Top 10: Sustainable Universities

Sustainability Magazine takes a look at the top 10 most sustainable universities
We’ve highlighted the top 10 universities around the world implementing sustainability strategy, including Stanford University & University of California

As research powerhouses, universities have the power to innovate and change sustainability practices across the globe. 

Students are also beginning to demand more from these institutions before becoming paying customers, and higher education can guide them towards sustainable lifestyles and career paths. 

Here, Sustainability Magazine takes a look at the top 10 most sustainable universities.

UQ's research is underpinned by its sustainable activities

10. University of Queensland

Location: Australia

The University of Queensland prioritises sustainability with programs focusing on renewable energy, biodiversity conservation, sustainable development, and climate change research, as well as green building standards.

It has developed its sustainability strategy based on the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which now underpins UQ’s sustainable activities.

“We’re at a moment in history when the decisions we make, in my view, will determine the future well-being of humanity, and we must stop saying that individual action will not make a difference,” Professor Aidan Byrne, Provost at UQ says.

“Society is largely built on the cumulative effect of small acts.

“When it comes to climate change, we all share the responsibility and the consequences, and so we all need to make sure that we are doing our bit," Professor Byrne concludes. 

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9. University of California, Los Angeles

Location: USA

UCLA is dedicated to sustainability through initiatives like waste reduction, water conservation, renewable energy projects, sustainable food systems, and research centres focused on environmental science and policy. 

Its work on sustainability goes back decades, having formed the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability in the 1990s, the Sustainability Committee in 2004 and the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge in 2013.

Its sustainability mission is “to create a culture in which all staff, patients, and community members are engaged in making our planet a healthier place. We are committed to advancing sustainability awareness through education, research, operations, and community partnerships.”

(Credit: University of Amsterdam)

8. University of Amsterdam

Location: Netherlands

The University of Amsterdam is committed to sustainability across its campuses, implementing green building standards, reducing carbon emissions, promoting sustainable transportation, and integrating sustainability into academic programs.

Alongside working to reduce its carbon footprint by 25% over the next five years, UvA is embedding sustainability into its research, education and operations.

UvA has partnered with energy supplier Vattenfall for ten years, having begun in early January 2022 with the supply of 53 GWh per year of wind energy from the Netherlands.

“We wanted the energy to come from close by, because we thereby stimulate the energy transition and knowledge development in the Netherlands. We looked at energy from the Amsterdam metropolitan region as a requirement, but that turned out to be unfeasible,” says Rowan Boeters, Sustainability program manager at the UvA and HvA.

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7. University of California, Santa Barbara

Location: USA

UCSB works to hit sustainability head on, using its campus as a living lab to continually become more sustainable. 

Recognised for its sustainability practices, UCSB’s work includes projects around renewable energy, water conservation efforts, LEED-certified buildings, and student-led initiatives promoting environmental awareness.

As part of its sustainability in academia focus, 50% of departments at UCSB have at least one course related to or focused on sustainability and 47% of departments have at least one researcher who works on sustainability.

Working with a 1990 baseline, UCSB has reduced total emissions 60% despite seeing tremendous growth in students.

The UCSB campus has over 6.2 megawatts of on-site solar energy, which provides approximately 15% of UCSB’s electrical demand. The campus’ remaining electricity demand for the main campus is met through the procurement of carbon-free electricity through the UC Clean Power Program.

ETH Zurich's main sources of green house gas emissions

6. ETH Zurich

Location: Switzerland

ETH Zurich prioritises sustainability through research projects, energy-efficient infrastructure, waste management programs, and partnerships with industry and government agencies to address environmental issues.

The university is currently working on the goals set out in its sustainability strategy ETH Net Zero, that acts as a roadmap from 2024-2030. It highlights the importance of a united action from the university, be it students, academics or operational staff.

"In order to transform the university into a climate-neutral organisation, we need the commitment of all ETH members," says Claudia Zingerli, Head of ETH Sustainability. 

“Together we are working towards the same goal – to significantly reduce ETH’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.”

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5. University of British Columbia

Location: Canada

UBC is a leader in sustainability with initiatives like sustainable transportation, zero waste policies, green building standards, and interdisciplinary research centres focused on environmental challenges.

As well as 82% of faculties offering sustainability-related courses, UBC’s energy conservation projects have reduced annual electrical use by over 13 gigawatt hours (GWh) and have saved 143,000 gigajoules (GJ) of natural gas since 2011 –  equivalent to shutting down campus for 2.5 weeks and taking 1,600 cars off the road.

The UBC Sustainability Hub, a staff unit in the Provost’s portfolio, also builds on UBC's sustainability record. The Hub "inspires people to act upon the planet’s most urgent challenges through UBC’s academic and operational sustainability leadership." 

It offers programs, curates listings of sustainability, climate courses and sustainability degree programs, and has developed the Catalyst program to recognize the sustainability work of the UBC community.

(Credit: University of Copenhagen)

4. University of Copenhagen 

Location: Denmark

Based in a famously sustainable city, University of Copenhagen focuses on climate adaptation, green transportation, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable agriculture.

According to the university, “UCPH assumes co-responsibility for supporting a sustainable development – both internally and externally – based on the following principles:

  • UCPH equips students to solve tomorrow's problems today.
  • UCPH prioritises research that contributes to a sustainable development in society.
  • UCPH supports commitment to the outside world and communicates researchers’ results for the benefit of the world.
  • UCPH is at the forefront – by setting an example and through its actions.”
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3. University of Cambridge

Location: UK

Alongside offering many sustainability courses as part of its wide offering, the University of Cambridge is working to be a leader in sustainability.

Committed to continual environmental improvement, UoC has a target to reduce energy-related carbon emissions to absolute zero by 2048, with a steep 75% decrease on 2015 emissions by 2030.

The University of Cambridge is a member of a number of alliances and groups that support our environmental sustainability objectives including:

  • The U7+ Alliance of Universities
  • The International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU)
  • Global Alliance for Universities on Climate
(Credit: University of California, Berkeley)

2. University of California, Berkeley

Location: USA

UC Berkeley is renowned for its sustainability efforts, including green building projects, waste diversion programs, renewable energy initiatives, and research centres focused on environmental studies.

The university is working towards carbon neutrality by 2025 from building and fleet energy emissions and by 2050 for transportation and other sources, for which it says “significant climate-smart investments and cultural changes will need to be made.”

“Becoming a sustainable and environmentally resilient institution requires broad commitment, new resources and creative will, something I know the UC Berkeley community has a surplus of.

"We each have a role to lead and improve the sustainability of our local and global commons. Together, we will continue to demonstrate our commitment to sustainability now and for the decades to come,” says Carol T. Christ, Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley. 

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1. Stanford University

Location: USA

Stanford has robust sustainability programs focusing on energy efficiency, renewable energy, waste reduction, and water conservation. Under the strategy ‘Sustainable Stanford’, the university promotes sustainable practices across campus and in research initiatives.

“A key milestone for the Office of Sustainability was entering into a new waste contract with long-time partner and family-owned business, Peninsula Sanitary Service Inc. (PSSI), that provides multiple benefits and new services to achieve our Zero Waste by 2030 goal (defined as having a 90% diversion rate or higher).

"To make larger strides towards a zero-waste campus, we’ve increased convenience and access to all three major waste streams (recycling, compost, and landfill) to more than half of the campus and launched three task forces around events, cafes, and custodial services.

"Other wins regarding waste include Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE) completing the rollout of Cardinal Clean machines across all undergraduate housing complexes—ensuring that the free, versatile green-cleaning solution is widely accessible.

"Along with this, Cardinal Clean received the CRRA’s 2023 Outstanding Waste Prevention Award,” shares Kristin Parineh Director, Office of Sustainability discussing sustainability achievements 2022-23.

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