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September 07, 2023

How higher education can ace the ‘net zero’ exam

How higher education institutions can become global sustainability leaders by reducing their own carbon footprint and boosting students’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward sustainability.

Environmental sustainability has become an imperative for higher education. A look at the UK tells the story: in that region, 285 higher education institutions intake more than 2.8 million students annually, resulting in a massive carbon footprint—the equivalent of three million vehicles on the road, according to some estimates. Meanwhile, UK schools and universities represent more than one-third of the country’s public sector building emissions. However, less than half (41%) of UK universities are on target to meet their carbon reduction goals.

The fact is, higher education institutions globally have a unique opportunity to become global sustainability leaders. In addition to reducing their own carbon footprint and creating green learning environments, they are also positioned to also influence students’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward sustainability and even train students to be future leaders in novel solutions across various career paths in ways that respond positively to climate change.

While students equip themselves for a greener tomorrow, higher education institutions should lead by example in training them in green job opportunities and sustainable learning environments. By doing so, the higher education sector could accelerate the world’s response to the climate emergency by connecting knowledge and scaling new solutions through technological innovation, interdisciplinary research, partnerships and collaboration.

A sustainability test for higher education

Students and teachers alike are eager to be part of a sustainability solution. In a recent study, more than two-thirds of students said they want to learn more about the environment, However, 79% of teachers felt they are not teaching about climate change in a meaningful way.

A focus on sustainability can also help higher education institutions attract students. In a recent survey, students said sustainability was the most important factor in determining their choice of university, putting it on par with graduate employability prospects and university location.

Further, achieving higher levels of sustainability would enhance educators’ global reputation, especially as recognized ranking bodies increasingly use key performance indicators that measure sustainability performance. Case in point, the Financial Times recently updated its Global MBA Ranking methodology to put greater emphasis on environmental concerns, such as business schools’ net zero targets and available courses on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. The rankings also favored low-carbon sectors for graduates’ career progress.

Sustainability-themed courses and initiatives, such as carbon neutrality, are key to equipping the future workforce. In England alone, there could be as many as 694,000 jobs in the low-carbon and renewable energy economy by 2030, and over 1.18 million by 2050, according to the UK government.

Sustainability partnerships

Through industry partnerships, interdisciplinary research and technology initiatives, universities can incorporate measures at scale to link concepts of sustainability at every level of the curriculum. For example, academic institutions and corporations are coming together to create programs focused on improving sustainability and reducing emissions.

One such example is a partnership between the fashion brand Chanel and the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, which is aimed at creating a sustainability leadership program. Similarly, Oxford University partnered with car manufacturer BMW and travel agency easyJet holidays to meet United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Partnerships are also essential for overcoming the many challenges of keeping sustainability targets on track, forming sustainability roadmaps and leveraging technology to meet sustainability goals.

One such challenge is metric reporting and analysis. Many universities are not equipped to measure progress toward their sustainability goals due to inadequate data and a lack of actionable sustainability strategies. Many indicators of success are hard to measure, and the data itself can be difficult to streamline across institutions, making it difficult to compare across a standardized shared body of knowledge.

Another challenge is cost. Retrofitting or building greener structures, commuting opportunities, goods and services and other necessary changes all involve upfront costs. This makes it difficult for universities to prioritize such initiatives when funding is restricted, and economies are burdened with higher inflation.

The future is now

Higher education institutions can address these obstacles by working with partners to manage and integrate data systems, assist in strategy development and roadmap analyses, integrate student interests with sustainable teaching and learning models, all while pursuing green campus initiatives.

Universities can build a path to sustainability by working with partners to develop the following solutions:

  • Sustainable building design initiatives. Higher education institutions can thrive in the net zero era by leading in green buildings and incorporating sustainable design initiatives on campus. Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics and artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) can be leveraged to enable real-time data insights that can be integrated into enterprise decisions, as well as new ways to generate energy, reduce waste and cut unnecessary costs.

    Automated IoT controls and sensors can boost efficiency by adjusting lighting and HVAC systems to reflect actual usage. IoT-enabled automation can also optimize renewable energy installations, such as solar panels, as sensors can detect the direction of the sun and turn the panels to gain maximum utilization.

  • Travel and transportation. Almost one-quarter of higher education institutions’ total carbon footprint relates to business and student travel. Immersive technologies, analytics and AI/ML can be leveraged to enable gamification, efficient and “purposeful” travel and participation in low-carbon energy systems.

  • Sustainable supply chains. In higher education, 36% of schools’ total carbon footprint relates to the supply chain. The use of technologies such as blockchain, Industry 4.0 analytics models and AI-driven automation can be leveraged to increase the sustainability and resilience of supply chains, especially in an uncertain environment.

    In particular, the integration of analytics, AI/ML and cloud can enable a shift toward offering products as a service, intuitive user experiences and implementation of the reuse, repair and recycle principles.

The university of tomorrow

Higher education holds the power to affect positive change among people, communities and economies through the resources, knowledge and resiliency it promises. At a time when sustainability is a must, higher education is particularly relevant.

Technology, data-driven insights and human-centric design could position the education ecosystem to build new operating models based on partnerships with students, staff, researchers, public institutions and businesses, leading to better prospects for all. Both new and resurgent challenges make this an urgent case for change.

To learn more, visit the Education and Sustainability Services sections of our website or contact us.

This article was written by Manoj Chawla, Manu Gupta and Gargi Kumari, consultants in Cognizant’s Communications, Media, and Technology Consulting practice.

Cognizant Insights Team

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