Universities as drivers for the economy, sustainability and beneficial impact

Australian universities have never had it so good. To accommodate demand, universities in Australia are growing their building portfolios to record levels.

Arguably Australian universities have never had it so good. Higher education has been in the top three economic drivers for the Australian economy since 2014 (DFAT, 2018).

Universities, as a key part of HE, are booming. Domestic university student enrolments have seen year-on-year growth since 2004, and international student numbers continue their positive growth according to Deloitte.

Academic and professional support staff numbers have also only seen positive growth since 1996. To accommodate demand, universities in Australia are growing their building portfolios to record levels.

In 2017, the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association (TEFMA) noted the total sum of Australian university building stock was about 12 million square metres and rising.

Universities use over six per cent of non-residential building energy

In this context, university buildings in Australia have a significant impact on our natural environment and are responsible for about 10.5 petajoules of energy use a year, equivalent to 6.6 per cent of total non-residential building energy, according to Pitt & Sherry and the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency in 2012.

It has been estimated that energy consumption in the tertiary education sector in Australia will rise to 20.4 PJ in 2020, representing around 14 per cent of total non-residential energy consumption from the built environment (DCCEE, 2012).

Given all this, how have Australian universities fared in managing their environmental impact while ensuring their campus facilities accommodate rising expectations of students, academia, government, industry and the tax-paying public?

Do we need rating tools that move beyond NABERS and Green Star? 

In addressing this, there are building rating tools available (e.g. Green Star, NABERS) in the market that can help deliver more sustainable building outcomes. However, by the end of 2017, only 92 university projects across Australia had achieved formal Green Star rating certification (GBCA, 2017).

Furthermore, limitations with mixed-use configurations within university buildings (such as combinations of offices with lecture theatres, labs, retail and/or other student-focused spaces) has limited NABERS ratings for university buildings in Australia to just five buildings (Office of Environment & Heritage, 2017).

Clearly, universities are not typically engaging with the common building rating tools to address sustainability in universities, which means we may need other solutions.

Monash University has committed to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.
Photo courtesy of Monash University

Opportunities for innovation

Opportunities for green building innovation on Australian university campuses are ripe but will benefit from mutual support and knowledge sharing between universities, the building industry, and with counterparts overseas addressing the same challenges.

For example, following the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris (United Nations, 2015), more than 200 American universities and colleges pledged to “accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy while enhancing sustainable and resilient practices across our campus(es),” according to the US Office of the Press Secretary, in 2015.

This shows there is benefit in addressing these challenges as a coordinated group rather than as isolated universities.

There is clearly an opportunity for a more coordinated response and part of this will involve sharing knowledge and addressing gaps

Australia’s 43 universities have numerous sub-groups that may help in knowledge sharing, including organisations specifically interested in resource use such as Australian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS) and TEFMA, but these peak bodies must be more concerted in their efforts to ensure they include all universities in the discussion and facilitate knowledge sharing.

Different universities have different paths forward

There are a number of factors preventing the development of consistent approaches to adopting sustainability initiatives in Australian universities (Francis and Moore, 2019).

However, there have been some exemplar efforts to date that are showing the way forward, going beyond individual flagship building responses.

These include:

  • Charles Sturt University in becoming Australia’s first carbon-neutral university campus, as of July 2016, through energy efficiency measures and offsets
  • Monash University’s commitment to transition to 100 per cent renewable energy sources by 2030 with onsite renewable energy to cover approximately 20 per cent of total energy requirements enabled by green-ratings such as Passivhaus
  • RMIT University’s innovative use of Energy Performance Contracts guaranteeing long-term energy and water savings through contractor-supplied equipment and lighting upgrades saving 32,000 tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions
  • Macquarie University’s adoption of the One Planet Living ecological footprint to track current and future campus developments with the goal to achieve one planet performance (or better) by 2030

While these are all great steps forward, they do highlight the fragmented nature of addressing sustainability in Australian universities to date.

There is clearly an opportunity for a more coordinated response and part of this will involve sharing knowledge and addressing gaps in current rating tools, such as improved assumptions around mixed use buildings and testing different approaches.

Photo courtesy of University of New South Wales

An opportunity to lead by example

Universities are inherently places of learning that seek to beneficially impact individuals, society and, as in examples discussed above, the natural environment.

Universities are also uniquely positioned to lead new generations in understanding the urgency for practical responses to climate change, both through education but also through leading by example within the built environments of their own campuses. Students are increasingly looking to see if universities authentically walk the talk (or not).

As universities often own and occupy their buildings, opportunities for proactive long-term strategies in carbon reduction and investment in sustainable energy and water efficiency innovations and renewable energy production are a natural fit.

Investment into practical applications of new ideas in productive and sustainable solutions benefit not only their long-term financial position in reduced reliance upon non-renewable, carbon-intensive costly sources of energy and water, but beneficially promote their rightful position as institutions that lead by example for present and future generations.

References were supplied but omitted from this text.
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