck in a pigeon hole in the corner of the lab, and not given the quality of space that important of what they are doing, Garnys says.

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