A better world starts at… university?


A better world starts at university. Or so it should be. Universities around the world are considered the frontrunners of knowledge and innovation. Being able to make a change in society. But still, there are some responsibilities we do not seem to fully take action on. For example, we all know climate change is a real thing. But as a university, and even more so as a faculty, we are far from dealing with the environmental issues in a pro-active way, especially when it comes to one specific issue…

University policy and our collective responsibility

University-wide a mission statement regarding sustainability has been made including some measures that have been taken on the initiative of the University Council such as vegetarian by default for university-wide catering. Other initiatives include for example stimulation of sustainable commuting traffic and creating an energy neutral campus. But one aspect of the sustainability mission that is currently absent, is a policy regarding international flights taken by employees.

This is remarkable since flying counts for no less than 23.7% of Erasmus University’s total CO2 footprint. So how come that collectively we do not take responsibility for something that is having such a large impact on the environment? Thea Hilhorst, a professor at Erasmus University who wrote a blog about this, says it is because we tend to separate our private life impact from work-related impact as if work-related flying is something that is largely inevitable. But as she points out: it has the exact same impact on the environment.

This is something I recognize not only with myself, but also with colleagues around me. Many academic researchers fly a lot for international conferences, guest lectures or other meetings with colleagues abroad, and personal vacations are not even included in that. And even though many of us have our concerns about the environment and therefore travel to the university by train or bike, we eat less or no meat, bring our re-usable coffee cups to work and buy sustainable clothing, there however is one thing that we cannot seem to change: our flying behavior. But let us face the facts here: even a lifetime of veganism will not compensate for the number of times we set foot on an airplane.

What can we do? - The Climate Letter

That is why aforementioned Professor Thea Hilhorst and Professor Jan Rotmans from Erasmus University, together with other Dutch university academics, have opened up the debate and initiated the ‘Klimaatbrief’, or Climate letter, a letter that pleas for more sustainable policies at universities in the Netherlands that has been signed by around 900 university employees up until now. The letter addresses the absent policy related to international flights, but also focusses on other policies such as integrating sustainability more in the educational programs and making investments in sustainable initiatives on and off campus.

So let us get to the point here. If you believe it is important for the university and our faculty, which currently does not have any kind of sustainability policy, to take action, I urge you to sign the ‘Klimaatbrief’. This letter will be presented to the Executive Boards of Dutch universities in an attempt to change university-wide policies related to sustainability. Apart from this, I want to challenge you to become aware of your part in the 23.7% of CO2 footprint and rethink your flying behavior. Because, you know what they say: a better world starts with oneself. And, in my opinion, it should also start at university.


Shirley Nieuwland is a PhD candidate within the Erasmus Initiative ‘Vital Cities and Citizens’ in which she focusses on more sustainable forms of urban tourism.

More information

Read more blogposts from the ERMeCC PhD Club here.

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