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Top Tips for How Academia Can Be More Sustainable

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Written by Laura Veith on May 4, 2020

As global climate change continues to threaten the health of the planet and impact our lives, sustainable business practices are becoming increasingly important. As part of earning my Master’s in Public Health at the Colorado School of Public Health, I created and performed a sustainability audit of the Center for Health, Work & Environment. I specifically studied the travel practices of the Center, as travel is a significant producer of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, one of the major contributing factors to climate change. As part of the Center’s mission to help organizations create sustainable workforces, it aims to promote the sustainability of the planet by lowering its own carbon footprint. 

Based on the results of my project, I’ve created the following tips for ways academic organizations can decrease their carbon footprint, specifically regarding travel practices. 

1. Perform an office carbon audit to measure your organization’s carbon footprint All types of organizations contribute to GHG emissions in a variety of ways. By identifying the various sources of carbon emissions and energy usage in the workplace, you can effectively create strategies for reduction. 

2. Conduct and promote travel in an eco-friendly manner Air travel is one of the fastest-growing sources of GHG emissions, resulting in a large environmental impact, and globally contributes to 2.8% of the world’s total CO2 emissions. Car travel also has a negative environmental impact. Flying direct and to the closest airport to your destination, taking public transportation or ride shares on trips, and incentivizing carpooling and public transportation are achievable ways to decrease the environmental impact of individual travel.   

3. Host virtual events Holding events is an integral part of conducting business, specifically in academic settings, and allows people to form and build relationships, network, and share knowledge. However, in-person events also leave behind a considerably large carbon footprint. Hosting virtual conferences and events can cater to a broader audience while lowering the carbon footprint associated with travel. Going virtual also offers a more time-and cost-efficient alternative for both hosts and attendees. Zoom's webinar function and Zoom breakout rooms are engaging ways to hold meetings in a virtual format, enabling more realistic and personable interactions between attendees. 

4. Redesign meetings By consolidating meeting days and allowing them to be hosted virtually, fewer employees are required to be present in the office throughout the week. Decreasing the number of days employees need to travel to the office decreases their commuter-related carbon emissions. Holding offsite meetings in a central location with close proximity to public transportation enables employees to travel via public transportation instead of driving. 

The American Public Transportation Association estimates that public transit saves roughly 1.4 billion gallons of gas annually, which translates to about 14 million tons of CO2. Traveling by bus is about 30% more emission-efficient than traveling by single-occupancy vehicle and traveling by rail is about 75% more emission-efficient than traveling by single-occupancy vehicle. 

5. Encourage remote work and telecommuting 
At the Center for Health, Work & Environment, employees commute roughly 2,000 miles per week, emitting an estimate of 1800 pounds of CO2. Encouraging employees in flexible roles to work from home a few days a week can greatly reduce the amount of CO2 emitted in commuting. Consider using online applications as a way to foster connectedness and communication while employees are not physically working together. Slack or Microsoft Teams are popular solutions that allow employees to continue inter-office communication in real-time while working remotely.   

6. Create a healthy meeting and event catering policy
A vegetarian diet greatly reduces an individual and organization’s carbon footprint. A meat-based diet contributes to over 50% of GHG contribution, while a vegetarian diet contributes to only about 9%. Consider offering only vegetarian meal options at employee gatherings or meetings of all sizes. Also consider ordering from local restaurants, which not only reduces travel time for food delivery (reducing GHG emissions) but is also an opportunity to support the local economy. Don’t forget to tell caterers when you do and don’t need items like plastic or compostable utensils, cups and plates to cut down on waste.