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Illustration by Nevya Hernandez

Advocating for a Sustainable NYU Abu Dhabi

Despite the strong bottom-up movement on campus sustainability, a strong macro-level ambition and initiative to strengthen our sustainability portfolio is still lacking.

Although I run around working with on-campus sustainability initiatives, I cannot help but feel unsettled by the realization that my university itself — which is largely funded by oil money — embodies the global pattern of excessive consumption of energy and water. As a small group of environmentalists on campus, we try to push for a more sustainable NYU Abu Dhabi. At the same time, the macro-level sustainability initiatives that have been taken at NYUAD have not been communicated well to the student body, causing a rift between what has actually been done and what students think has been done.
At first sight, it seems fair to label NYUAD as unsustainable, given the presence of structural issues such as our food sourcing, widespread energy consumption for air conditioning and water consumption for landscaping and irrigation purposes. However, these issues are not unique to NYUAD, as they represent the difficulty of advocating for sustainability measures in a country with an arid climate such as the UAE. Considering its scale and facilities like the North Field sports fields, NYUAD is relatively sustainable for a university in this region. However, as an honors college that prides itself on being one of the leading institutions in the world, it is imperative for NYUAD to adopt much stronger sustainability goals. But before doing so, we need to acknowledge the many obstacles that we face when it comes to implementing such measures.
The Sustainability Executive Committee of NYUAD — chaired by the Director of Environmental Health & Safety, Terry Monahan — has been the driving force behind the sustainability initiatives on campus. The committee comprises of students, staff and faculty alongside other relevant stakeholders such as Facilities and Residential Education. It also represents the Student Sustainability Committee, which operates under the Student Government and Ecoherence — one of the two environmental activism Student Interest Groups — to include student input on environmental issues.
The cooperative effort of the SEC has helped NYUAD achieve several sustainability milestones, including the installation of a large number of recycling stations across campus, the removal of plastic bags and plastic lined cups from the convenience store and the organization of the annual Go Green Week. At the same time, the students have played an important role in achieving the previously mentioned initiatives and they continue to advocate for better sustainability initiatives on campus. For instance, members of Ecoherence work with the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi to conduct a Sustainability Action Project and an annual Green Audit for NYUAD. Additionally, the students organize a range of events, including No Waste November, Beach Nurdle Hunt, Sustainable Menstruation campaigns and the Love Food - Hate Waste program. On the other hand, the Green House SIG carries out research and advocacy in climate policy and diplomacy in the UAE. Members of the SIG travel to the annual Conference of Parties negotiations with the support of the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.
Despite the strong bottom-up movement on campus sustainability and strong macro-level ambition, the initiative to strengthen our sustainability portfolio is lacking. Progress was made in 2017 when NYUAD revalidated the opportunity to contribute to sustainability on three distinct scales of impact: directly preventing or reducing the adverse environmental impacts that result from the operation of such a large institution, infusing every aspect of the university’s activities and operations with sustainability education to alter the perceptions of the university committee and exporting its knowledge on sustainability to cities across the world facing similar developmental challenges.
By 2019, NYUAD has targeted to reduce its energy consumption by 10 percent, divert 50 percent of waste from residences in recycling, reuse 80 percent of irrigation water and finally, support NYU to be a global model for sustainability. At the same time, NYU New York is currently taking the ambitious goal of reducing its Co2 emissions by 50 percent by 2025. NYUAD has to do much more than just rely on the 2017 ambitions if it is to support NYU as the global model for sustainability.
However, we are definitely on a positive track. To begin with, the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council awarded NYUAD a two on the Estidama Pearl rating, which ranks buildings on their sustainability. Government buildings in the UAE are mandated to have at least a Pearl two rating on the scale, which ranges from one to five, five being the most sustainable. The pearl ranking system is similar to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design which is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. Furthermore, the share of renewable energy on campus helps generate 75 percent of the campus’ hot water consumption and 10 percent of its total energy consumption.
Despite the growing student population, our electricity consumption was reduced by 5 percent to date compared to the first six months of 2017. Since the installation of the waste management equipment, general waste being disposed of into landfill has decreased by 50 percent in comparison to the previous two years. Similarly, improvements in the Building Management System and time scheduling of equipment has resulted in a substantive decrease in demand for chilled water. However, there has been no follow up as to where we stand in achieving the 2019 goals.
While a three-member student committee is currently establishing procedures to annually conduct a Green Audit that would help us better understand what our carbon footprint is, a designated team of staff can ensure the long-term success of our ambitions. In the absence of an office of sustainability, the Department of Environmental Health and Safety has been instrumental in NYUAD becoming one of the more sustainable universities in the region. However, it is important to follow-up with our targets and have better communication between different stakeholders in developing what sustainability means at NYUAD. Perhaps this is something that a designated Office of Sustainability for NYUAD could strongly advocate for.
At the end of the day, it is important for all the residents of the NYUAD community to understand that little efforts like switching the lights off, recycling and reducing our unnecessary consumption habits can take us a long way towards achieving our macro-level targets.
Rashtra Raj Bhandari is a climate columnist. Email him at
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