Is TU/e missing out?
By Wolmet Barendregt & Irene Niet — The TU/e takes pride in all its sustainability activities, policies and initiatives. Each year, the University takes part in SustainaBul, a competition ranking Dutch Universities and colleges based on their score on different sustainability themes related to education, research and business operations. In 2018 and 2019, the TU/e claimed the number 1 spot in this ranking. However, in 2020, the TU/e dropped to the 13th place, with Hogeschool van Hall Larenstein, Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam and Wageningen University taking the first to third place, and the Hogeschool Utrecht winning the price for best practice.
Low Carbon Travel
Is this drop in ranking the result of a lack of a low carbon travel policy? Although not necessarily the cause for TU/e’s drop in the SustainaBul competition, we do see other institutions taking the lead in this sustainability issue. Amongst other sustainable practices, several universities are updating their travel policies to lower carbon emissions related to travel.
University of Utrecht
The University of Utrecht, a university with which the TU/e has an alliance since 2011, is one of the universities which has decided to become more train-centred. Using the term “Travel Differently”, the university has taken major steps to promote low carbon travel. The university has set up a train zone (with map), which shows precisely which destinations are easy to reach by train. The map is interactive: clicking on one of the major cities will lead to a page filled with travel details comparing the train and plane, such as the difference in travel time, the difference in CO2-emissions and the difference in numbers of transfers. Additionally, the university provides its students and employees with tips supporting travelling by train and bus, such as travel planners, price comparers, and blogs by employees and students.
Another part of the University of Utrecht’s efforts to encourage employees to travel sustainably is the Travel Check. This interactive decision tree supports the employees in their reflections on their travels and making sustainable choices. It gives options on what activities could be done remotely, preventing travel altogether, and how to travel more green or clean when travel is necessary. The university has also set up a train fund, to support young academics with limited funds in their sustainable travels. The university does not outright ban air travel. Instead, in all its policies and funds, it focuses on more sustainable ways of travelling.
Another one of TU/e’s partner-universities, Wageningen University has recently adopted a mobility policy stating that CO2 emissions related to travelling should decrease by 2% each year. To do so, the university tries to centre its travelling around the three S’s of the Trias Mobilica: Scale Down, Switch and Sustain. Scale down concerns limiting travel by using the now well-known practice of video conferencing, and encouraging employees to live closer to work. Switching means encouraging employees to choose a sustainable mode of travel, by having a mobility budget set up and improving public transport options. Sustain is focused on encouraging the purchase of electric cars and informing employees about the optimum tire pressure.
To help its employees, the University has also developed a checklist. This checklist reminds employees that, if possible, they should opt to attend their presentation, seminar or conference digitally, instead of travelling to the venue. If the employee has to be physically present, it is encouraged to use the train. This is especially true if the train journey takes no longer than six hours, which is the case for trips to Antwerp, Paris and Basel. It is also preferable to travel by train if it takes no longer than eight hours, and travelling by plane takes over six hours. Manchester, Berlin and Bordeaux fall under this category. If the train journey takes over eight hours, for example when one has to travel to Lisbon, Copenhagen or Venice, one is free to consider alternative modes of travel. Although travel by train is still very much possible, as we have seen our colleague do last year, and it is still preferred by the Wageningen University, they also encourage their employees to take a look at different websites, such as Ecopassenger and Greentickets to compare the travel time and CO2 emissions.
The universities mentioned above are both highly encouraging their employees to do as much travel as possible by train. Both these universities are, however, quite centrally positioned in the Netherlands. With Utrecht University positioned, quite literally, in the middle of the Netherlands, and the Wageningen University in between the universities in the periphery and those in the ‘Randstad’, these universities are probably less troubled by long and uncomfortable train travels. For those universities less central in their geographic location, employees might be fed up sooner with the push for using the train, as they already often have to travel long distances by train even for conferences within the Netherlands. Can these universities demand more from their employees?
The answer of the Maastricht University is definite: YES!
Map with the geographic location of the different Dutch Universities. Source: duurzaam-ondernemen.nl
Accepting its remote location, the Maastricht University is working together with the province and municipalities of Limburg to make travelling sustainably to Maastricht easier. Having a very small fleet of vehicles itself, the University encourages employees to use an (electric) bicycle or public transport. The university is working on a new policy that actively discourages car use. The academic staff has made a point to raise the issue of air travel emissions with the university, and ask for support. International business air travel was one of the themes of the Green Impact awareness program, an initiative to collect bottom-up solutions for sustainability problems, as well as a way to raise awareness for those problems. As a result, a policy proposal has been drafted. This proposal includes a promoting a culture “in which long-distance air travel is not viewed as imperative for a successful international network and academic career”, promoting low carbon travel modes and introducing a system with which the CO2-emissions of air travel can be compensated. Also, a decision tree is proposed which should support employees in choosing their mode of (non-)travelling, much like the one of the Wageningen University.
Standing on the shoulders of giants, supported by universities
Undoubtedly, other universities are changing their travel policies to include more sustainable travel. Academics all over the Netherlands are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of their work-related travelling on the environment. The recent Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in travel bans at many universities, has given academics time to reflect on both their mode of travelling and the possibility of using smart solutions (i.e. video conferencing). So, what can we learn from the universities and academics that have walked this path before us? Only by standing on the shoulders of these giants, can academics reduce our share in today’s carbon emissions. It would be helpful if the universities help their employees reach these great highs by encouraging, promoting and supporting this behaviour with their own, more sustainable, travel policy.