Looking inwards

Things need to change... and adjusting the central heating system is just not enough

Utrecht University contributes to a better world and a more sustainable society by promoting impactful sustainable solutions through its education and research. But how sustainable are the University’s own operations? The goal for 2030: climate neutral, zero waste and more biodiversity.

lluster visited Lysanne van der Lem, Sustainability Office manager, and Dorinne Raaimakers, Biodiversity project coordinator at the same organisational unit, to find out just how sustainable the University currently is. We met up with them in the Green Office (what’s in a name?). You know, that little office behind the Alumni Office with all those plants.

Foto van Lysanne van der Lem en Dorinne Raaimakers
image: Ivar Pel

A driving force for sustainability

The Sustainability Office, a department with a staff of 10 full-time employees supported by interns and volunteers, aims to be the driving force for sustainability at UU. The Office has a three-pronged approach. First, it will be working from the bottom up by engaging as many people as possible and listening to their ideas. The Green Office — headquartered in the heart of Utrecht Science Park on Heidelberglaan — was created for that very purpose. The well-lit, spacious office serves great (and sustainable!) tea and welcomes students and staff looking to discuss their sustainable ideas. A fund aimed at providing financial support for high-impact initiatives is set to be established over the course of 2023 as well. The Green Office is also set to introduce satellite teams made up of students and staff at all faculties. As we’ve noticed over the past few years, a lot of people here are intrinsically motivated to make the University more sustainable,Dorinne happily explains That was great to see when I started working here years ago. It’s definitely not like that at every organisation,” Lysanne adds. They are only too happy to nurture those seeds.

The Sustainability Office is also taking a more experimental approach, whereby the entire campus serves as a living lab. A total of 21 sustainable university development labs — also known as UULabs — have been set up. Here, students, researchers and social partners experiment together in live scenarios to find ways of making the University more sustainable. The Van Unnik building, which is due for a thorough renovation after 50 years, is a case in point. Research areas include solar energy, biobased building materials and behavioural psychology. All UU Living Labs apply a scientific, innovative and experimental approach. While concrete results may not necessarily be guaranteed, more knowledge certainly is.

Finally, the Sustainability Office works to connect all activities on operational sustainability. The office ensures that all activities across the University are monitored and based on quantifiable targets. We’re a major organisation at the vanguard of the public debate on sustainability, Lysanne explains. That means we need to have our own clear vision on sustainability. Practise what you teach. The issue of sustainability is firmly anchored in the University’s long-term strategic plan. Everyone can read about our targets and hold the Executive Board accountable if necessary. The Sustainability Office publishes the results of all sustainability efforts in the annual Sustainability Monitor.

Foto van Lysanne van der Lem en Dorinne Raaimakers

We need to develop a sustainability vision for our own organisation

So has the Sustainability Office been fulfilling its role as a driving force so far?

All the roadsides and lawns — which jointly make up 10 per cent of the Science Park grounds — have been managed in an eco-friendly way since last year. We’re letting the grass grow tall to accommodate more flowering plants and insects. That will help tie together the various landscape elements and create nature corridors within Utrecht Science Park. The park is surrounded by wildlife areas and estates on three sides. For example, we’re creating a green corridor between the Oostbroek Estate and Fort Rhijnauwen — a 1.6- kilometre eco corridor that will eventually become a haven for all kinds of indigenous plants and animals.. The photos on these pages were also taken here.

We’ve managed to make biodiversity a stakeholder, Dorinne explains. She means the University is now factoring the need to enhance and restore biodiversity into new spatial development plans. A biodiversity council made up of in-house researchers with their own specific operational management expertise has also been established. Reducing the University’s ecological footprint can also help reduce the burden on biodiversity elsewhere in the world, Dorinne explains.

Another practical example from 2022 would be the Flip the switch campaign, which is set to continue throughout 2023. The goal is to achieve a 15% annual energy saving. That means literally turning down the heating, installing solar panels on almost all suitable roofs, replacing outdoor lighting with LED lights and switching them off at night, among many other measures. New policy initiatives include our sustainable travel policy: trips under seven hundred kilometres will no longer involve air travel unless the journey lasts longer than eight hours.

Time for debate as well as action

Climate change is ultimately about the cumulative amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. In other words, the sooner we reduce emissions, the better. Things need to change, and that also applies here at the University. We are taking a stand and highlighting challenges and problems further down the road. In the end, we want to maintain close ties with all our stakeholders, including those with a more critical attitude, like University Rebellion and Scientists4Future. The University is basically one big living lab.

Foto van Lysanne van der Lem en Dorinne Raaimakers

Lysanne van der Lem (MSc)

Lysanne van der Lem heads Utrecht University’s Sustainability Office. Lysanne studied Biomedical Sciences at the University of Groningen and obtained a Master’s degree in Life Sciences and a Master’s degree in Applied Science and Stakeholder Management at the University of Amsterdam.

Foto van Lysanne van der Lem en Dorinne Raaimakers

Dorinne Raaimakers

Dorinne Raaimakers started her career researching the development of sustainable rainforest management systems as part of a multidisciplinary team at Utrecht University. She now combines her management experience at the University with her expertise as a biologist in her role as Biodiversity project coordinator at the Sustainability Office.

For more information, visit the website A sustainable university.