Sustainability drives efforts towards carbon neutrality

South Africa’s Stellenbosch University (SU) aims at achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 and, in doing so, positively contributes to the fight against climate change. In pursuit of this goal, carbon footprint reporting – obtaining information from the different departments and divisions – is one of the biggest challenges.

Sustainability, which includes efforts to mitigate climate change, is also a key component of SU’s Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019-24, which aims to promote sustainable social, economic and environmental change to bring about regeneration in all facets and functions of the higher education institution.

SU’s Vision 2040 and carbon footprint journey is driven by an environmental sustainability plan which outlines the university’s guiding principles, targets and priorities in its ambition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 and Net Zero by 2050.

The higher education institution has a student population of 35,121 and 3,400 staff members on five campuses: the main campus in Stellenbosch, Tygerberg, Worcester, Bellville, and Saldanha. The Ukwanda Rural Clinical School in Worcester is part of SU’s faculty of medicine and health sciences.

In an interview with University World News, John de Wet, SU’s environmental sustainability manager, unpacked some of the institution’s efforts and projects.

According to De Wet, the SU Sustainability Plan (SUESP) aims to reduce the environmental impact of the institution’s campuses and demonstrates its commitment to sustainable development, considering the environment, resources and society.

SU formalised its greenhouse gases programme and completed its first carbon footprint audit and report in 2019, making use of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol which incorporates international accounting and reporting standards and methodologies.

“Our environmental plan consists of eight elements: energy and emissions, water, waste, biodiversity and land use, sustainable buildings, travel and mobility, engagement as well as goods and services. The goal is to ensure that SU achieves carbon neutrality by 2030 and, in doing so, positively contributes to the fight against climate change,” De Wet said.

He highlighted that one of the main challenges in carbon footprint reporting is getting information from the different departments and divisions. “It is really a big process and big effort to get all the figures from different parties, collate them into one system, analyse and validate the information and produce the carbon footprint report.”

Key themes and targets

The SUESP cuts across various themes and sectors – from energy to water, waste management and reduction to improving biodiversity and sustainability of open spaces, sustainable procurement guidelines, and minimising the impact of transport and encouraging the use of efficient modes of transport.

Water is a critical component of SU’s environmental sustainability programme. A severe drought from 2016-18 in the Western Cape province of South Africa motivated the learning institution to develop and implement a drought response plan and to take steps to mitigate the effects of water scarcity to ensure a sustainable supply of water to all campuses.

SU aims to conserve potable and irrigation water by reducing, reusing and exploring alternative sources. Some of the institution’s current water projects are geared towards implementing water management systems, as well as schemes to reduce the use of potable water – for example, by establishing grey-water schemes on two campuses and running water-efficiency projects.

The sustainability programme also outlines energy and emissions as a major theme in driving the institution’s carbon footprint road map. According to the 2019 carbon report, the institution’s carbon emissions were up 70,534.26 +CO2e, with purchased electricity under Scope 2 contributing the most.

The institution, therefore, aims to reduce Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions and dependence on fossil-fuelled energy through dynamic and continuous management programmes.

De Wet highlighted that set targets include reducing municipal electricity consumption by 10% by 2024 and making a 30% reduction of vehicle emissions by 2026.

“In South Africa, and the African region as a whole, it is difficult to reduce emissions because energy makes up a big part of our carbon footprint. Most of our energy is generated from fossil fuels. It is, therefore, expensive and difficult to move to renewable energy – for example, solar-generation electric and hybrid cars. However, we need to make the changes,” he said.

The role of an impact hub

To broaden its work on climate change and environmental sustainability, SU established a School of Climate Change and an SDG/2063 Impact Hub which is instrumental in promoting both the African Union’s and the UN’s sustainable development agendas, in line with the institution’s Vision 2040.

The Impact Hub is, therefore, a launching ground for the creation of partnerships at SU, specifically through regional and international collaborations for SDG/2063 research and education, raising awareness on sustainability literacy and existing SDG/2063 activities as well as coordinating, collecting data, measuring impact, and consolidating resources. Last year, the Impact Hub rolled out its first sustainability literacy course.

Corina du Toit, SDG/2063 Impact Hub manager, said the hub has a crucial role in communicating SU’s contributions to the overarching sustainability goals, including public evidence of the work carried out at the institution.

During Earth Week, from 17-22 April 2023, the Impact Hub co-hosted several events with the SU Facilities Management (SUFM) with the aim of broadening the conversation around environmental sustainability, contributing to the institution’s net zero carbon campaign, and pioneering an annual campus event as part of global Earth Day activities.

Three lectures were held, including one by visiting lecturer Professor Qingxiu Bu from Sussex University in the UK who presented the topic ‘China’s just, equitable, and fair transition to decarbonisation’. The presentation highlighted some of the opportunities for decarbonisation in South Africa, following the example of and experiences from China.

Du Toit said: “At Stellenbosch University, our mission is to become a top research institution in Africa, and we are also working towards becoming a sustainable university, not only in research and teaching, but also in stewardship and outreach programmes.”

Empowering future leaders

Empowering graduates “to become global citizens for sustainable development” and building a community of sustainable change-makers is a fundamental theme outlined in the SUESP.

The academic institution promotes sustainable practices in several ways – for example, by educating students and staff on the importance of sustainability in modern business practices and conducting insightful research on SDGs, climate change and decarbonisation.

Skills development, training and awareness programmes to influence behavioural change under the various themes have been supported through networking events, work groups and forums at the learning institution.

Through the various key themes, students have been empowered to become agents of change and to mobilise their knowledge in concrete ways. For example, students have been involved in carbon-monitoring projects and surveys. Under the biodiversity and land use component, environmental science and biology students have been involved in monitoring and evaluation programmes.

De Wet highlighted that engaging students and staff has been a critical aspect of the environmental sustainability plan, from campus planning and campaigns aimed at behavioural change, to energy and water conservation and waste reduction strategies.

“Employers place more value on graduates who can demonstrate having environmental awareness and sustainability skills. This is why we have an intensive engagement programme for students and staff to embed a sustainable culture ad help them develop the skills they need to thrive in the modern business world.

“Students want to create a more sustainable future for generations to come, and institutions such as SU should create and offer opportunities for students and staff to develop knowledge and leadership skills on climate and sustainability issues, recognising how climate change and environmental emergencies will impact their career and lives. SU can and should act as a catalyst for a sustainable society, offering new knowledge and insights and leading by example,” De Wet said.

Technology-enhanced campus

Since 2015, SUFM has transformed its division into a living laboratory by putting systems and processes in place to pave the way for data-led decision-making which will enhance the institution’s problem-solving capabilities on climate change and environmental sustainability.

Nicolette van den Eijkel, chief director of SUFM, highlighted that one of the institution’s strategic objectives for 2020-25 is to move to a technology-enhanced campus through the process of digitisation in collaboration with the engineering faculty, among others.

“Within the broader context of the UN sustainability goals and South Africa’s commitment to climate change, our university is following suit by aiming to reduce its carbon footprint to net zero in certain aspects and ensuring that 50% of all electricity used comes from renewable sources by 2030.

“We work arduously to change our systems and processes to more sustainable energy sources and reduce the impact on the environment. For example, creating our own materials recovery plant, installing PV panels on the roofs of SU’s buildings, consolidating and reducing air-conditioning systems and generators as well as installing grey-water systems at residences and faculty buildings on the various campuses – all projects that resulted in further cost savings and contribute towards the institution’s sustainability goals,” she said.

“All trees on campus are digitised to measure, among others, their water demand. In some cases, the information enabled us to replace some vegetation with water-wise endemic and indigenous trees,” she said.