Universities are showing the way in sustainability practices

Saudi Arabia’s universities are ramping up their efforts to boost their sustainability, working with the country’s unforgiving status quo of fossil fuel reliance, high energy and water consumption, plus rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Public and private universities have in recent years started to address these challenges by fostering sustainability practices on their campuses and influencing Saudi society to become environmentally conscious.

In 2022, eight Saudi universities were ranked among 1,050 campuses in the UI GreenMetric World University Rankings, run by the University of Indonesia, compared to six universities in 2019.

The international ranking evaluates the sustainability performance of universities. King Abdulaziz University, a Jeddah-based public research university, was first in the country and 38th globally, followed by Qassim University, a public university in Buraydah (153rd globally).

The other six listed were King Faisal University (KFU), Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University, King Khalid University, Taif University, King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences and Prince Sattam bin Abdulaziz University.

Similarly, 25 Saudi universities featured in the 2022 Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, up from just five in 2020.

The ranking assesses universities against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Of the listed universities, three appeared in the top 100 to 200 of 1,705 institutions and ranked first in the country were: King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), KFU and Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University.

Energy efficiency

KAUST, a public research university in the coastal village of Thuwal, in Jeddah governorate, has been leading the way in sustainability since receiving a LEED Platinum campus certification from the United States Green Building Council when it opened in 2009.

“This achievement carries even greater significance considering the unique challenges of the environment in which KAUST operates,” a university spokesperson told University World News. “For instance, all the water we use is desalinated, a resource-intensive process, and we grapple with the year-round high temperatures and humidity, posing significant challenges in cooling our residences and buildings.”

Despite these obstacles, KAUST has managed to lower its carbon footprint substantially. It has done so by implementing energy-efficiency upgrades encompassing aspects such as cooling, lighting, and water consumption and re-use. The university treats and re-uses 100% of its wastewater. It also uses an integrated automation system that enables real-time monitoring of carbon emissions associated with the campus’s energy usage.

As a result of these efforts, KAUST has been able to reduce its energy consumption by more than 15% since 2015, exceeding its original goal of 10% by 2025. It mandates that all its new campus buildings achieve at least LEED Silver or its equivalent. As of this summer (2023), KAUST had 1,530 students, 565 post-doctoral students and 2,775 employees.

Moreover, in the past year, KAUST initiated a GHG baseline inventory covering its entire campus and including all three emission scopes (1, 2 and 3 for direct and indirect emissions).

“KAUST goes beyond the usual parameters by delving deep into scope 3 emissions, an aspect typically overlooked by many institutions. We also factored in employee commuting and the entirety of our supply chain, from upstream to downstream emissions, something uncommon in most academic institutions,” said the spokesperson.

Food security focus

Meanwhile, KFU – King Faisal University – a public university that hosts 34,858 students at its campus in the eastern city of Hofuf, is also addressing sustainability challenges.

The university has established an environmental protection unit that collaborates with government agencies and international bodies to help plan effective sustainability programmes. It has, for example, installed a solar street lighting system across its entire campus to reduce carbon emissions.

KFU particularly stands out with its emphasis on food security in Saudi Arabia. The university is organising a second International Conference on Food Security and Environmental Sustainability this month, after hosting the first edition at its headquarters last year.

“We channel our research efforts towards addressing food security, with the ultimate goals of producing up-to-date research and commercialising our research-based products,” Dr Majed Alshamari, vice president for postgraduate studies and scientific research at KFU, told University World News.

“To that end, we have forged several agreements with related industries and have been actively collaborating with governmental bodies” – such as the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture and the General Food Security Authority.

“Furthermore, we have launched technical training programmes for local farmers and industrial partners,” he said.

Carbon neutrality

When it comes to carbon neutrality, a notable achievement was made by Riyadh-based Prince Sultan University in early 2023 when it became a carbon neutral-certified university under the international CarbonNeutral Protocol in the Middle East and North Africa.

To obtain this certification, Prince Sultan University worked with United Kingdom- and United States-based consultants Climate Impact Partners, receiving an independent assessment of 5,000 tonnes GHG carbon dioxide equivalent saved by its sustainability actions. This includes renewable energy investments and driving circularity on campus by creating awareness and incentivising students to plan and initiate waste reduction projects.

KAUST, too, hopes to leverage the advanced technologies developed by the university with regards to carbon capturing to support the kingdom’s decarbonisation. A KAUST-developed Cryogenic Carbon Capture system, which traps and cools carbon dioxide to liquids and solids for reuse, was piloted last year in Rabigh, Saudi Arabia, and is planned to be scaled and deployed at the Green Duba Integrated Solar Combined Cycle (ISCC) power plant at NEOM, the kingdom’s most ambitious project.

Additionally, the university’s climate action plan embraces nature-based solutions such as the restoration of coral reefs in the Red Sea, which started in 2021, and expansion of local mangrove coverage.

The latter supports the government’s Saudi Green Initiative, which aims to plant 10 billion trees across the desert to help reduce carbon emissions by 278,000 tonnes.

From classroom to community

Meanwhile, the Riyadh-based Alfaisal University (AU) has taken a holistic approach to its sustainability strategy, including waste reduction, energy conservation, increasing green areas on campus and promoting sustainability concepts to its more than 3,000 students.

AU’s sustainability efforts extend beyond the classroom.

Last year, for example, it partnered with global US-based technology firm Honeywell to improve sustainability standards in the university’s buildings. AU and Honeywell are creating a Sustainable Energy Training Programme to train qualified energy professionals and auditors to help support Honeywell’s Middle East energy projects.

At the same time, AU specialists have contributed to global sustainability discussions, working with Saudi government ministries.

“Our faculty members were involved in the G20 meetings held in Saudi Arabia in 2020. They provided scientific recommendations for national government policy development concerning the SDGs, focusing on areas of decent work, economic growth, environmental sciences, health, and sustainability,” Dr Wael Al-Kattan, executive director of the strategic planning and sustainability office of Alfaisal University, told University World News.

Greener transport

Saudi universities are also encouraging the use of greener transport modes. For example, the King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences in Riyadh offers free-of-charge transportation in zero-emission trolleybuses within the campus to take students and staff to and from colleges and facilities.

At KAUST, the campus has been designed for pedestrian and bicycle access, with the university also offering free community transfer options to reduce the use of single-occupancy vehicles, as well as an electric golf-cart rental system.

AU is planning a green commuting programme to encourage carpooling, cycling and public transport use, according to Al-Kattan.

The university has also released impactful research: in 2021, its college of engineering revealed a solar-powered car developed in partnership with Boeing that has since participated in several competitions, helping develop students’ simulation and experimental design skills.

The United Arab Emirates’ hosting of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 30 November to 12 December may give new impetus to Saudi university sustainability efforts.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s 1.97 million university students (in 2022) will have to roll out the kingdom’s sustainable future through its Vision 2030 programme and beyond, notably the government’s pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2060.