On the afternoon of Oct. 4 at the John Sexton Square, NYU Abu Dhabi hosted the first community-wide event of this academic year: the launch of the Climate Action Plan. Two and a half years after announcing the search for the inaugural Director of Sustainability and Stewardship at the opening of the Go Green Week in February 2020, Vice Chancellor Mariët Westermann took the stage at the Palms again to outline the commitment of the university to climate action and environmental stewardship.
“The monumental work that we all are embarking on now to reverse and mitigate climate change is obviously a global effort and in our particular community it is going to be a huge and necessarily collective enterprise,” said Westermann.
While NYUAD has been hosting Institute Talks, offering courses, curating art projects and supporting student groups that focus on sustainability and climate for many years, the scale of the event underscored the extent of commitment to this issue among university leadership.
In line with the vision to transform NYUAD into one of the region’s leading campuses in the field of sustainability, Westermann highlighted the importance of aligning all aspects of university work, including teaching, research, student interest groups, events and operations with this idea. Indeed, as I have extensively written in the past, a more ambitious approach to improving the environmental sustainability of campus operations
and more robust offerings of courses on climate and environmental justice
are necessary steps for NYUAD to keep pace with other higher education institutions in the region and with the climate action goals of the UAE, including the Net Zero 2050 Strategic Initiative.
The movement of committing institutions to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions is gaining momentum around the world and we hope to see NYUAD announce a credible pledge to net zero soon. Meanwhile, The Gazelle discussed the potential challenges and opportunities of decarbonization with Westermann.
One of the elephants in the room when it comes to our community-wide carbon footprint is the environmental impacts of flights, given that mobility is at the core of the institution’s identity. These days, air travel is critical for global education and other professional and personal development experiences. At the same time, the industry has an outsized impact on the global carbon emissions, given that a short-haul return flight releases more CO2
than the average annual emissions of a person in Uganda or Somalia.
One positive outcome of the pandemic is that virtual participation in events became a lot more normalized so while study aways and J-terms continue to be valuable parts of the NYUAD experience, it will be necessary to institutionally engage with the question of the added value of short-term travel. “When does the professional development opportunity or a major conference warrant my travel?” rhetorically asked Westermann during the interview. She reflected on her personal experience of dealing with this issue by describing how she makes decisions about travel: “There are conferences where my first question is: Can I do it online?”
By setting an example through her personal action, Westermann hopes to galvanize the community around the university’s “Commitment to Livable Planet”. “The event was really just the beginning of a more public, inclusive community effort to begin to bring together everything that we've already been doing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.
Behavioral change and buy-in from students, staff and faculty will be an important step toward making our community greener and more sustainable. Inspired by robust programming in other areas, such as diversity and inclusion as well as building on many years of successful engagement of students by Student Interest Groups, establishing spaces to discuss issues such as the phaseout of single-use products or reduction of food, water and energy waste, would make sure that everyone’s perspectives are considered when making policy and infrastructure-level changes.
For a full buy-in from the community, transition to a more sustainable campus needs to be thought of as an enabler of a better and healthier lifestyle. For example, animal agriculture is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions so having a rich offer of vegetarian and vegan food in campus dining outlets would be an important step toward tasty, healthy and sustainable catering. Another example is managing printing where reducing the excessive number of posters on campus could help to address the ‘fear of missing out’. Preserving the interest of the students is at the core of this process.
“We are really committed to making sure that students in particular will have access to affordable goods and services and an exciting and also responsible plan for getting the most out of this education that [they have] chosen to pursue here,” said Westermann.
While the Climate Action Plan outlining the greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals of the university is still under final review and it is expected to be shared publicly in due course, the Tuesday event was a clear sign of the institution’s commitment to climate action.
Going forward, it will be necessary for NYUAD to maintain the integrity of sustainability efforts and follow the example of NYU New York in terms of transparency of data
and external certifications
. Given the global identity of NYUAD, the university will have to go even further and consider its global footprint, including flights and emissions embedded in imports of various goods and services.
The next important checkpoint on the calendar of everyone involved with sustainability on campus will be COP28, the UN Climate Change Conference that will take place in Dubai in November 2023. The world will come to the UAE to take stock of progress made toward meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and for NYUAD, it will be an opportunity to reflect on the progress made toward its climate action and sustainability goals within one year from launching the Climate Action Plan.
Beniamin Strzelecki is a Columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org