Sustainability and the Senate: The critical need for climate action

USyd’s sustainability history, what needs to be done, and an ambitious strategy.

The University Senate has recently approved a sustainability strategy for the next five years, which is to be announced in Semester 2. We are in a transformative period with the flux of a pandemic and a departing Vice-Chancellor. Students and staff overwhelmingly want USyd to do more in response to climate change, especially given a lacklustre history. It is unclear how the University will act on sustainability, investment, and advocacy. But as we hurtle towards irreversible environmental catastrophe, the need for the Senate to pursue ambitious climate action is clear.

USyd’s sustainability history

The University’s past sustainability action has produced mixed results. USyd’s Environmental Sustainability Policy 2015 established a Sustainability Sub-Committee of the University Executive’s Financial Performance Committee. It also created the Investment and Commercialisation Committee, a Senate sub-committee, to develop an environmental, social and corporate governance investment framework.

The same year, that Senate sub-committee approved a carbon reduction strategy. This came after 80% of students voted in favour of the University divesting from fossil fuels in 2014. The three-year investment target was slightly exceeded in 2018 with a promised commitment to address climate change in funds management. 

However, the following year saw the Senate invest $22.4 million back into fossil fuel companies such as BHP Billiton and Woodside Petroleum, according to a Fossil Free USyd freedom of information request. The Vice-Chancellor’s next university, UCL, has divested from fossil fuels and UNSW has committed to doing the same by 2025

In 2018, the University of Sydney had a $28 million energy bill with Stanwell Corporation and Origin Energy, companies that are primarily powered by fossil fuels. In comparison, UNSW Sydney will be 100% powered by renewable electricity by 2020.

The current University investment strategy is similar to that of the Norweigan Sovereign Wealth Fund. It accounts for components such as methane emissions, but doesn’t consider downstream emissions. This is problematic since 99 percent of the life-cycle emissions from coal-fired electricity occur downstream, which this framework doesn’t account for. Comparatively, the hidden emissions of renewable energy are much lower than the savings from avoiding fossil fuels.

What needs to be done?

How the University emerges from the pandemic, with a new VC at the helm, needs to reflect a renewed commitment to sustainability and climate action. The financial impact of COVID-19 has already motivated the University of Sydney to serious action. In early March, our university halted all but the most essential maintenance, froze new hires, restricted travel, and cut staff and courses to save $200 million. There is an interconnectivity between COVID-19 and climate change and university leadership cannot respond to one and disregard the other. A positive step would be for USyd to join the 24 Australian universities that have signed the Talloires Declaration.

There’s been staff momentum behind climate action, but this needs to carry through the pandemic. For example, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Duncan Ivison mobilised 500 academics to utilise their research expertise to address last summer’s bushfire crisis. This commitment is also seen in the staff behind Sydney Ideas through an event on August 11 discussing climate change as a public health hazard

Professor Rosemary Lyster, Co-Director of the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law, drafted the Law School’s climate emergency declaration earlier this year. She wants to see more students “organising around this question of a climate emergency” and deciding on appropriate actions to take. 

On Friday, July 31, a motion from students will be put to the University of Sydney Union Board of Directors to declare a climate emergency and commit to numerous internal and external actions. The Enviro Collective is developing a campaign for Semester 2 and planning actions to pressure USyd decision-makers. 

There is still more work to be done. Currently, the selection criteria for our replacement Vice-Chancellor are absent of words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘climate change’, even though qualitative survey responses from the University community feature these terms prominently. Further, it is clear that the student voice in the Senate, particularly on climate change, is lacking in University decision-making. 

The student and staff perspective on the most vital issue of our time is clear, but it all comes down to University leadership. To act on the climate crisis in a principled and pragmatic manner, our Senate needs to declare a climate emergency, authentically implement the sustainability strategy, commit to transformative action, divest from fossil fuels, and ensure strong leadership on climate action in the new Vice-Chancellor. 

The sustainability strategy

This new strategy has been collaboratively developed by a team based in both the University Strategy Office and the Sydney Environment Institute over eighteen months. It focuses on three pillars: responsible footprint, research and education, and good governance.

The footprint component aims to reduce waste as well as to change how and what the University purchases. This includes eliminating single-use plastics, sourcing 100% of electricity from renewable sources, reducing water use, changing food offerings on campus, and reducing travel. As a part of this, the University will develop guidelines for ethical sourcing and work to improve the investment strategy.

The plan for education is to further embed sustainability themes into curricula and graduate attributes. This will tie into the work that researchers will do through the Living Lab program to demonstrate campus-based sustainability projects. Increasing the visibility of this work will be encouraged through sustainability-focused incentives for researchers.

Underpinning all of this is a solid, inclusive, and transparent governance structure. This envisions a central Office of Sustainability to coordinate efforts across operations, research, education. As a part of this, there will be a review of investment portfolios with a recommendation to be made to the Senate by 2021.  

The strategy itself is ambitious and it’s approval by the Senate and University Executive is promising. However, the investment component of this strategy has essentially been tabled for later in the year. There is also concern on how much money the University will commit to the significant transformation outlined in the strategy. 

Uncertain financial commitment

This strategy seems like a positive step, but it’s implementation is imperiled by the University’s $470 million budget shortfall. Professor David Schlosberg, who chaired the campus-wide sustainability strategy advisory group, has expressed concern about how financial issues will affect all areas of the strategy, including an understaffed Office of Sustainability. Before the pandemic, he believed the strategy was “cruising toward approval and significant investment” by this July. Instead, a delayed approval has come with “significant limits on what the University can invest in implementing the strategy.”

The recent bushfires were exacerbated by climate change; fossil fuel companies are responsible for one-half of the rise in average global temperatures. The University is financially compromised due to COVID-19, and fossil fuels have been the worst performing sector in the ASX 300 over the last decade. Divestment from fossil fuels just makes sense.

Professor Danielle Celermajer, Director of the Multispecies Justice Project, recognises that there are “counter-forces to change, including the University’s current financial investments and its relationships with certain stakeholders.” At the same time, though, “there are many people right throughout the university and connected with the university who are committed to authentic and comprehensive institutional transformation.” There appears to be a desire for transformative action in the University. Any changes to our investment strategy ultimately depend on how receptive the Senate is and how persuasive proponents of divestment can be.