Roadmap for a Carbon-Neutral Future

UZH aims to be a carbon-neutral institution in 10 years. The 2030 Implementation Strategy for the Sustainability Policy defines how this is to be achieved. We sat down with Lorenz Hilty, the UZH sustainability delegate, to talk about virtual conferences, sustainable research and making a peace deal with nature.

Roger Nickl

Lorenz Hilty vor der Kälteanlage auf dem Campus IrchelLorenz Hilty vor der Kälteanlage auf dem Campus Irchel
“In order to become climate-neutral, we must fundamentally reduce our energy requirements significantly, i.e. the need for heating, cooling and electricity,” says Lorenz Hilty, UZH Sustainability Delegate, in front of the refrigeration plant on the Irchel campus. (Image: Frank Brüderli)
Lorenz Hilty, UZH wants to become greener. The 2030 Implementation Strategy for the Sustainability Policy has been approved by the Executive Board and the Extended Executive Board of the University and is now entering into force. What does that mean?
Lorenz Hilty: This means that both my team and the entire university now have a foundation on which we can base our advocacy for sustainability. The frequently asked question of “What does sustainability mean for UZH in concrete terms?” has now been answered in the form of 23 objectives.

UZH is aiming to become carbon-neutral by the year 2030. How does the university intend to achieve this?
Due to its urgency, climate protection is perhaps the most important objective in the Implementation Strategy. It’s also a very ambitious one. We will have to reduce at least half of the emissions generated by UZH with internal measures. For the other half, we have to demonstrate that our research findings have contributed to a reduction of emissions in other areas.

What generates the most greenhouse gases at UZH?
We can’t even think about being carbon neutral without academic staff reducing their air travel over the long term. The emissions caused by flying can, in just a few hours, undo the climate protection that an individual has worked towards over the course of a year by preventing waste, saving energy or riding a bicycle.

What are the alternatives to air travel?
We’ve already started trying out the alternatives as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will already be a success if we don’t revert back to our old habits after the pandemic. More conferences could take place online in order to avoid air travel. Organizers need to take care, though, that they plan in opportunities for people to connect outside of the plenary sessions. I had a very positive experience with this at the ICT for Sustainability conference, which used the “ConverStations” format. The same short talk is given several times in front of an audience of just five to seven people, which provides space for discussion. The audience changes every time. As a presenter, I find myself confronted with new perspectives each time I hold my talk. It seems tedious at first but actually turns out to be quite educational. The most important part is learning the names, faces and arguments of the participants.

What are some other things we can change in order to live and work more sustainably at UZH?
When it comes to personal actions in your day-to-day life, nutrition offers the second-biggest lever for change after travel. It’s not just about CO2. What we eat impacts various greenhouse gases. It impacts biodiversity and changes in land use. It has an impact on soil quality and drinking water, on global inequality, and last but not least, on animal welfare and infectious diseases. This is why one objective in the Implementation Strategy focuses on making the food offered in on-campus eateries more and more sustainable over time.

In order of impact, the list of everyday sustainable behavior looks like this: not booking a flight, not eating meat, turning down the heat, and using your electronic devices longer before buying new ones. And over the long term: a lifestyle that enables you to comfortably come to campus by bike instead of car, using buildings with fewer cubic meters, and eating local, seasonal vegetarian food.

What contributions can research at UZH make to a more sustainable world?
Scientific research necessarily relies on the critical views of the research community. Otherwise we’d still believe that the Earth is shaped like a disc. Skepticism towards the status quo is what we need to find solutions that are fit for the future. After a long period of technology triumphing over our environment, we now need to stop the destruction and enter into a peace agreement with nature.

What is UZH doing to promote sustainability research?
To name one example, the university is developing areas of research that are important for sustainability but are not yet mainstream. Here I’d like to mention the Center of Competence for Sustainable Finance at UZH, which deals with questions of sustainable investing as well as more fundamental issues of how the financial system and the climate interact with one another (Link: There aren’t many researchers in the world who are independently digging into this currently underappreciated topic.

According to the Implementation Strategy, the university wants researchers and students to be part of a “living lab” for researching sustainability issues. What does that mean?
In order to develop effective measures for reducing greenhouse gases, innovative solutions from the research community should increasingly be tested out as part of UZH’s operations. In other words, sustainable theory and sustainable practice should be brought closer together, allowing the university to be used as a living lab for sustainability measures. Students can use their final thesis as an opportunity to take part. The sustainability team can connect interested students with the right organizational unit for their topic.

The strategy also plans to raise awareness of sustainability issues within the UZH community and to coach faculties and institutes on the topic. What will this look like in practice?
The sustainability team will organize workshops that show how research and teaching can be done more sustainably. This also involves critically reflecting on your own field, on its relationship to other disciplines, and on the great challenges posed by sustainability. We hope to see creative lecturers and researchers using this as an opportunity to tweak their courses and projects to meet these challenges.

The idea is to create an active sustainability community at UZH. How do you want to achieve this?
Most employees and students at UZH are very well informed, and many advocate for sustainability out of conviction. We’re planning to launch a new website in spring 2021 where people can set their own voluntary sustainability commitments. We hope that this initiative can bring dedicated members of the UZH community together from all disciplines and groups at the university.

Students are the biggest part of the UZH community. How do you plan to reach them and raise their awareness?
Students have already shown initiative with the annual Sustainability Week, which is an exemplary project from my point of view. However, it’s up to UZH to offer courses that teach the skills and content that students have to be equipped with in a world where we urgently need to put the economy on a sustainable path.

What role do you play as the sustainability delegate?
It’s primarily a support role. I try to work with my team and the Sustainability Committee to create synergies and structures that are conducive to sustainable development. And most of all, I try to raise awareness of the need for change. Now we have the Implementation Strategy as a roadmap and will urge all committees to remember what was discussed throughout the university and ultimately given the seal of approval by the Executive Board.

Are you confident that we can achieve our objective of becoming carbon neutral by 2030?
The most important part of the process always takes place in people’s minds. There are physical limits, and it’s essential for people to hold values that acknowledge this, values that acknowledge that it’s not sensible to just keep expanding without end. The only thing that can theoretically grow without limits takes place on a cognitive level through our creativity. We should focus on that in order to achieve our goals.