Environmental sustainability cognisance and action is taking root in South Africa’s higher education system

Published On: 18 May 2023|

If the Higher Education Sustainability Community of Practice (HESCoP) is to have its way, South Africa’s universities will, over time, integrate environmental sustainability principles into all disciplines’ subject matter and curriculum, into research, in operations and governance and, by extension, in all their engagement.

Gradually, universities will also develop capability to report annually on their environmental performance — all of these, as universities seek to contribute to the realisation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The HESCoP was established to achieve numerous objectives, key among which is to move the higher education sector towards developing an Environmental Sustainability Framework that speaks to all core university functions of teaching and learning, research and community engagement. The envisaged Framework aspires to infuse the principles of environmental sustainability into universities’ curriculum, promote environmental sustainability-focused research and raise awareness, in campus and neighbouring communities, of environmental consciousness through advocacy.

HESCoP members who attended the inaugural annual meeting in person at the University of Cape Town on 12 April.

This community of practice (CoP), which just officially affiliated to Universities South Africa (USAf), will, henceforth, operate alongside USAf’s 10 other communities of practice. It will closely work with and report to USAf’s Funding Strategy Group, whose priority focus areas include higher education sustainability.

Universities’ Sustainability Practices in action

At the inaugural meeting of this new CoP on 12 April, it became evident that even though numerous institutions have embarked on some sustainability journey, they differ in degrees. To the extent that universities contribute to carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, universities are subject to the Carbon Tax Act 2019, that imposes an annual tax commensurate with the amount of carbon dioxide that industry and other entities release into the atmosphere by virtue of their operations. The tax, levied and paid into the national revenue fund, is administered by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

In addition to the national carbon tax law, Western Cape based institutions are further affected by their province’s signatory status to the C40 Agreement, which requires business and other entities residing in the Western Cape to report on their own carbon emissions and progress. As such, universities located in the Western Cape are required to report on their carbon emissions performance and submit their share of the imminent carbon tax.

These institutions’ sustainability mindset is, however, driven by much more.

Stellenbosch University

According to Mr John de Wet (left), Environmental Sustainability Manager at Stellenbosch University (SU), his institution, for one, is influenced, among other factors, by South Africa’s signatory status to the Paris Agreement (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) reducing the rise in global temperature to below 1.5degC. This regulates the reporting of scope1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions of the university. SU is affiliated to many global organisations who take an interest in the institution’s carbon and environmental sustainability performance, thus influencing research funding.

Reporting on its performance of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SU tried to unpack eight of the SDGs which will be used in future as part of the Times Higher Education (THE) impact rankings. The rise in the university’s utility costs and building resilience are other significant motivators. Ultimately, SU is also cognisant of the gradual loss in the world, of critical ecosystems (flaura and fauna) paths and the resultant impact on environment. SU’s Environmental Sustainability Plan, motivated by these factors, is the university’s ambitious aim and pathway in response to the mentioned challenges. The Plan articulates SU’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

The institution’s carbon reduction strategy therefore encompasses deliberate and solidly targeted energy, water, waste and biodiversity measures and goals alongside strictly monitored mobility, procurement and built environment practices. The university has invested heavily on staff, students and neighbouring communities’ engagement for shared understanding and to achieve desired behavioural change. As a demonstration of its commitment to sustainability, SU issued its first Sustainability Report in 2022. The University aims to decarbonize all its campuses (to attain net zero carbon status) by 2050. A net zero status is realised when an entity succeeds in removing the amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, equal to the amount it releases.

SU’s promising actions at a glance

De Wet told the HESCoP audience that establishing a warehouse where electronically measured and validated data on energy, water and waste, are stored, had proven to work for his institution. Programmers on site analyse the data and draw information for SU’s performance for reporting purposes.

SU is investing in renewable solar energy to reduce its utility costs and to minimise carbon emissions. The panels on the Neelsie Building roof generate 400 kilowatts power, whereas the recycling bins on the right are part of the university’s waste management system — another aspect of SU’s carbon reduction strategy.

As part of energy efficiency and conservation initiatives, SU is in the process of installing micro grids to manage the energy more efficiently and to integrate renewable energy, diesel generation and battery storage. This will also help with producing warm water for residences at lower costs.

On the left is SU’s water plant that filters water to drinking quality in accordance with the SANS241 standard. On the right is SU’s grey water plant with recycling capacity of 1.5 million litres of water per month, mainly used to flush toilets.

On water, the university’s goal is to use water fit for purpose and use alternative sources, reducing the municipal water supply as much as possible. “When we had a water crisis around 2016 to 2018, we learned a lot of things and had to adapt quickly,” De Wet said. SU uses a grey water treatment system and recycles about 1,5 million tons monthly, that is being used to flush toilets in the restrooms.

“It is costly, but it is money we will get back in the next few years,” he said.

In pursuit of a net zero status by 2050, De Wet said his institution had appointed a Green Accredited Professional to help them attain a minimum of 4 Green Star rating for their new buildings, and for refurbished structures.

SU’s 4 Green Star rated Biomedical Research Institute building.

According to the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) website, Green Star tools, available in nine categories, are credits bestowed on buildings as a recognition of environmental and sustainability characteristics of their design, construction and operation.

SU’s awareness-raising activities include information and advocacy campaigns run on campuses and residences. “We are training people on how to behave, especially in green buildings,” he said, adding that collaborating with other members in HESCoP will help strengthen some of their other plans in the making.

University of Cape Town

Although the University of Cape Town‘s sustainability commitments date back as far as 1994, momentum picked up with the establishment of a dedicated directorate in the Office of the Vice-Chancellor in 2018. UCT’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy followed soon after.

According to Mr Braune Manfred (right), Director: Environmental Sustainability, the four-pronged strategy focuses on Operations, Learning, Research and Governance with engagement that surrounds all 4 of these to ensure the university community is engaged. The Operations aspect of the strategy addresses, among numerous factors, healthy people and spaces, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change adaptation, water, waste and materials, ecology, biodiversity and wildlife, mobility and people movement and public open spaces. The Learning aspect entails instilling basic sustainability understanding in every student and staff, as well as considering department-specific curriculum alterations and integration of environmental sustainability where this does not yet exist. In Research, UCT seeks to amplify existing sustainability focused research, grow new sustainability focused research opportunities and generally in all research have an element that considers sustainability factors related to that research. From a Governance perspective, UCT is adding environmental sustainability considerations to existing governance structures already in place, while at the same time creating some new structures, where necessary.

For hosting the HESCoP inaugural and annual general meeting, UCT had aptly chosen the institution’s greenest building, the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika (above), completed in October 2022 as a green and sustainability showcase. In designing and constructing this building, UCT has set out to obtain a 6 Green Star rating from the GBCSA, further hoping that the d-school building would become the first 6 Green Star rated academic building in Africa.

Some UCT actions at a glance

Braune highlighted that even though they had made positive progress in achieving some of their sustainability plans, UCT was still far from achieving their long-term green campus goals, which include becoming a net zero carbon, energy, water and waste-to-landfill campus by or before 2050. However, having Sustainability as a core pillar of the UCT 2030 vision alongside Excellence and Transformation, demonstrated the institution’s understanding that its longevity rested not only on financial sustainability but also environmental and social aspects of sustainability.

For their Green Buildings programme, Braune mentioned that in 2012, UCT’s Council had made a policy decision to target a minimum 4 Green Star rating for every new building that is constructed. One of the buildings that will benefit from this policy decision to apply these best practice green standards will be the rebuilding of the Jagger Library that burnt down during the Table Mountain fire disaster of 2021. Braune said the campus infrastructure and buildings was one of the key areas where UCT was beginning to see some very significant sustainability-related change, where millions of Rands of investment over the past 10 years has had greening integrated and is leaving a positive impact for the university and the environment for many years to come.

He highlighted that getting projects off the ground — especially plans to transform existing buildings – was not easy. He added that creating new spaces also necessitated educating those buildings’ users about the green features in the building while also encouraging appropriate sustainability-friendly behaviour. Furthermore, because of the transient nature of the student community, such education has to be ongoing with every new cohort, year-on-year. Notwithstanding those challenges, the institution was ticking some boxes in its plans.

The Sustainability Director mentioned the load shedding crisis as presenting an opportunity to be innovative. UCT planned to install solar photovoltaic panels across its buildings – adding that element to an energy efficient lighting drive already underway. While these don’t typically solve the load shedding problem, they can certainly alleviate the overall pressure on the university’s grid and the national grid.

“These changes present massive opportunities, giving universities a lot to think about,” he concluded.

More on the HESCoP AGM

Members, comprising relevant senior academic staff, directors or most senior practitioners of the Environmental Sustainability Offices or departments within USAf’s member institutions attended the inaugural meeting.

Deliberations covered numerous perspectives on sustainability. These included Sustainable Development Goals in Higher Education; processes to follow to register for an Energy Performance Certificate, and processes to follow in reporting on Greenhouse Gas emissions. Members heard how HESCoP will relate to USAf’s Funding Strategy Group and the broader network of other strategy groups, and the support and secretariat services available from USAf. They were also familiarised with the newly-built HESCoP page that will serve as a shared resources repository on the USAf website.

Election of new leadership

Dr Thelma Louw (left), Head of the Sustainability, Monitoring and Evaluation Directorate of the University of South Africa (UNISA) was elected Chairperson of the Group, with Mr Manfred Braune, from UCT, as her second in command. Dr Louw embraced this responsibility and promised to afford it the attention it deserves. She also assured members that, with the assistance of chairpersons of various HESCoP sub-committees in place, she was confident of taking this CoP forward.

“May we all continue to interact with one another in the best interest of our institutions, country, continent and planet,” Dr Louw closed off as she adjourned the inaugural annual meeting.

About the HESCoP

Although only recently affiliated to USAf, HESCoP started with an informal conversation among seven universities including Monash, in 2016. The dialogue was led by UNISA, three years after establishing its own Environmental Sustainability Office in 2013. Following a series of engagements with USAf, over the years, this CoP was recommended to the USAf Board of Directors by the Funding Strategy Group. The Board accepted and endorsed this structure as one of its own at its June 2022 meeting.

In addition to developing the Environmental Sustainability Framework, the HESCoP will actively participate in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of a National Environmental Sustainability Plan for the Higher Education sector and collectively work towards embedding environmental sustainability principles in university operations and infrastructure. Members will share information and develop, advocate and share best practice guidelines and relevant sectoral statistics for advancing environmental sustainability in the sector.

Operationally, the HESCoP will function through three sub-committees, namely the Academic Committee, the Localisation Committee and the Technical Committee. Sub-committees will each develop a plan of activities annually and report on progress against this plan at HESCoP meetings.

With the HESCoP now up and running, public universities have a new platform to do what they do best – teach, learn and do research – and more importantly see all of these principles applied on their own campuses to make them more sustainable. Universities that have not started on the sustainability journey have the opportunity to learn from those that have been at the game for some time. Universities that have done some work on sustainability are keen to share their experiences to the advantage of the sector as a whole. This sets the table for extensive research and collaboration projects. Involvement in the various sub-committees will ensure that all universities’ needs are incorporated into their workplans. Sub-committees will meet quarterly and by the time the HESCoP meets again, in 2024, each sub-committee will be able to report on its activities and the longer-term plan.

Meanwhile, in the context of its reporting obligations, the HESCoP will be presenting its first progress report at the upcoming Funding Strategy Group meeting during early June 2023.

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communication, and Nqobile Tembe is a contracted Communication Consultant.