The Doughnut to transform a University

Since 2022, the Doughnut is the new compass for transforming the University of Lausanne.

The Doughnut as a transformative tool for the University of Lausanne

Since 2022, the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland has been using the Doughnut as a new compass. The university has started to draw its Portrait, which has fed a participatory process called "The Transition Assembly" during the academic year 2022-2023. 
Since the summer of 2023, UNIL's Rectorate has been developing its Ecological Transition Strategy, using the Portrait as a decision-making tool. 
Later, the Portrait will be supplemented by other sets of indicators to create a complete monitoring tool, from the Portrait to concrete actions

UNIL's Portrait

In 2023, the University achieved the precise quantification of its ecological impacts. Using the Doughnut framework and adapting the 4-lenses tool to a university scale, the local and global impacts of UNIL's activities on the planetary boundaries were assessed. This approach has also allowed UNIL to identify gaps in current monitoring and has stimulated the production of new data, particularly on the well-being of the UNIL community of students and staff.  
To our knowledge, this is the first time that the Doughnut model has been downscaled for an academic institution to provide a holistic assessment of the environmental impacts of a university. The  dimensions of the social foundation have been designed but not quantified due to a lack of data.

The UNIL's Doughnut (Competence Center of Sustainability (UNIL), 2023)

A Portrait for an academic institution ?
At the beginning of 2022, the Rectorate of UNIL asked its Competence Centre in Sustainability to lead the process of downscaling the Doughnut model to UNIL.  
The objective was to obtain a quantified inventory of UNIL's impacts, which would provide a solid basis for the development of the transition strategy of the institution. 

Two people were dedicated to this assessment for 8 months, with the support of UNIL's technical services to obtain relevant data. Based on accounting data (purchases of UNIL, i.e. travel tickets) and existing monitoring indicators (energy consumption, ecological footprint of food served in UNIL canteens, etc.), a complete material flow analysis (MFA) was carried out to quantify UNIL's impact on planetary boundaries. This MFA is inspired by a similar effort achieved by the University of Oxford in 2021 to assess the biodiversity and carbon footprints of its operations (see Bull et al. 2022). Like Oxford, UNIL's assessment categorises the environmental impacts that are under the direct control or influence of the university, and those that the university can only indirectly influence, and excludes the downstream (hopefully positive) impacts of the education and research conducted at UNIL. 

To ensure the scientific relevance of the assessment, various consultations were held with UNIL’s academics, particularly on UNIL's impact on the local ecosystem and the social foundation of its community. 

The entire methodology and detailed results were published in a report in 2023 (here in French, with a summary in English). This report can be a valuable tool for universities and other institutions wishing to produce their Portrait (even if the method is a first attempt that still needs to be improved).

What did we learn by drawing UNIL's Portrait

  • The Portrait is a robust diagnostic of the current situation

he results of UNIL's Portrait show that the university exceeds its assigned planetary boundaries by up to a factor of 30. Three of the four planetary boundaries examined exceed the safety threshold: climate change, biodiversity loss and nitrogen loss. Looking at the results in more detail, the study shows that the most significant areas of UNIL's climate change impact are air travel (21%), laboratory equipment and resources (15%), and heating of buildings (13%). Using a different metric, such as the biodiversity footprint, two other areas enter the list of UNIL's most impactful activities: IT equipment (30% of the biodiversity footprint) and meat consumption (10% of the carbon and biodiversity footprints). 

Biodiversity footprint of UNIL, for the year 2019, by main areas of activity. UNIL's impact on four planetary boundaries is detailed by activity (Competence Centre in Sustainability (UNIL) 2023).

UNIL's impacts on the local ecosystem in and around its main campus is more complex to quantify. The study suggests that UNIL generates diffuse pollution in the air, water, and soil of its campus, which in turn affects the health of people and ecosystems in the west of Lausanne. For example, the daily commuting of students and teachers contributes (to a very small extent) to exposing the local population to air pollutants at levels that exceed the safety thresholds recommended by the WHO for 2021. 

  • The Portrait allowed to better consider the social foundation of the community

Well-being aspects are an essential part of the Doughnut model. Unfortunately, due to a lack of local (and global) data, the social impacts of UNIL at both local and global levels are still being identified and quantified. However, the work on the Doughnut has already led to a greater awareness of the social impacts and co-benefits of the goals and measures considered in the transition strategy. In addition, the report describes a complete methodology for measuring UNIL's modern slavery footprint: this methodology translates the Material Flow Analysis into social impacts instead of environmental impacts. The method is still awaiting consolidated databases on the modern slavery footprint of each state and sector around the world.

  • UNIL's Portrait could be usefull to inspire other institutions

The experiment carried out at UNIL can help other institutions to accelerate and strengthen the coherence of their own transition strategy. UNIL's Doughnut report includes the detailed methodology to facilitate its replication in other institutions.  

In addition, as the results obtained by UNIL are largely comparable to the Oxford Environmental Assessment (Bull et al. 2022), other institutions could also estimate their own global impacts based on the Oxford and Lausanne studies, without the need to achieve a demanding full quantification, thus preserving their resources for faster actions. 

From the Portrait to action

The UNIL Portrait is now being used at UNIL to take action through 3 main tools: (1) a participatory process, (2) an institutional strategy and (3) a monitoring tool. 

(1) Making decisions with the community : a Doughnut-inspired participative process  at UNIL

Making decisions with the community: a participatory process inspired by the Doughnut at UNIL
In November 2022, UNIL launched an experiment in participatory democracy that seems to be unprecedented in an academic institution. 60 people representative of the community, including professors, students, and staff from 7 faculties and central services of UNIL, were randomly selected to form the Transition Assembly. The University Rectorate entrusted the participatory assembly with the task of "elaborating a series of ambitious and transformative measures to bring the impact of UNIL's activities back within the ecological limits of the planet, while at the same time responding to its social mission". In a nutshell, the mission was to redirect UNIL towards the Just and Safe Operating Space (JSOP) of the Doughnut Portrait. 

The 60 members of the Transition Assembly of UNIL, in July 2023. Credits : Nora Rupp

During the academic year 2022-2023, the members of the Assembly met for 14 half-day sessions. The first days were dedicated to preparing the group to work together and to presenting the starting point: the Portrait of UNIL. Then, six working sessions focused on sectors such as energy, mobility, purchasing, food... allowing the assembly to draw up propositions of action for UNIL. Finally, the last sessions were dedicated to finalising, organising and voting on the proposals. 
The design of the process, the methodology and the scientific content of each session were carefully planned by UNIL's Competence Centre in Sustainability and the team of the Vice Rector in charge of Sustainability. Dedicated human resources were also needed to facilitate the working sessions.  

Some members of the Transition Assembly voting on the targets and actions for UNIL, during the final session (July 2023). Credits : Nora Rupp

In July 2023, the assembly came out with 28 quantified targets for UNIL. These targets come with 146 measures to achieve these targets and steer UNIL towards the Doughnut. Targets and actions have been listed in a public report and presented to the Rectorate of UNIL in September 2023.

A short film has been produced about this great adventure : ! Subtitles in English can be automatically generated by Youtube.

(2) Elaborating an institutionnal strategy towards the JSOS of the Doughnut

Since the Summer of 2023, the proposals of the Transition Assembly have been evaluated to feed UNIL's institutional transition strategy. Since the end of May 2024, the strategy “CAP 2037” is published and available here (in French). 

Each institutional objective for 2037 is quantified according to its impact on the Portrait.

(3) Monitoring successes, failures and the way forward

UNIL’s Doughnut is also being adopted as the conceptual framework for a new monitoring system at UNIL, which will inform decision-makers about the effectiveness of the measures taken. The tool is still under development.






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