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Sustainable development and research : Université Paris-Saclay, an action plan in progress

Research Article published on 09 February 2024 , Updated on 09 February 2024

This article was originally published in L'Édition n.22

Sustainable development is one of the core concerns of Université Paris-Saclay and a key strategic element of its policy. The University is aware that it must strive to be exemplary and is therefore constantly working to minimise the demand for resources and the impact of its activities, particularly research.

The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) leave no room for doubt: past and present development trajectories are causing serious, and in some cases irreversible, changes to the Earth's climate and biodiversity. Human and industrial activities are the causes of these profound changes.

These findings are a challenge for the world of research, and not just for specialists in these fields. Scientists are taking action to contribute to more sustainable trajectories.

Taking transformative action

With its community of 48,000 students, 230 laboratories and 9,000 research staff, Université Paris-Saclay intends to make such a choice for itself. In 2021, it adopted a "Sustainable Development Charter" and in January 2023 set out the broad outlines of its strategy as part of the Energy Saving Plan.

Making this kind of choice implies developing training for new professions, technological breakthroughs and research into environmental changes, new processes that emit less and consume fewer resources, processes for recycling critical materials, regulatory changes, societal changes, and more. And becoming aware of our own impact.

Today, Université Paris-Saclay's presidency, vice-presidencies and management teams are all set to meet these challenges. Thierry Doré, Vice- President of Research at Université Paris-Saclay, says, "We have launched reflection processes and gathered momentum to ensure we implement a strong strategy for the coming years across all the University's missions, especially research." This strategy is also in line with the mandatory deployment of a Sustainable Development and Social Responsibility Master Plan (S3DRS), as requested by the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research (MESR). As a reminder, to meet the European commitment to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, France must reduce its emissions by around 4.7% per year between now and 2030. Given the specific characteristics of the higher education and research sector, the MESR has set a target of a minimum annual reduction of 2%.

Integrating sustainable development into research

At Université Paris-Saclay, the Research and Sustainable Development vicepresidencies are overseeing the implementation of a sustainable development policy applied to research and submitted to the boards for approval. The "Basic sciences and sustainable development: what should change in our research?" symposium organised in collaboration with the Centre d'Alembert on 31 May 2023, was the first visible milestone in this strategy.

As part of the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development, Université Paris-Saclay wanted to address the ethical issues raised by environmental degradation and economic and social inequalities in research, from both a theoretical and a practical point of view. Nearly 300 people took part in the symposium, half of them PhD candidates. "This is striking, as it means that this is a focus of attention for young scientists," emphasises Thierry Doré. “The discussion was not confined to the fields of ecology or physics. We moved beyond the question of how to conduct research to that of its purpose and the conditions under which individual or collective bifurcations are possible." The challenge now is to ensure that all University's communities take up the subject, "in ways that are appropriate to them and with questions that depend on the nature of their disciplines," notes Thierry Doré.

An action plan under discussion

A research and sustainable development policy containing an action plan has also been drawn up and put forward for discussion with the research community, all laboratory staff and senior management. This action plan was presented to laboratory directors across Université Paris-Saclay constituent faculties and institutes in July 2023. Its aim is to help them identify those practices that have the greatest impact on the environment. "The aim is to strengthen ties and ensure that this dynamic spreads to all University's laboratories," confides Thierry Doré.

While these actions concern the research laboratories, some must be applied more globally across Université Paris-Saclay. For its implementation, the action plan relies on the network of Sustainable Development Advisors appointed in the laboratories, who ensure the two-way relay of information. Part of the funding is provided by a portion of the management fees applied to the budget of research programmes managed by University. The action plan was also presented to Université Paris-Saclay's Management Committee and Governing Board during a webinar on 17 November.

As far as climate impacts are concerned, to raise research staff's awareness of the issue, Université Paris-Saclay's laboratories have the option of carrying out their own GHG emissions assessments, as some have already done, and using tools to help plan emission reductions (see focus below).

Moving towards lower energy consumption

Energy consumption for heating and air-conditioning is a major factor in laboratories' GHG assessment. Today, this consumption is largely managed by Université Paris-Saclay, which controls the type of energy used, temperature regulation at source and the thermal renovation of buildings. The room for manoeuvre for laboratories therefore involves optimising the use of premises to reduce the occupied surface area and applying energy-saving recommendations in terms of temperatures in these premises, whenever possible.

However, electricity consumption in laboratories varies considerably depending on the specific equipment used for research activities. This is why the action plan proposes a discussion with each laboratory to identify ways of reducing their consumption. A self-diagnostic guide should be available by the end of 2023.

Reasoned and more restrained professional mobility

Another strategic point concerns business travel linked to research activities. Whether for data acquisition or international scientific conferences, travel - and the mode of transport chosen - accounts for a significant proportion of the GHG footprint of certain laboratories.

In September 2022, the MESR informed higher education and research operators of a number of directives set out in a circular on energy saving. By 2025, this circular aims to reduce GHG emissions linked to business travel by research staff, which is primarily air travel.

As a result, Université Paris-Saclay is encouraging each laboratory, according to its own context, to take measures to limit air and road transport for its staff, for example by defining a maximum annual individualised carbon budget. At the same time, it is inviting them to start thinking about outside visitors who use these modes of transport, whether as individuals, for conferences or for other collective events.

Combining purchasing policy, indirect GHG emissions and impact on the biosphere

At the same time, Université Paris- Saclay is tackling the issue of indirect emissions, i.e. those linked to purchases and to the carbon footprint of their manufacture and transport. It has begun to analyse the most critical purchases and the potential for progress. Setting up central warehouses would be one way of improving safety in laboratories, by limiting the quantity of products stored. "The central warehouse in the Henri Moissan building was planned from the construction phase and could be used as a demonstrator. In any case, this will mean recruiting new staff to keep the warehouse running and make deliveries," explains Sophie Szopa, Vice-President of Sustainable Development at Université Paris-Saclay.

As far as equipment is concerned, Université Paris-Saclay recommends extending its lifespan and, if replacement is necessary, considering reuse by other communities, recycling or controlled destruction. Laboratories will be reminded of the existing equipment exchange platforms within University. 
The disposal of hazardous and specific waste is regulated and Université Paris-Saclay applies these regulations. Waste sorting and collection, excluding special waste, will soon be assessed to identify areas for improvement.

For certain water-intensive processes, University will analyse, on a case-by-case basis, the possibilities of replacing open circuits with closed ones and the levers for reducing usage. Research requiring large areas of land (forestry, agriculture) will be the subject of a specific analysis with the laboratories concerned.

Assessing the environmental impact of research

Université Paris-Saclay's commitment to raising awareness of sustainable development issues must also be reflected in the evaluation of research projects. Any University entity organising a call for proposals is therefore invited to include in its evaluation grid a dimension that examines the project's positioning with regard to the ecological transition. This evaluation will cover the research topic itself and its ability to advance the challenges of ecological transition, the mechanisms by which the acquisition of results will impact the environment and the measures taken to reduce these impacts. 
University also intends to raise the profile of research aligned with sustainable development objectives. Its efforts to promote open science and interdisciplinarity are also in line with these aims.

However, the question of taking more general account of sustainable development challenges in all research decisions is an underlying one. Given the ecological emergency, should research focused on the challenges of sustainable development be promoted in order to identify ways forward? Should we abandon certain research projects whose supposed practical applications would go against sustainable trajectories? Is unfinished research likely to promote as much progress as completed research? Should we refuse to engage in research with non-academic partners whose activities are contrary to sustainable development trajectories, even though the object of the partnership is not?

"We are well aware that the road ahead will be long, with setbacks and stumbling blocks, particularly when it comes to GHG emissions, where the tendency is to minimise individual impact on the grounds that others are higher emitters, but this should not prevent us from proactively moving forward," points out Thierry Doré. "For the moment, every part of the action plan is in the realm of the conditional. But we hope that at some point they will stop being so and become concrete," concludes Sophie Szopa.


The path of a laboratory in transition : the exemple of the MaIAGE laboratory

The Applied Mathematics and Informatics from Genome to the Environment (MaIAGE) laboratory has been committed to reducing its carbon footprint for several years now and is continuing its transition, marked by the completion of its first greenhouse gas emissions assessment in 2020 and the recent adoption of a voluntary reduction scenario, created with the endorsement of all laboratory members and the support of the Labos 1point5 collective. 

While aspects of sustainable development had been under discussion since 2017, "some staff began to express the desire to adopt eco-friendly actions at work to be consistent with their personal actions," says Sophie Schbath, researcher and former Director of the MaIAGE Laboratory (Univ. Paris-Saclay, INRAE) and the laboratory's current Sustainable Development Advisor. It began with waste sorting, the installation of low-energy light bulbs, a move away from disposable crockery, etc. Regular meetings were set up and were open to all laboratory members.

The contribution of the Labos 1point5 collective

In 2019, Sophie Schbath discovered the Labos 1point5 collective, which brings together academic scientists from all disciplines on a national scale with the common goal of better understanding and reducing the impact of research activities on the environment, particularly the climate. The initiative appealed to the then director, who wanted to assess the laboratory's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. She took advantage of the lockdown in spring 2020 and the switch to remote working to free up time and apply the methodology just developed by Labos 1point5. She collected the necessary data and produced an initial GHG emission report for 2019. Four emission items stood out: commuting, business travel, gas consumption and IT equipment. "In first place was commuting (32% of emissions)." This was due to the fact that the laboratory's location - Jouy-en-Josas (Yvelines) - is poorly served by public transport, forcing some staff to travel by car. "The gas heating in one of our two buildings accounted for the second highest emissions (24%)." Next came business travel and IT equipment (19% and 18% of emissions respectively), and electricity consumption (7%). When purchases were added, the laboratory's GHG footprint amounted to 158 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, or 2.8 tonnes per staff member.

A number of proposals were put forward to reduce it, some of which have been implemented, such as buying less computer equipment and postponing computer replacement to five years. "Some colleagues started to change their practices on their own, without waiting for binding measures; for example, travelling less and flying less to attend conferences, instead attending by videoconference." Others decided to remote work an extra day or commute by bike.

Further experimentation

Labos 1point5 launched its GHG 1point5 tool at the end of 2020. The MaIAGE laboratory then carried out a new GHG assessment, and the purchasing item, which had been developed by the collective in the meantime, finished in first place. To gain a better understanding of these purchasing-related emissions, Sophie Schbath created her own purchasing categories (accommodation, IT licenses, subscriptions, etc.), and discovered that "half of purchasing GHG emissions were linked to business travel and the reimbursement of expenses."

In 2021, Labos 1point5 launched the Expé 1point5 experiment to try out large-scale reduction measures and test their effectiveness. The MaIAGE laboratory joined the 20 or so other pilot laboratories following approval by the Service Board. Between May and October 2021, a small, motivated team studied the fun, collaborative workshops run by Climate Fresk, 2tonnes, Ma Terre en 180 minutes (My Earth in 180 minutes) and others. It also looked at the 1point5 Kit sheets on carbon tax, quotas, currency and carbon offsetting. During a general meeting of the laboratory, the team set up participative workshops to identify the advantages and obstacles of these systems and the levers for overcoming them. The team began work on GHG emission reduction scenarios for 2030. "We had to set an objective, quantify it and draw up an action plan, inviting people to take part in the process. But creating scenarios, i.e. projecting ourselves into the future, into a different world, is quite complicated."

Creating ambitious, interlocking scenarios

The team then decided to draw up a list of actions and asked colleagues whether or not they were prepared to accept them. "We listed 28 actions, spread across just about every emission item in our GHG balance sheet. They ranged from very simple actions - such as putting a thermometer in the office - to more restrictive measures, such as having a quota for business air travel." An electronic vote was held, involving three-quarters of the laboratory's staff. Based on the results, the team devised increasingly ambitious action plans, which they integrated into five scenarios nested together like Russian dolls and numbered from zero to four. Scenario 0 was the status quo, and 1 was awareness-raising. Scenarios 2, 3 and 4 involved more restrictive actions. "The idea was to gradually accumulate these actions within the scenarios, adding the least accepted ones last."

The team presented these scenarios at a laboratory general meeting and put them to a staff vote. The laboratory was committed to adopting the most ambitious scenario that gathered at least 50% support. In the end, scenario 3 was the winner and was adopted in March 2022. "It was a pleasant surprise! We estimated that it could amount to a 40% reduction in our emissions by 2030 compared with 2019." We are already seeing the first reductions, particularly those related to missions, travel and IT equipment. The introduction of a self-imposed carbon tax is also one of the key actions in the chosen scenario. It contributes to a fund dedicated to energy-saving investments. "As we are currently finding it difficult to reduce our emissions linked to the energy (gas, electricity) consumption of our buildings - it requires us to change heating and control systems and improve building insulation - we have decided to save part of the laboratory's operating budget over several years to cover these expenses." This amounted to 4,000 euros in 2022.

For any laboratory wanting to embark on similar initiatives, Sophie Schbath recommends three elements. "The first is to build up a small core of enthusiastic, motivated people who are willing to spend time on this issue. The second requirement is the support of laboratory management. The third is transparency and inclusion."