The path to net zero – Ensuring today’s challenges are not passed on to future generations

As one of the world’s most sustainable higher education institutions, the University of Sydney are pioneering advances in waste management, solar panel and battery technology.

As Australia prepared for its third consecutive La Niña summer in 2023 and research confirms more wild weather is on its way, the words of former US President, Barack Obama, have never been more relevant: “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.”

As Australia’s oldest university, with a community the size of a small city (more than 70,000 staff and students) spanning several metropolitan and remote campuses, including some of the world’s top environmental scientists, the University of Sydney are deeply committed to building a more sustainable future.

They have pioneered new technologies for solar cells, renewable energy storage and waste management, including Professor Thomas Maschmeyer’s biomass and plastic recycling technology, which is being rolled out with recycling plants globally in Japan, South Korea, Germany, the UK, Canada and the US with partners Canfor, Shell, KBR, Dow, Mitsubishi Chemicals, LGChem, Chevron Phillips and others.

The University has also recently switched to 100 percent renewable electricity for our campuses, three years ahead of our 2025 target, which has a greater impact than removing 31,200 cars from the road. They have also set ambitious targets to reach net zero emissions and contribute zero waste to landfill by 2030.

Their Net Zero Initiative assists government, industry and communities to manufacture, deploy and adopt low emissions technology swiftly, cost-effectively and at scale, while theur education offerings, including the Master of Sustainability and new undergraduate sustainability major, prepare tomorrow’s leaders to tackle the complex challenges of climate change.

Kicking the carbon habit
Emissions are the biggest contributor to climate change. Nations around the world are required to halve their emissions by 2030 and to set net zero targets by 2025 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Globally, the enormous shift towards net zero has seen annual expenditure in decarbonisation rise to US$2.4 trillion. To “kick the carbon habit”, as Sir David Attenborough put it, we need deep collaboration and partnerships between research, industry, policy makers and the community. 

The University of Sydney’s Net Zero Initiative, launched earlier this year, does just that.

“The Net Zero Initiative is about helping Australian businesses gain first mover advantage by understanding, developing and adopting innovative and commercially viable emissions reduction technologies early,” NSW Treasurer and Minister for Energy, The Hon. Matt Kean, said.

For example, scaling Professor Jun Huang’s pilot plant reactor that converts carbon and greenhouse materials to hydrogen fuel, or Professor Deanna D’Alessandro’s novel technology that removes carbon dioxide emissions from the air.

Informing government policies
When the landmark ‘State of the Environment’ Report was released in July, environment and water minister, The Hon. Tanya Plibersek called it a “shocking document” that told “a story of crisis and decline in Australia’s environment”, which she would address as a priority.

The Report, co-authored by renowned coastal expert and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Emma Johnston, found that climate change is exacerbating pressures on every Australian ecosystem. We now have more foreign plant species than native, and the number of listed threatened species rose 8% since 2016, with more extinctions expected in the coming decades.

“In Australia, many of our ecosystems have evolved in response to extreme events, such as droughts and wildfires,” Professor Johnston says, “but the intensity, the scale, and the frequency of extreme events is now different to what they experienced in their evolutionary history. So, not only are individual species being impacted, but whole ecosystems are being disrupted.”

The University of Sydney’s academics have previously advised on the impact of Australia’s ‘black summer’ bushfires, finding 3 billion animals impacted, including 60,000 koalas, and our world-renowned Sydney Environment Institute is currently working with governments to protect wildlife from future fires.

Equipping tomorrow’s leaders
The University of Sydney recognise the key role universities play in shaping our future leaders and are working to embed sustainability across our courses. They also offer a Master of Sustainability, and from 2023, will introduce a new interdisciplinary undergraduate major focused on sustainability.

Their ‘biodigester’, which can break down more than 500 kilograms of campus waste every day, and  Curriculum Garden, which features 1000 native species, allow students hands-on opportunities to learn about sustainability topics on-campus.

Students have also collaborated with Indigenous social enterprise Bruce Pascoe’s Black Duck Foods and circular economy start-up Mercularis, and were the awarded a US$250,000 prize from Elon Musk’s Foundation for their solar-powered unit that removes carbon from the atmosphere.

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