If universities are to lead change and educate students in all things sustainable, investing in practical action on campus is vital.

Universities are key to providing exemplary performance in sustainable research, education and facilities management.

This is the philosophy that surrounds the United Nationals Environmental Programme’s (UNEP) Greening Universities Toolkit, which has a goal to transform universities around the world into viable green, sustainable campuses. It is also a perfect fit with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were the focus of the September UN General Assembly meeting in New York, where the ratification of the Paris Agreement came nearer into being.

This is no ordinary toolkit. It is a work in progress, constantly evolving as more information becomes available. Now in its second edition, launched in Japan in 2014, it is publicly available to all online.

The first edition was released in 2013 and there will no doubt be a third and a fourth as more universities take action and provide viable, cutting-edge big data on how sustainable action can provide savings, not just financially but environmentally.

This tool is therefore not only practical but educational and includes 28 ‘global exemplar’ case studies from five global regions including both developed and developing countries with varying contexts, needs and capabilities.

The Toolkit should be read by all, whether from a university or not, just for the sheer fact that it provides great insight into what works, for how long, and the type of investment required.

But firstly what needs to be considered is what ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ are.  Sustainability means creating a path that can provide future generations with economic development that is both socially and environmentally acceptable. In our modern world, the word also refers to clean energy, carbon reduction and ensuring the sustainable development process continues to grow through action and learning – something that applies to universities, business and society overall.

Of course, in a place like a university where there are systems, buildings and cultures that are both old and new, change is the biggest challenge. Therefore, having proven guidelines and systems for change is of great value, which is why the Toolkit needs to be discussed. It is important that as many people know of its existence as possible, as it has mostly been promoted by UNEP in African, Asian and South American counties even though all can benefit from it.

The Toolkit is like a sustainable development blueprint for the future and “is designed to provide universities with the basic strategies and tactics necessary to transform themselves into green, low carbon institutions with the capacity to address climate change, increase resource efficiency, enhance ecosystem management and minimise waste and pollution.”

As the university environment has such a strong influence on its students – the entrepreneurs, leaders and workers of the future – it can not only teach environmental sustainability as a subject, it can teach by example. The university can become a living, breathing sustainable message tool whilst providing practice examples of how we have the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that we meet our present needs without compromising the ability of our children to meet theirs.

The key to sustainable success, however, is commitment. This commitment should also not be shrouded in greenwash, which the Toolkit says “refers to the not uncommon situation where an organisation makes serious claims to ‘green’ credentials but does little or nothing to act on them.” So the organisation itself and the decision makers in charge must be sufficiently mature and committed both financially and administratively to the task. There needs to be the right kind of communication and agreement and there needs to be follow through.

Making sustainable change in a place like a university is a long-term, complex and sometimes costly process, but it is one that needs to occur here, at the grassroots of education, to make a difference.

For those in administration who have to apply such change, the Toolkit provides a range of strategies that can be used, as there is no ‘one size fits all’ magic solution. All campuses are different, not just in their bricks and mortar, location and students but also how staff respond to change. Managing the transition process and implementation is the key to success.

But of course nothing is without risk, a major one being the increasing lack of public funding available to universities. The leaders of those institutions have to run universities as businesses and make major strategy decisions, so there are many challenges and changes that must occur to create viability.

However, if administrators look at the long-term investment in sustainable action, they can find savings around the management of key areas such as energy, water and materials, which can “provide a buffer for future capital and operational investment in sustainability initiatives.”  So how administrators package the concept of sustainability and its long-term benefits to the powers that be is an extremely important, necessary process.

Return on investment is another area that will influence decision makers, and there are some great examples of how this has already been achieved. Shanghai University of Electric Power’s campus energy management system (CEMS) has reduced total energy consumption by more than 20 per cent and water consumption by 20 per cent. Bond University’s Mirvac School of Sustainable Development (Australia) has used energy demand reduction and PV systems to produce a 40 per cent reduction in peak demand on electricity infrastructure (around 13,500 kilowatt-hours per year). These are just two of the examples provided that show how using power saving tools and low carbon energy production systems can have significant results.

Of course Universities are all about research and data, so having indicators that measure outcomes are a core need. “What gets measured gets managed,” notes the Toolkit, and this sums up how progress can be reported on and benchmarked. In this case, there is a focus on four key areas – energy use, water use, land use and material flows. These all embrace the sustainability path which can be tracked, measured and financially quantified. They will help universities provide the proof in the pudding as time goes by.

Overall, we have the technologies and strategies available to make the carbon reductions required and to do our bit to lessen the impact of climate change. It’s time to apply those strategies, so take the time to read the Toolkit and share, it can help us all.