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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Universities and the Climate Crisis with John Robinson and Jennifer Dunn

Universities are uniquely positioned to take action on the climate crisis, but an institutional culture change is needed to make sustainability an essential component of operations as well as research and education missions. This episode explores  “living lab” sustainability projects taking place on campuses such as the University of Toronto and how students at Northwestern University are taking on coursework to inform the university's strategic sustainability plan. 

Guests on this episode are John Robinson  of the University of Toronto  and Jennifer Dunn of Northwestern University.

“(A university) uniquely can turn our whole campus into a testbed of sustainability, where every single operational decision is a sustainability decision. Now, of course, it already is, but let's make that overt and attach research and teaching and everything we can see around us, from landscaping to buildings to furniture purchase, to food services, to everything in the residences. It's all sustainability. And so we can do stuff that nobody else can do, but we have to do it. It's not enough to have the ability, we’ve got to act on that ability.””

-- John Robinson, Presidential Advisor on the Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability, University of Toronto
John Robinson

Background reading: 

Episodes focused on UN SDG 13: Climate Change are co-sponsored by the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and sustainNU.

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, your host executive director of the Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. Today, we're talking about the role universities can play in addressing climate change, leading by example at our own institutions and preparing future generations to tackle these challenges. Our guest is a boundary breaker who's leading a broad experiment at the University of Toronto to tackle the climate change implications of everything that happens on our campuses, from scholarship to housing, and to give students greater access to courses related to climate, biodiversity and sustainability. John Robinson is a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and the School of the Environment at the University of Toronto. He serves as presidential adviser on the environment, climate change and sustainability, as well as a leader in the university's Climate Change Coalition. Thank you so much, John, for being here.

John Robinson [00:01:06] Oh, it's my pleasure, Annelise.

Annelise Riles [00:01:08] I want to start with your position because universities are very different around the world when it comes to governance and operations. And it just seems that University of Toronto has taken a really bold approach in putting it all together under your leadership as a scholar and a practitioner and a university leader. Can you explain a little bit about the thinking behind this and why it matters what universities do in this space?

John Robinson [00:01:32] Yeah, there's a lot of different models out there, and of course, it depends a lot on the culture of the university and it has to work for that university. And I do think you need to show value in order to for the institution to kind of buy in. Fortunately, there's so much exciting stuff that can be done in sustainability. It's really not hard to show value if you're given the opportunity to act. And my mantra usually is never have possible goals. All the goals should be completely impossible. You get much farther that way. We're talking about fundamental transformation of the university. That's the agenda that sustainability imposes on us. It's time for universities to step up big time like way more than in the past and engage very deeply with society. Because every sector has to do that. Every industry has to do that. Civil society has to do that. It's not something that can be handed off. Will solve sustainability over in that government department. Well, sorry, it's not going to work that way, so universities have to play their role. And so what the mandate really is is is fundamental institutional culture change. Let's get moving. And that's pretty exciting. And most people we talked to get excited about that idea. And the nice thing about everybody younger than me is, which is most of everybody is that you've all grown up with sustainability sort of from birth. It's been in school. Everybody knows in a way that wasn't true when I started in this business about the problems. So if you're a solution oriented, if you're saying, you know, there are things we can do, we can do as an institution, not just our individual footprint, but we can really do stuff. That's a pretty appealing message. And so I think it's easy to get allies for that kind of an agenda out there. But of course, it doesn't happen by itself. You've got to work at it. At UBC, I was associate provost for sustainability, so that was a sort of more formal structure. I had an office reported to me on a budget and so on. You got started in a very different way as presidential advisor. So I had a committee, but no budget and no staff. And what I discovered was the incredible power of a committee to be non-threatening. I wasn't in competition with units or departments or centers or institutes for budget or jurisdiction. No one minds if a committee comes into a certain portfolio and starts asking questions because you're not in a competitive mode. So we spent two years in that mode trying to prove out the concept to prove this was important thing to do at the university level because universities on the academic side at least are incredibly distributed and siloed as we know. So to show the value of a kind of organizational commitment at the university level, we spent two years, we did two annual reports. Then I went to the president and said, I think we've shown value, but we can't go any further without a little bit of budget and staff. So he then gave us some budget, gave us two staff. We spent another two years starting to implement some of these things and make them happen. I went back to him last fall and I said, I think we've shown that we can do the things we said in the first two years we wanted to do and we can do way more as well. And he doubled us again in terms of staff and budget. So we're into our third phase.

Annelise Riles [00:05:01] That's so exciting and you've made, I think, dozens of interesting points there so let's take a few of them in turn? First of all, when you talk about fundamental culture change, what is it that has to change at the. University, what do we need to change?

John Robinson [00:05:17] The biggest one to me is institutional culture change around combining operational sustainability and academic sustainability because every university I've ever seen. They are doing operational sustainability. They're doing energy efficiency programs, maybe carbon reduction programs, maybe biodiversity programs with their landscaping, they're doing that. And over here, the university is teaching and researching sustainability. The two worlds are completely disconnected. And so one of our major overarching themes is integration of operational academics. That's a culture issue. That's not a policy issue. That's a culture issue because in those two worlds, I call them the pyramid and the plane. OK, so over on the staff side, people actually have job descriptions and they have biases and they're they're they're judged on their performance in their position and things move up the hierarchy. So it's a pyramid. There's a very standard. Almost all jobs in the planet are like that. But over on the academic side, I call this the infinite plane of the faculty, none of whom worked for the university. I've never met a faculty member who thinks they work for the university. University is there to give me an office. That's very handy, although these days I don't even need that and give me a salary. Well, that's important. But I'm in charge. I have academic freedom. I decide what I do research on. The university doesn't tell me anything. And in fact, as an engaged faculty member, my first instinct when the president announces something which the staff will rush to do. My first instinct over in the incentive plan is to criticize it, right? So that's right. These are very different cultures. I used to give talks at UBC to staff about the faculty view of the world, which would leave them with their jaw on the table. And they're working sort of side by side, but they're not really integrated. So, so if you can do that and we did it at UBC, we're doing it at you. If you get this explosion of creative energy, a lot of people working as staff at the university are there because it's a university. They may be taking even a lower salary because they want to work in the public sector. They want to work with students, but they don't get much chance to connect to students, actually. So if we can bring students into the mix to make the connection with living lab projects between faculty and staff? Wow. You know, it's amazing what happens the dynamic that happens there. So that's the culture change I'm most interested in is is, is this integration in a common sense of transformation? We're trying to transform the university in, you know, fairly deep ways. It doesn't mean every person at the university is doing nothing but sustainability. Obviously not. But sustainability impinges on every subject that started the university, and it impinges on every part of the operation because sustainability is about two things. It's about the world, the planet and all these jobs are in the world and it's about people. Has our version of sustainability, we call it regenerative sustainability, says it's not about limits and constraints and padding back. It's about human activity that doesn't have to be reduced because it's damaging human activity that actually improves environmental circumstance and human well-being simultaneously. That's where we should always start. You can't always do that. Sometimes a reduction is all you can do, but you should always start there and look for it and we can build buildings like that. We did one at UBC. Improves human well-being. Improves the environment. Why should we build any other kind of building? We shouldn't. So, you know, this is exciting agenda stuff, but it requires that integration and the students are the glue lead with students. That's another fundamental principle here. So outside world, there's about 100 times more interested in our students than in our faculty. So lead with students and have student leadership.

Annelise Riles [00:09:14] That's really interesting, not just ambassadors. It's really, really interesting. And as you say, sustainability touches everything. And the kind of culture change you're talking about will influence many more things than sustainability. If we can take those three pillars of our community the staff, the students and the faculty and somehow get them all rowing in the same direction, wow. Wouldn't that be exciting? You mentioned the living lab idea. What's that?

John Robinson [00:09:38]  Yeah, it has two aspects. There's campus as a living lab, and then there's just living lab more generally. This is a huge upsurge of literature in the last 20 years about living labs. It started as how to create innovation and product development by attaching research to real product development. But now, a sustainability oriented living labs are somewhat different, and the campus is living lab front. The idea is let's well, I'll give you a concrete example: I teach a living lab course on campus. And what I do is I go out to practitioners on campus so they might be in facilities and services or campus planning. They might be an academic. Planning doesn't matter their practitioners that are doing something related to sustainability. And I say to them, Do you have something on your to do list that you're not going to get to this year because of bandwidth constraints? But if you had a little group of students working for a few, you know, 12 weeks on it, that would be helpful to you. So the key this is key. The problem comes from them, not from us. The world is tired of academics going out and telling people what the problem is and what they should do about it. And so I want to reverse the flow a little bit and say, what's a real world problem? Then they work on it for a term in my course. So I have six projects this term and tomorrow afternoon that the clients, the so-called clients, are going to come in and present their projects and the students are going to decide which ones they're going to do. So I have six groups of four working for 12 weeks on these projects, and they they love it because it's real and because the problem comes from the practitioner. It's what the students do is much more likely to be acted on because that's why they gave the problem to us. So the students get to work on something that has a fairly high prospect of being implemented,

Annelise Riles [00:11:30] Really exciting

John Robinson [00:11:31] And think how different that is from a traditional course, which I'm a big fan of as well, but I think this offers a different way in. And the big thing they're learning that I tell them in day one this, but they don't hear it because it doesn't compute what one of the key things they're learning is the real world constraints on sustainability because we can solve all our sustainability problems in 10 minutes on a piece of paper. In principle, we know exactly what has to happen, but it doesn't. So when you work for a practitioner, has a mandate, has a jurisdiction, has a budget and you know you're learning why it doesn't. So there's a whole learning there about real world sustainability that they won't get from reading the literature typically, or at least not as much.

Annelise Riles [00:12:20] That's so interesting, John. This is sort of part of the way we think at Buffett about global problems generally. If you think of the arc between the time when a researcher first has a great idea to the time when you actually change the world with the concept and have it produce real impact, we're really good at the middle part of that. You know, the data collection, the analysis, the publication, the vetting of the data. But where do we get the ideas in the first place? You know, we're sort of sort of have them in the shower or something, right? And what we really need is to bring diverse communities together, as you're doing at the additional phase, so that the questions we're asking and sometimes it might be for 10 years that we're asking those questions are actually the right questions, right? And so you're getting people together because collaboratively, we're a lot smarter than we are individually. Totally. So your university and my university are both part of the U. Plus Alliance of World Universities, which brings together universities from the G7 countries and beyond to address pressing global challenges. Which, of course, sustainability is at the very top of the list of those. Why do you think universities have such an important role to play or do we have a special role? I mean, is it could you be working in a big corporation or some other institution just as easily? Or is there something special about us?

John Robinson [00:13:37] Yeah, I think there is. I think we have four characteristics that no other institution in society has. We're we're single owner occupiers of capital stock at a really cool scale, urban neighborhood scale, right? And every city in the planet is trying to figure out how to do stuff at the neighborhood scale through sustainability. Now, when I say owner occupiers in many universities, in other continents, they don't own their capital stock. It's government owned and they lease it. So but they're still occupiers of that, and they still manage that. And so that's one characteristic cool scale that we have within our hands. Number two, we're public institution for public universities at least, and so we can accept payback rates of in the 56 17 years. Show me a company that will take a 17 year payback on capital investment. You can't because they can't. So we can do stuff the market cannot do. Number three, we teach. Number four, we do research. No other institution in society has those four characteristics, so we uniquely can turn our whole campus into a testbed of sustainability where every single operational decision is a sustainability decision. Now, of course, it already is. And let's make that overt and attach research and teaching to everything we can see around us, from landscaping to buildings to to, you know, furniture purchase, to food services, to everything residences. It's all sustainability. And so we can do stuff that nobody else can do, but we have to do it if it's not enough to have the, you know, the ability, we got to act on that ability. So I do feel the post-secondary sector has a particular role to play. The other thing, of course, is our biggest output. As a researcher, I hate to think that my research isn't my biggest output, but I actually think it's our students who are our biggest impact on the world. So that's another unique thing that we have, and we better pay attention to that.

Annelise Riles [00:15:42] That's right.

John Robinson [00:15:42] That's a more serious way.

Annelise Riles [00:15:44] Such a good point. I mean, it is our privilege and our obligation to think about the long term in ways that governments and the private sector can't do. But then that means that we've got to center intergenerational justice, right? And and think about that at every step, including training the next generation of leaders knowledge transfer. So as you say.

John Robinson [00:16:04] That to me, the big silver lining, or I should say, the tiny silver lining on the dark cloud of the pandemic is it is now way harder, if not impossible, hopefully impossible to ignore justice and distributional, equity, diversity, inclusion kinds of issues, right? It's just hit us in the face. They were always true. All these inequities and power differentials, but they were sort of papered over. It's, you know, they've just become way more visible. And that's a fantastically good thing because it means we, we we are much more likely to act. I think because it's right there, it's facing us and the sustainability of sustainability means anything. It includes all of those issues it has to. And so I, you know, I think that's that's one thing we may have learned. Let's hope we've learned. Let's hope in two years we won't have forgotten it all again. But that it's really there. I think I'm hopeful about that. I think it's getting built into programing.

Annelise Riles [00:17:03] Well, that's a great note to end on. And John, you are such an inspiration. Thank you for your work and for your example. Look forward to partnering with you in any way that we can on this important work that you're doing. Thank you.

John Robinson [00:17:16] My pleasure.

Annelise Riles [00:17:27] Earlier, we spoke with Professor John Robinson at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto about the university as a living lab, using the research and talents of faculty and students to come up with new ways to improve sustainability on campuses. So today we're going to talk about improving sustainability here at Northwestern. And with us, we have Boundary Breaker, Jennifer Dunn, who is associate professor of Chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering. And so delighted to have you here. Jennifer, welcome.

Jennifer Dunn [00:18:05] Thank you.

Annelise Riles [00:18:05] Jennifer also serves as our Northwestern Faculty Representative for the U7 Plus Alliance of World Universities, focusing her work on greenhouse gas reductions and energy efficiency in that group. So glad you're here, Jennifer. So, Jennifer, let's start with what is chemical and biological engineering. So you are a person of so many talents. You really literally could be anything. So why are you a chemical and biological engineer? How does that make a difference in the world?

Jennifer Dunn [00:18:37] Well, the main reason I am a chemical engineer is that my mother worked for a company that employed many chemical engineers, and she saw that I enjoyed chemistry. So even though she wasn't an engineer herself, she strongly encouraged me to consider this field. And so I did my main interest in being a chemical engineer. It was to try and understand how to design chemical processes that could have low environmental effects. And so I set out to do that as an undergrad. And so I think chemical engineering overall has has a huge impact on making the world a better place. Chemical engineers, along with other types of engineers design polymers went. So of course, we're hearing all about the impact of plastics on the environment, but it's the engineers that are going to be able to help design the replacement materials that we're going to need to mitigate those impacts. Chemical engineers also play a really important role in the fuel industry. So producing the gasoline that we use today, but also potentially biofuels of many different varieties that may come into play in the future. Like sustainable aviation fuels, we need chemical engineers to help design the processes that will produce those fuels that help us lower our greenhouse gas impact.

Annelise Riles [00:19:46] I hope all of the young people out here heard that we need more chemical engineers to solve these big issues. So, so glad that you're one of them. So, Jennifer, you're also a boundary breaker. You're a person who works across disciplinary boundaries, community boundaries of all kinds. Tell us about some of the connections you're making outside of engineering.

Jennifer Dunn [00:20:08] The goals are really to understand something you brought up in the introduction. How can universities sort of set an example and also make real progress in reducing emissions? And we've been doing a lot of sort of information exchange around how different universities are approaching this, and it's particularly relevant for Northwestern because we are in the process of updating our strategic sustainability plan, which has expired. And so I've been taking this as an opportunity to kind of learn about best practices from other places. So for example, I learned the University of Toronto as a very large geothermal energy system that they're deploying, and that will reduce the carbon intensity of their heating. I also kind of learned a little bit about the philosophy around offsets. So northwestern, you know, we can't just go out and convert a field into solar panels and use those solar panels to give us our electricity. We're very constrained space. We're space constrained. And so then the question becomes like, What can you really do from an energy perspective? You can try and buy renewable energy credits and things like that. But the concept of offsets has come up, and I myself am a little bit uncomfortable with offsets because there's this question around permanence around credibility. And so I personally, I struggle with the concept of offsets and person on our last discussion for U7, who was from the University of Edinburgh, also expressed an opinion on offsets, and they had a white paper. And so I took a look at the white paper I shared it with with the co-chair, my co-chair for the Sustainability Council for Northwestern. And you know, I think that those types of interactions really inform my approach because for me, before it was more just kind of something that I was thinking, but then to kind of hear from others how they are approaching it and their universities because the University of Edinburgh was also space constrained. You know how they're pursuing things without leaning on offsets, I think is really interesting. You know, I've been able to kind of selfishly get some stuff out of there, some learnings out of these U7 meetings about while hoping to contribute some of my own knowledge.

Annelise Riles [00:22:07] Last year, I think you also collaborated with students to think about environmental impacts of university products and services right here on our campus. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Jennifer Dunn [00:22:20] Yes. So because of my involvement with the sustainability council, even this was back in 2020. I. Knew that the plan was going to be expiring and I was starting to participate in meetings, but they were talking about what they're going to do. And so I was aware of some of the pillars of the previous sustainability plan, and I was aware of some questions that had arisen around like, Well, what's better, what would be the most impactful? And so I contacted the chair of SustainNU, whose name is Greg Kozak, and I said, What

Annelise Riles [00:22:48] What is SustainNU, Jennifer?

Jennifer Dunn [00:22:50] SustainNU as the entity at Northwestern that's responsible for implementing the sustainability strategic plan. So if we say we're going to put more solar panels up like they're the ones who go do it and they help guide the discussion of, you know, what will our future sustainability plan look like? So they are on the they're at the leading role of putting this together with advice from many around the Northwestern community, including me and others from the faculty. Greg, I said, You know, I notice that you're going to we're going to be needing to update this plan. You know, are there any questions the students in my life cycle assessment class could help answer for you? And he said, Yeah. So he came up with, I think, eight different questions that the students could tackle. So I had 40 students and the life cycle assessment class back in the spring of 2020, and we were able to split into teams and the students addressed these different questions. So there were questions like in the stadium, should we use plastic cups? You know, either like just throw them away like we do now or try and have better recycling opportunities, or should we go to a cups that we hope people will like, bring back with them the next time, you know, become these like souvenirs, they're not going to throw them away. Maybe they could bring the back, like at Starbucks and you bring your mug back. So that was one question. Another kind of my favorite question: what did you decide?

Annelise Riles [00:24:05] What's the answer?

Jennifer Dunn [00:24:05] They actually worked out better to have the aluminum cups, but there's some factors like the in the it depends category in terms of like how thick is the aluminum and also what type of plastic you might be using. So I always feel bad when I had to give the it depends answer, but but I think it would come down to need to work with vendors to understand like what's the thickness of your cup, what polymers are you using and where are they sourced from? If the polymers for the plastics are being already recycled, like you're pulling in recycled plastics to make your cups, then that's also good. Although as we know, recycling is still pretty uncommon in the U.S. So the possibility that those cups would have a high share or like a high percentage of recycled content is, you know, somewhat low. But my favorite one was the meatless Mondays. Should we institute a meatless Monday on campus for the campus dining facilities? So full disclosure, I'm a vegetarian, so I was like, I definitely think we should, and I think I know how the answers are going to turn out if we look at this. Both groups looked at if if you had a veggie burger as an alternative and the alternative, one group looked at a beef like a hamburger. One group looked at a chicken breast. And so we kind of came up with different answers, but the veggie burger just won hands down. You just can't compete with that with like the direct, you know, to table without going through an animal in terms of need to feed the animal and that the manure and all that from animal husbandry. Yeah, we came to this conclusion that we should definitely implement a meatless Monday, whether that will happen or not. I don't know, and I don't know how students would feel about that. So there would definitely need to be some discussions there, the kind of both cool and also sad thing about one of those two groups. They base their veggie burger ingredients on a recipe they found online, like for a veggie burger. They wanted to get together to make these veggie burgers. And when the project was over, but they couldn't, they didn't because the pandemic, so they all made it in their individual apartments and like, got on Zoom and ate like as a community that way. But I, when they told me that I got like teary eyed because, just the pandemic really, you know, the student community took a hit because the pandemic, but I was pleased that they enjoyed it that much. They bothered to make the burger even if they had to do that by themselves.

Annelise Riles [00:26:22] That's great. That's great. That reminds me of when I was at Cornell University before we implemented a process where a certain large percentage of the food served in the cafeteria had to be grown within a certain mile number of miles of the university, which was great except in the dead of winter, because it's very cold in upstate New York. We ate a lot of kale and potatoes in those winters.

Jennifer Dunn [00:26:53] Well, how did the students feel about that?

Annelise Riles [00:26:56] You know, I think they it may be a self-selecting group up there, but I think they learned a lot from it, you know, and we also had a lot of interesting discussions about how did people eat three generations ago or five generations ago and what kind of recipes did they use? And can we recover any of that knowledge for today? So let me ask you kind of to conclude, you know, Jennifer, you and I had. A chance to have dinner the other night, and I remember you were talking about things you're hopeful about and things you're worried about when it comes to climate. What are you most hopeful about now and what are you most worried about?

Jennifer Dunn [00:27:37] I'm hopeful because there is no definite movement at the national level on climate change from a policy perspective and also from industry. That's really encouraging because I think that's the kind of action that's needed to make things happen. The question is, can we hang on to that regardless of how politics change or because I think that climate change is now hitting us over the head that it is happening, you know, right now, Big Sequoia National Park, right, is under threat from forest fires, and it's terrifying. We're somewhat kind of kind of cocooned here in the Great Lakes region. We have some effects, but it's doubtful. I would say it's not as dramatic as what we're seeing in other parts of the country. So I think that, you know, the fact that it's kind of you can't really ignored anymore, hopefully is, you know, spurring these national policies and we'll give them staying power. So that is my my hope, my kind of fear is that while I am a real big believer in having consistent federal policy to really instigate change, I do think we need collective action as you know, as as people, individuals and I used to work at the U.S. EPA and I remember when I started, there was someone had a poster on under their board like, you know, these are the things you can do. And it was things like choose the most fuel efficient vehicle in the category of car you're going to buy. And that was, you know, over a decade ago. So some of these like we just know, we know, use a fuel efficient vehicle. Eat less meat. All those things we know, but they require personal choices. And I'm going to be completely frank and honest. The pandemic has frightened me with sort of the dramatic evidence that many are not willing to take steps to act towards a collective good, even when the threat of severe illness in like like a matter of days is a possibility for people, you know, they're still not taking steps that would help protect themselves or others. And so climate change, even though we're seeing dramatic evidence now, it's still kind of a thing, a murky thing in the future. And so I'm just not sure that we're going to be able to achieve collective action in the near term. And at that dinner, several at our table mentioned, you know, that our kids, the next generation is as much more savvy about this, and I am aware that they will also bear more of the brunt of it than we will. But that could indeed spur them to take more action. And they're going to have more technology choices at their disposal, more data, more information. And so, you know, that's another hope.

Annelise Riles [00:30:05] Well, that's absolutely true. And hopefully with your example and what you're teaching your students, they'll also be better listeners than we have been. So I would say that if Professor John Robinson gave us the idea of Living Lab, the university as a living lab, you've given us the idea of the university as a community of listeners, and I just want to really thank you for that and for all the wonderful work that you do. Thank you.