Image description: Three people stand by a sign reading
Image description: Three people stand by a sign reading


NYUAD’s Climate Action Plan: Scopes and Blind Spots

What it actually takes to establish a “sustainable university”, and the conversations we need to have to lead us there.

Oct 15, 2023

COP28 this year has brought a clear spotlight and momentum towards the sustainability conversation within the MENA region. Despite being one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters, the UAE has committed to a Net Zero by 2050 initiative to reach carbon neutrality. The nation is leading efforts like the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant and large wind power developments.
NYU Abu Dhabi is situated within this exciting UAE context as well as within the context of the greater Global Network, where NYU New York plans to be carbon-neutral in two decades with the 2040 Now initiative. In 2021, the university hired its Director of Sustainability and Stewardship, Antonios Vouloudis, after a yearlong search. We have seen, over these past few years, implementation of flagship initiatives like the Green Events Standard and the offering of Green Grants. Now the office has published its Climate Action Plan that ties relevant sustainability issues together into a long-term vision for the university.
As the chair of the Universities Climate Network with one of its on-campus Student Interest Group’s, Green House, co-hosting the 18th UN Conference of Youth, NYUAD’s actions and frameworks will be placed under a microscope. So what does the Climate Action Plan entail? The university’s [foremost commitment] is to “enhance our campus buildings operations, minimize energy and water use, and improve occupants’ health and performance on campus.” 99.60% of the university’s recorded campus GHG emissions are Scope 2 emissions, which include emissions from purchased electricity and chilled water for buildings.
Given the need for air conditioning for so many months of the year on campus, and the number of buildings and facilities, decarbonizing NYUAD’s building infrastructure will be a very welcome step. According to the Climate Action Plan, meeting its carbon neutrality goal will save as much carbon as planting 20,000 acres of mangroves. But there is so much more that NYUAD has to do beyond these efforts if it ever wants to call itself a “sustainable” university.
However, there is another “scope” in corporate emissions accounting that the Climate Action plan does not account for. Scope 3 emissions reflect emissions that an entity is indirectly responsible for, up and down its value chain, but does not directly create. The food served at D2 for lunch is not included in the Climate Action Plan’s accounting, nor is the flight the university books to fly to your J-term or your home country, nor still the paper your professor prints out when he gives you a forty-page reading for a printed exam.
The entire value chain of NYUAD cannot be made “carbon neutral” anywhere near as easily, and that makes improvements to it a lot more difficult to market. To the university’s credit, they are a signatory to the NYU-wide Cool Food Pledge and claim to support “responsible decision making regarding air travel.” However, Scope 3 emissions are the majority of what NYUAD is responsible for. Harvard University’s Office of Sustainability claims that for most organizations, Scope 3 emissions are far larger than Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions combined. Stanford University calculated its emissions from student travel: International Stanford undergraduate students’ travel alone averaged over 10 MTCO2e of carbon emissions per student in 2019. Of the 2,000+ undergraduates at NYUAD the vast majority are “international students” by residence and fly abroad over most breaks. It would not be a stretch, with this average, to calculate that the emissions from international student air travel — to say nothing of the faculty — approach the entirety of NYUAD’s Scope 1 and 2 figure.
Now, international travel may be a necessary “evil” (in the emissions context) to support NYUAD’s global mission and diverse student body. We could move all of our international J-terms to Zoom seminars tomorrow and certainly a lot less carbon would be emitted. But, underlying any university efforts to reduce its emissions should come transparency and open communication with the student body, rather than unilateral decisions. For example, “Meatless Mondays” or further dining hall changes are never going to gain traction until there are attractive and fairly-priced plant based options available to all. Additionally, we should be aware of the dangers of an “all-or-nothing” mentality where either we ban meat and flights tomorrow or we do nothing.
The Climate Action Plan is a necessary, and progressive, step towards reducing emissions. But it is not doing anybody a service to say that NYUAD is going to become “carbon neutral” while ignoring the realities of what the university is responsible for within its value chain. A Climate Action Plan that only acknowledges the aspects of decarbonization that are most convenient is not a road to understanding. The time for open dialogue is now and requires a well-informed community that knows what actually goes into a “sustainable university.” Until NYUAD works towards broadening its scope of climate action, this understanding will be very difficult to foster.
Ethan Fulton is Editor-in-Chief. Amiteash Paul is Managing Editor. Email them at
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