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And the winner is the value of sustainability awards

It is fashionable today to be dismiss awards, to laugh them off as inconsequential in the scheme things, but when the university management programme I helped set up won an international award in 2008, it changed everything.

The award was presented by the International Sustainable Campuses Network and recognised the best practices the Australian National University was implementing to improve the campus environmental performance.

I was pleased by the acknowledgement especially for a small team that had worked so hard to convince an otherwise preoccupied community to invest time and resources in improving the campus environmental footprint but what surprised me was the reaction of university senior management.

Prior to this, there had been support but it was casual. A nodding encouragement as the agenda item was quickly passed over in a meeting. However, international recognition – the ability to describe the programme as award winning – suddenly gave it an increased standing. Nothing had changed other than the fact someone else – someone outside the university – had said we were building a world class programme.

And whether we liked to admit it or not, that praise mattered.

The ISCN continues to make its annual awards, increasing both in the number of categories and status since the inaugural presentations in 2008. In that period universities from Europe/UK, North and South America, Asia and the Middle East, have all won awards demonstrating how wide spread sustainability management is in the tertiary sector.

This group of winners includes some very impressive projects such as the a sustainably designed library in Shandong China (the subject of an earlier article in EJ, the implementation of a comprehensive campus environmental management plan at the University of San Paulo, Brazil, the construction of a Platinum LEED certified interactive research center for sustainability (that also functions as a living laboratory) at the University of British Columbia, Canada and student-led initiatives like the establishment of a Students’ Green Unit at the University of Exeter to drive sustainability through all aspects of campus life and operations and the Green Truth programme introduced at Zhejiang University, China which uses a community based problem solving framework to address environmental performance.

These and the other winners were selected with great difficulty from shortlists of projects that showed the depth of commitment and ingenuity being applied globally to solving environmental problems in large organisations, something exemplified by the winners of the 2017 ISCN awards.

The winner of the Excellence in Innovative Building and Infrastructure award was the National University of Singapore for its University Town campus. UTown, an example of sustainable design and operation on a large community scale, is also the subject of a separate article in EJ.

Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania received the award for Excellence in Innovative Collaboration for a programme that applied an internal carbon charge on campus activities and energy purchases that generate carbon emissions. The funding model was developed in collaboration with a full cross section of the campus community (as well as other colleges, such as Yale University, which has its own carbon cost model) and the revenue collected (approximately $350k per year) is directed into projects that reduce university carbon emissions as well as establish ecological literacy training and behavioural improvement programmes for staff and students.

The Campus Planning and Management Systems award went to the University of Applied Sciences Trier in Germany. The university was acknowledged for their environmental campus at Birkenfeld, a former US military hospital that now operates using state-of-the-art technology that combine solar energy systems and innovative building design to pursue a goal of zero emissions.

The key element of the design is that it allows integration with students and researchers in a living laboratory that promotes a different way of thinking about the world and the life cycle impacts of operational decision.

The final 2017 award went to Chiba University in Japan, for Excellence in Student Leadership. As a judge for these awards (a role I have had for the past four years), nothing inspires me more than the nominations we receive each year from students. Often working with little or no budget and with no executive power, they manage to put together programs that genuinely foster change.

The Chiba University programme is a perfect example. In 2003, students established an Environmental Management Systems committee that over subsequent years lead the push to have the university certified in accordance with ISO 14001. The students continue to have an active role in maintaining the certification by ‘creating and executing action plans for setting targets, monitoring and measurement, performing internal audits, and working with external auditors’.

The committee also oversees educational activities to build broader community understanding of sustainability and prepares an annual environmental report.

While awards will always be a subjective thing – one group perception of the value of another’s work – they do serve a purpose by highlighting if only momentarily the incredible efforts that are being made by people and organisations all round the world to improve the life of the planet. And if in some small way that boosts the morale of those working to achieve these goals, making the job that little easier, then their value cannot be dismissed.

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