image description: cover illustration of a sustainability logo over a faded image of NYU Abu Dhabi
image description: cover illustration of a sustainability logo over a faded image of NYU Abu Dhabi

Illustration by Gulsim Azirakhmet

Looking Back and Looking Forward: Sustainability at NYUAD

The university's engagement with sustainability and climate action has increased over the last few years, but much remains to be done.

2023 has been marked as the Year of Sustainability in the United Arab Emirates as the country is gearing up for the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly known as COP28, in Dubai. Meanwhile, with graduation in sight, my eight-semester-long engagement as the Sustainability Columnist of The Gazelle is coming to an end. In the past four years, we have seen an unprecedented transformation in terms of awareness about the climate crisis: we went from the first wave of the Fridays for Future strikes in 2019 to the flurry of net zero commitments from countries ahead of COP26 in 2021.
There is a clear momentum for action and governments, companies and other organizations around the world are joining their forces to prevent the worst-case scenario of global warming. This is a good moment to reflect on how the role of sustainability and climate action at NYU Abu Dhabi has changed over the past few years.
In the fall of 2019, at NYUAD, we welcomed Mariët Westermann as the new Vice-Chancellor of the university and early on, she put sustainability high on her agenda. During the Go Green Week in Feb. 2020, Westermann announced the search for the role of Director of Sustainability and Stewardship and roughly a year later, we witnessed the inauguration of this office. Antonios Vouloudis joined us as the first director leading on matters pertaining to sustainability efforts. Since the inception of the Office of Sustainability and Stewardship, we have seen implementation of several flagship initiatives, including the printing mindfulness program, Green Events Standard, Green Workplace certification and the phasing out of plastic water bottles. In the area of academics, the university continues to offer sustainability-related courses and support climate-focused research.
NYUAD has also been spearheading efforts to support COP28, the annual UN climate change conference, planned to be the most important event hosted by the UAE this year. Our university chairs the Universities Climate Network, which brings together higher education institutions to support youth engagement in the COP process and facilitate other forms of public participation. NYUAD also signed agreements with leading entities in the country such as Environment Agency Abu Dhabi and hosted its first Net Zero Week.
Given this momentum for sustainability and climate action, it is important to reflect and think about how we can be even more ambitious in setting and pursuing our goals. The university has shown us its willingness to listen to feedback and support student initiatives in this area, with the Vice-Chancellor Roundtable being one of the main events at the recent Net Zero Week.
However, this two-way communication is still far from perfect. On online channels, including student Facebook groups and Instagram pages, there are many comments, complaints, and discussions on sustainability issues ranging from the lack of a recycling system for glass, to the small amount of course offerings counting towards the environmental studies minor, and seemingly lavish events that – paradoxically – are meant to promote environmental stewardship. While some of these arguments are more sound than others, they all point to a larger conversation about sustainability at NYUAD.
Despite the launch of the Commitment to a Livable Planet as the umbrella campaign for all-things-sustainability, NYUAD does not have a sustainability strategy. Lagging behind leading higher education institutions, we do not have a climate action plan that would take the stock of the greenhouse gas emissions of the university and outline how the institution is planning to reduce them. I wrote about this critical task in Nov. 2020, and it is even more urgent now as we need to align the university with the UAE Net Zero by 2050 strategic initiative.
It is only through data and transparency that we can understand what operations and actions are most responsible for our environmental impact so that we can start thinking about reducing it. This plan will also serve as a starting point for an informed conversation between administration, faculty and students so that all sides can understand what are the drivers behind new policies and how they are helping us to achieve our goals. For example, while Meatless Mondays have been hailed as a success, they resulted in confusion and complaints from some community members who feel that they are missing out on dining choices. In this and in other cases, we need to start with awareness and transparency.
Ensuring that any student graduating from NYUAD is aware of the scale of the climate crisis and its implications on the world is critical, as I have written about extensively in the past. Even though there are many community events and various sustainability-related courses on offer, students can pass through four years of education and not attain basic carbon literacy.
The current NYUAD curriculum was designed more than ten years ago and it might be a good time to revisit it and consider implementing a Carbon Literacy requirement alongside Quantitative Reasoning, Experimental Inquiry and Islamic Requirement. Another area of action would be more thorough implementation of climate topics in major requirements and electives. To refer this back to our Meatless Mondays example: as research from Italy shows, increased awareness about the climate crisis leads to more conscious dietary choices. So, a better curriculum would be a first step toward fully-fledged involvement of students in climate efforts.
While education is important, any interventions should be coupled with transparency on the side of university operations. In the context of Meatless Mondays, this would mean showing what emissions are associated with our dining and how a reduction of meat consumption helps us bring them down. More transparency is likely to result in more understanding and generate more ideas for changes in areas that really matter. There are plenty of examples of the best practices on how universities communicate and implement their sustainability plans and I hope that very soon we will see a roll-out of a similar long-term strategy for NYUAD. Administration, faculty and students will be able to cooperate to double down on environmental impact in areas that really matter — like flights, air conditioning or lights — instead of chasing rabbit holes that barely matter in the grand scheme of things, such as printing receipts in the convenience store.
I am glad to have been a part of NYUAD at such a critical time in history and I am grateful for the student leaders that have been advancing sustainability agenda before and during my tenure and I am excited for those that are yet to come. There is still a lot of work to be done but the window of opportunity to keep up with the needs of our planet is closing.
Beniamin Strzelecki is a Contributing Writer. Email him at
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