Technical University of Denmark: Sustainability pays off in the long run

It’s no accident that DTU’s Lyngby campus has received a DGNB gold certificate. This was made possible because DTU has for many years focused on, for example, which materials to use when we construct our buildings, how to reduce CO2, save water, electricity, and transport, create a good foundation for green campuses and social life—and in general organize ourselves so we become even more sustainable in future.

The overall decisions on buildings, energy, and transport are made centrally at DTU and have a major impact on our sustainability reports. Moreover, the managements of the individual university units have a big responsibility for promoting sustainable behaviour, because of course it also matters what we do as individuals.

“DTU wants to be a sustainable university, and staff and students must also contribute to this when they’re at the University,” says Claus Nielsen, University Director, Executive Vice President.

Trusting each other to make sustainable choices

“DTU wants to be a sustainable university, and staff and students must also contribute to this when they’re at the University”
Claus Nielsen
Claus Nielsen is not one for dictating whether people should eat meat or not, or whether they should take trains or flights to conferences.

“But sustainability is a principle that DTU as an organization must follow and act on. Essentially, it’s about us making sensible choices. For example, the canteen looks for ways to limit the amount of meat it serves without deterring people from eating there. When it comes to transport and meeting activity, there will often be a trade-off between the climate footprint of the various means of transport, the time we spend on commuting, and the importance of physical meetings to our work and our well-being. We hope and trust that the individual will make the right choice and that they’ll discuss it with their manager if they’re in doubt.”

The long period of corona restrictions and online meetings has helped make us more aware of new possibilities, says Claus Nielsen: “Our travel patterns have changed and we’re now seeing reduced travel activity. Hybrid conferences offer new options, and it’s a matter of challenging your habits and organizing your work accordingly. We should continue to take advantage of the new improved opportunities for meeting virtually so we can minimize travelling.”

Another area where it’s important to work with sustainability in a long-term perspective is DTU’s procurement, use, and recycling of everything from furniture to IT equipment. Claus Nielsen elaborates: “We need to become better at seeing our purchases and use of materials and equipment from a lifecycle perspective, which is why we’re working on introducing so-called total cost of ownership models into DTU’s procurement practices. When purchasing items, we need to consider whether they’re necessary, but also be aware that the cheaper choice may end up costing us more in consumption and repairs in the long run. The more expensive item will often be of higher quality and last longer, which will also reduce the need for recycling.”

We highlight key areas and encourage change

Making key decisions about procurement agreements, waste sorting, well-being dialogues, etc., and making the consequences of the individual’s choices clearer, can help everyone act in more sustainable ways.

An example of how to make sustainable choices easy is the current initiative to encourage all university units to put up waste bins. This makes it easy to sort the waste so that more of it is recycled. Another example is the new agreement with Carlson Wagonlit on a system we use to encourage staff to lower their carbon footprint by flying directly to their destination without stopovers. The system then tells you the journey’s carbon footprint. “In some cases, this may make the journey more expensive, but the savings we make from taking fewer flights over the course of the year can offset the small additional cost of direct flights,” says the University Director.

Claus Nielsen believes that staff and students very much want and can make sustainable choices; that, for instance, they’re happy to spend a bit of extra time sorting their waste or using the knives and forks that are available in the canteen and the departments instead of disposable cutlery. Or, when it comes to the social aspects of sustainability, that they’re also willing to take responsibility for ensuring that we talk about our well-being and focus on the social aspects of our employment conditions and procurement of goods and services.

DTU is an organization that gathers a lot of data about how it’s operated, and systems are being set up that will make it easier to gain more insight into its climate and environmental footprint. DTU is also expanding its environmental accounting into a broader sustainability accounting that includes goals for its sustainability efforts in both the environmental and social areas. “This is still a work in process, but we’re convinced that these are important initiatives that will give even more impetus to DTU’s green transition,” says Claus Nielsen.

The long haul

The University Director is aware that there are many levels and perspectives involved in sustainable thinking, and that it’s also about prioritization and communication: “At DTU, we probably need to practise communicating more clearly about the many initiatives and results we’ve actually achieved—because we can see that we’re doing well when we discuss these issues with other universities.”

As regards prioritization, he says: “It can be tempting to prioritize high-profile initiatives for the sake of branding the University. But the difficult part is the long, tough haul, where you also have to focus on the less high-profile but nevertheless very important things, such as energy renovations, greater sustainability in construction, good handling of hazardous substances, waste sorting, well-being dialogues, and promotion of diversity among students and employees. This is where DTU as an organization lays the foundations that allow us to press forward and make a difference to the sustainable transition through our own actions.”