Universities worldwide are setting zero-carbon targets—are Asia’s varsities stepping up?

Institutions in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada are leading the charge, but those in Asia are no laggards. Which varsities in the region feature in climate action rankings, and how are Singapore universities faring?

london universities
The United Kingdom is home to the world’s leading universities. Image: Nick/Flickr , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The urgency of climate action is hitting home for the higher education sector.

More universities than ever are making zero-carbon commitments and pledging to increase environmental education for their students, many of whom will be the leaders and change makers of tomorrow.

While universities in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom are arguably leading the pack, those in Asia are not lagging far behind.

American and Canadian universities such as the University of British Columbia and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took the top five spots in the Times Higher Education Top Universities for Climate Action 2019 rankings, but Japan’s Kyoto University clinched sixth spot and there were 27 Asian universities among the top 100.

Ten were Japanese universities; others were a diverse mix that included Hong Kong Baptist University (15th), National Taiwan University (22nd), Universiti Sains Malaysia (55th), Vietnam’s Ton Duc Thang University (62nd), Indonesia’s Bogor Agricultural University (80th) and Thailand’s King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (88th).

The rankings were based on the universities’ research on climate change, their use of low-carbon energy, environmental education measures and preparations to deal with the consequences of climate change.

Meanwhile, Asian universities made up 29 of the top 100 in Universitas Indonesia’s UI GreenMetric World University Rankings 2018. Netherlands’ Wageningen University & Research was tops, while Universitas Indonesia took 26th position. The rankings are based on data that universities submit online, and aim to draw university leaders’ attention to climate change, energy and water conservation.

Conspicuously missing from both rankings, however, are higher education institutions from Singapore. This is despite the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) regularly featuring in world university rankings.

Universities from the city-state—which designated 2018 its Year of Climate Action and 2019 its Year Towards Zero Waste—are also missing in other recent efforts.

Last month, more than 7,000 universities and higher education institutions around the world declared a climate emergency and signed an open letter that recognised “the need for a drastic societal shift to combat the growing threat of climate change”. 

They plan to increase the delivery of environmental and sustainability education in their courses, and go carbon-neutral by 2030, or 2050 at the latest. They also plan to mobilise more resources for “action-oriented climate change research” and skills development.

Asian institutions that have signed the letter include China’s Tongji University, India’s TERI School of Advanced Studies, the Independent University in Bangladesh and Comteq Computer and Business College in the Philippines.

Eco-Business asked the six autonomous universities in Singapore if they were part of any coalition that had signed the open letter—co-organised by United Nations Environment—or had plans to do so. None answered in the affirmative.

Four of the universities—NTU, Singapore University of Social Sciences, Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and Singapore University of Technology and Design—either declined to comment or did not respond to queries, while NUS and the Singapore Management University (SMU) outlined their measures to reduce carbon emissions. 

Exactly what steps have Singapore varsities been taking?

Missing from rankings, but some targets set

NUS said it has made a “conscious effort to incorporate sustainability in a broad spectrum of campus activities, such as operations, planning, construction, research and education” over the years.

“Our faculty members are conducting climate-related research to inform national and corporate policies, and our students are also pursuing many ground-up initiatives to fight climate change,” a spokesperson said.

By next year, the university—whose students have petitioned for it to divest from fossil fuels—aims to reduce carbon emissions by 23 per cent from business-as-usual levels, using 2008 as its baseline. According to its Sustainability Strategic Plan 2017-2020, NUS also plans to make better use of water and increase its recycling rate and the amount of green spaces in its buildings.

SMU, which introduced the region’s first sustainability major earlier this year, said: “Despite almost a doubling of its student population over the last decade and the addition of new buildings and facilities, SMU has achieved significant reductions in water and electricity consumption with purposeful guidance by the university’s management, as well as the upgrading of equipment to more water and energy-efficient ones.” 

The university did not provide figures on water and electricity consumption, but said it plans to reduce energy intensity by 40 per cent next year. 

Its solar panels on campus generate up to 1.35MWh of energy, which help to reduce energy from non-renewable sources by 7.5 per cent each year, SMU said.

Meanwhile, reports by NTU and the SIT outline their plans to reduce carbon emissions. 

NTU aims to cut energy intensity by 50 per cent by 2025 (from 2011 levels), according to its 2017 sustainability report. It is aiming for solar energy to supply 7 to 9 per cent of its electricity by 2019, and for carbon-free shuttle vehicles on campus by 2020. Its “very bold aspirations” are to be net zero in water consumption and “almost net zero” in waste and emissions by 2030, said NTU president Subra Suresh.

The Singapore Institute of Technology’s future campus in Punggol, slated for completion around 2023, could be nearly zero-emission. It is working with utilities company SP Group on an urban micro-grid that will combine gas, electricity and thermal energy into a unified network. The grid will supply almost all its consumption needs and also incorporate solar and energy storage technologies. 

In a ‘unique position’ 

Universities are in a “unique position” to lead the world towards zero-carbon, the University of London (UOL) noted in its first version of the Zero Carbon Estates Handbook released on July 15. The guidebook aims to help its counterparts across the United Kingdom and Ireland achieve net zero carbon emissions in their estates and operations—something the university plans to do by 2036.

While most businesses lease their premises and developers often build to sell and have little motivation to see the benefits of reducing carbon, many universities own, develop and occupy their buildings, it said. This makes them much more able to consider the long-term benefits of zero carbon buildings. 

One of the central recommendations in the handbook is the Passivhaus approach, which radically reduces demand for heating and other forms of energy consumption while ensuring high quality thermal performance in buildings.

Other recommendations include maximising the use of natural light and using energy-saving LEDs, installing solar panels and battery storage, and rainwater harvesting.

New developments must consider the carbon footprint of chosen materials throughout their lifetime, transportation and the proposed building works and techniques.

The handbook is applicable to any large estate, no matter the location or climate, Matt Wilkinson, the university’s sustainability manager, told Eco-Business.

“The UK has many of the world’s top universities and a huge potential to influence the generations that will be steering businesses, governments and organisations towards the global 2050 targets,” the handbook stated, referring to the year by which leading scientists have said the world needs to be carbon-neutral.

Following the actions of Extinction Rebellion and the Global School Strike for Climate led by young activist Greta Thunberg, pressure on the government and institutions to take decisive climate action is growing, it noted.

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