Sustaining Sustainability in the Wake of Disruption

Sustainability Strategy Project Lead, Lisa Heinze, reflects on the dramatic changes in university life over the past weeks and how these disruptions have proven we can adapt, sustainably, to even the most uncertain of futures.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the University had a clear understanding of its ecological footprint. We knew how much energy and water the campuses used, how many kilometres our staff and researchers flew, and even how much waste and recycling we handled. Speaking as one of the people working on the development of the University’s new sustainability strategy, there was comfort in the certainty of these figures. We knew our impact, we knew how much we needed to lessen our impact, and we were well underway to establishing initiatives to take us there. We had a plan.

But now, everything has changed. The world is living through a pandemic that, among other things, requires physical distancing. As a result, we have seen the University’s direct emissions and ecological footprint plummet, a microcosm of what is happening on an unprecedented global scale as pollution and emissions dramatically decrease. And positive though this may seem on the one hand, on the other, there is little certainty or comfort to be found in this set of data. Now, the only thing we are certain of is that we are uncertain when, or if, things will return to ‘normal’.

The benefit we do have now is that of a new perspective. Now we are becoming practiced in new ways of working, communicating and being together. We have been reminded of the tenacity of the human spirit, and society’s ability to rapidly evolve when needed. We are seeing nature’s attempts to regenerate while we are all at home, staying out her way.

So while before there was comfort in the certainty of our data and the solidness of our plan, now we have the opportunity to go beyond our original, limited, thinking to imagine an even bolder vision of a sustainable university.

For example, over the past year, air travel made up 18% of the University’s carbon footprint, most of it due to international travel. Even a few months ago, this seemed like an area of emissions that would be too hard to reduce dramatically based on a number of conversations and engagements with stakeholders. Academics rely on international conferences and fieldwork for the benefit of their research and career-progression. Some see it as a legitimate perk of the job. But today, as air travel has stalled across the globe, conference and workshop organisers are trialling a wide range of online events to keep researchers connected and working together. Meetings that typically had to be held in person are now taking place virtually, because there are too many pressing issues that require continued research and collaboration even during a pandemic.

The daily commutes of staff have also been dramatically affected. In the past, it seemed nearly impossible to convince those staff members who commute via personal vehicle to stop driving to work. But now we are all becoming experts at working from home, which raises the question – how often does one really need to commute to campus to effectively complete their work? And more people working from home means fewer people on campus, so there is flow-on effect to energy and water consumption on campus, as well as waste generation (although it should be noted that this situation also raises issues of the ethics of “relocating” University emissions to a staff members’ residence).

Perhaps most importantly, before this radical upheaval of our daily lives, we worked with the mindset that institutions are hard to change, and incremental shifts using well-established models would be the best way to make sustainability change happen. But over the past few weeks, we have all seen that societies and systems can rapidly evolve when needed, embracing the risks, delays and mistakes that inevitably come with change, and learning and adapting on the go. The speed at which change has occurred across the globe can only provide hope that we have the ability to halt the climate crisis as well, if we put this same level of focus as we’ve seen occur globally over the past few months. We can also hope that we can be even more audacious in our aspirations for sustainable campuses at our University.

So now the question remains – when the peak of the pandemic has passed, can we remain agile? Can the University stay open to creative and precarious ideas? Will we accept more business risks, delayed deadlines and small missteps for the chance of greater environmental rewards? And on a practical level, will we all fly and drive less because we’re seeing how connections, collaborations and productivity can adjust to new modes of working? Can we choose to not rush past this moment in time, but instead relish the lessons that are being thrown to us each day this pandemic continues?

In their new book, The Future We Choose, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (two key players in the Paris Agreement) offer insights and actions to embrace what they call “stubborn optimism” and halt the climate crisis. The first two actions are: letting go of the old world, and facing your grief while still holding a vision for the future. This guidance feels particularly apt at this time as we live through a terrifying health crisis with the climate crisis coming forth on the horizon.

My call to those of us privileged enough to trial new ways of working while staying safe from the virus is to seize and nourish the unique perspectives we are gaining to think and behave differently when we are all back on campus. Of course, we can and should grieve much of what is lost – lives, feelings of certainty, comfort in the familiar, individual dreams – but we also need to embrace what is to come. Let us use these perspectives to be ambitious, bold and daring leaders in the fight against climate change, and biodiversity loss, and pollution levels, and social injustice. Let’s continuously bring to mind the benefits that have arisen amongst the tragedy – healthier ecosystems, fewer deaths from air pollution, and more that will surely come to light over time – to motivate us toward a bold vision of a sustainable campus, and a sustainable world. Let’s forget the limitations we felt in the past and move audaciously, and joyfully, toward an even better future than we could have imagined before.

This article is part of our Living Lab Series, an ongoing collection of pieces that highlight sustainability here at the University of Sydney. From native gardens and recycled asphalt to the new Sustainability Strategy and beyond, this series aims to highlight the range of projects championing sustainability on campus and to celebrate everyone that has been working behind-the-scenes in this space for years.

Lisa Heinze is a pioneer in the Australian sustainable fashion movement and a sustainable lifestyle advocate. She completed her PhD at the University of Sydney on the transition toward sustainable fashion practices, is the co-founder of Clean Cut, Australia’s sustainable fashion council, and a Fashion Revolution committee member. Her previous work was in sustainable development and the green building industry. Lisa is a Research Affiliate of Sydney Environment Institute and she is the Research Lead on Sustainability on Campus.