OU Office of Sustainability, student ambassadors begin progress toward Climate Action Plan

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Ohio University students and faculty have worked this summer to achieve the university’s sustainability goals outlined in its Climate Action Plan as the community learns more about how they can get involved.

In June, the OU Board of Trustees unanimously approved the new Climate Action Plan, which includes goals to be carbon neutral by 2050 and targets that align with external reporting and United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, according to a previous Post report .

Restructuring the sustainability plan was a central focus for Elaine Goetz, director of energy management and sustainability at OU.

“When former president Nellis came in 2017, he asked us to restructure sustainability so that it was not as much just focused on the operational part of the university, like reducing carbon emissions and energy and water and waste, but on education of students and co-curricular activities and creating engagement ecosystems, so that everybody on campus and in their community could be involved,” Goetz said.

Since the plan was accepted earlier this summer, the Office of Sustainability has been working on a Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, or STARS, report which was recently submitted to President Hugh Sherman for approval, Goetz said.

According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s website , the STARS report is a “transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance.”

Due to the Office of Sustainability’s small size, it relies on students to support and progress sustainability on campus. The Climate and Sustainability Ambassadors program, a collection of students and community members who promote sustainability at and around OU, has assisted the office.

“We have monthly themes that correspond to our sustainability and climate action plan, and so each month (the ambassadors) took the theme for that month, and they created podcasts,” Goetz said. “That’s another way we’re trying to get the word out, but it’s just hard. There are so many competing things going on in our world, and although I think people do really realize the importance of sustainability and climate action, just sometimes it’s hard to get people to really pay attention.”

The ambassadors are not the only people on campus encouraging sustainable change at OU. During the university’s Student Senate elections in Spring Semester 2021, many of the executive candidates included sustainability as an issue to focus on in the following year. Vice President Elaina Tartal, a senior studying political science and sociology-criminology, said the plan seems like a good start for change.

“This plan is a long-lasting thing that can have a great impact for many years … it’s something that will work and be able to last for years to come, and will actually implement really good sustainability changes in campus that will help our Earth, and make us a greener community,” Tartal said.

In conversations with students, Tartal said some didn’t know there was a change to OU’s sustainability plans but wanted to learn more about it. She also thinks Senate plans to make information about the new Climate Action Plan more accessible to students this year, she said.

Amy Lynch, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, reflects Tartal’s outlook on inclusion of many groups across campus. She said the Office of Sustainability has done well to create a transparent sustainability plan that is accessible to large audiences.

“Plans not only need to have good content but they need to be presented in a way that everybody can understand what that plan is saying and what that plan is asking them to do and what they can do to help implement that plan,” Lynch said. “A university plan, because it has such a wide array of audiences, needs to be very accessible, and I think they’ve taken a good step toward that.”

While Lynch said the plan seems to have reasonable and achievable goals, she feels the university can do more to accomplish the goals in a shorter time period.

The Office of Sustainability provides many resources on its website for students looking to get involved in the change taking place at OU. Goetz said joining the Climate and Sustainability Ambassadors or the Green Initiative would also help create change.

“We are just a little office and we really need amplification of our efforts by students,” Goetz said. “I think being present and paying attention are probably some of the biggest ways that students can help.”


How Brazilian youth are supercharging sustainable development

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Youth Action Hub Curitiba, part of the UNCTAD Youth Network, harnesses the potential of Brazilian youth to help accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of Brazilian students and young professionals led by Matheus Felipe Falasco, who coordinates the UNCTAD-supported Youth Action Hub Curitiba, are promoting sustainability as a key component of a resilient post-pandemic recovery.

From educating the youth on sustainable practices to developing skill-building courses for young people, they’re leading the charge towards a more sustainable future within their communities.

“If we want future generations to have a dignified and high-quality life, we need to transition to a more sustainable society,” Mr. Falasco says.

Young people under the age of 30 represent almost a third of the global population, according to the UN Population Fund. UN Secretary-General António Guterres describes them as “champions of sustainability”.

Harnessing youth potential

Matheus Felipe Falasco, who coordinates the

UNCTAD-supported Youth Action Hub Curitiba in Brazil.

Youth Action Hub Curitiba, part of the UNCTAD Youth Network of change makers, focuses on harnessing the potential of Brazilian youth to help accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through partnerships with the state government, civil society and the private sector.

But, according to Mr. Falasco, the UN-led agenda is not widely known among young people and other vulnerable groups in Paraná, a state in southern Brazil. “We saw this as an opportunity to raise public awareness and encourage social engagement in sustainable development at the grassroots level,” he said.

Before the pandemic hit, the group focused on raising awareness on the basic concepts of sustainability and educating students to make them agents of change on pressing global issues.

“Our objective was to empower youth to play an important role in defining and addressing worldwide challenges beyond the 2030 deadline,” Mr. Falasco said. His group has educated more than 15,000 youth on various topics through university visits and virtual workshops since 2019.

“We hope our seminars on the global goals will advance cooperation at local and state levels, and inject new energy into regional efforts to realize the 2030 Agenda,” he said.

Nurturing sustainability ambassadors

After the COVID-19 crisis caused nationwide lockdowns and disrupted schooling in Brazil, Mr. Falasco and his team continued raising awareness through social media livestreams and online lectures, promoting youth-led innovation to address community problems.

Elevating youth solutions to solve global issues was one of the key themes of this year’s UN ECOSOC Youth Forum in April, and remains the focus of the International Youth Day 2021 to be marked on 12 August.

The importance of equipping young people with the necessary leadership skills to make them champions who will shape the path towards a more equal and resilient future has never been greater.

Following the UN’s call to rebuild societies better in the wake of the pandemic, Mr. Falasco believes young people should take part in creating innovative solutions that work for all.

Looking ahead

Next year, Youth Action Hub Curitiba plans to launch a new programme called “Decade of Action” in partnership with the Paraná state government and seven state universities.

It will be aimed at promoting awareness about sustainability and activating a new generation of youth ambassadors of the 2030 Agenda to develop – through a virtual hackathon – solutions to the social, economic and environmental issues laid bare by the pandemic.

“Young people must understand the issues surrounding them and how to create concrete and sustainable solutions. This is why we want to empower the next generation of decision makers and citizens to have a sustainable mindset,” Mr. Falasco says.

The group hopes to teach more than 100,000 students how to apply sustainable practices in their daily lives and equip them with the soft skills to successfully transition into the labour market.

“Everyone wants to change the world but every big change happens in small steps,” concludes Mr. Falasco, who will be one of the speakers at the UNCTAD15 Youth Forum slated for 16 to 18 September.

Created in 2018, the Youth Action Hubs initiative empowers young people to think globally and express their views on matters within UNCTAD’s mandate.

It enables them to act locally as game changers in their communities by setting up projects related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Currently, there are 46 Youth Action Hubs worldwide.

Tell your sustainability story authentically, effectively and reliably

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Companies face several challenges in telling their sustainability stories: ensuring they are authentic and true to the business; addressing multiple stakeholders’ interests while maintaining consistency; providing information that’s not just accurate but genuinely trusted; and managing the ever-evolving landscape of sustainability regulations, reporting frameworks and ESG rating firms.

To tackle these challenges, The Conference Board convened a working group of more than 300 ESG and communications executives from 125-plus companies. We captured more than a dozen key insights from these discussions in a new report, including these five practical recommendations.

  1. Tell your story through a tiered approach

Companies want to focus their sustainability stories on the handful of issues that truly matter to their long-term future, but many sustainability reports have ballooned into 100-plus pages. These phone-book style reports meet neither businesses’ nor their stakeholders’ needs. How can you focus your reporting while satisfying seemingly endless ESG data requests?

Instead, use a tiered reporting approach. Focus on the first-tier issues (those that truly move the needle) with a main narrative report, which can be adapted to different audiences. Address your next-tier issues, which stakeholders still care about, using supplemental, standalone documents or searchable databases that provide a deeper dive on specific areas. This approach can help with investors, reporting frameworks and ESG rating firms that are looking not just for a narrative that describes the company’s main focus areas but also for timely data on a range of topics.

Ultimately, effective stories meet different audiences’ needs. When determining what and how to report, ask what information your stakeholders need and why. This will be different for investors, customers, consumers and employees.

  1. Align your sustainability story with your company’s business strategy

To ensure authenticity, your sustainability story should be anchored in your company’s business strategy, ambition and culture. The link to strategy often poses the biggest challenge.

To strengthen the link, aim for not just having a standalone “sustainability strategy” but for ensuring that your company’s business strategy itself embraces sustainability.

Sustainability should become a lens through which your company makes business decisions. Your sustainability narrative should match how your company runs its operations and approaches everything from risk management to product development.

But this requires both a top-down sustainability commitment and bottom-up alignment and action. Business leaders also should share how their decisions link to sustainability and, similarly, those who tell the story need to fully understand the business.

  1. Engage your employees

While top-down sustainability commitment is important, your company’s sustainability story should not feel like a directive from corporate communications or the CEO. While the specific ways in which they engage employees can vary, companies have found employee involvement can be crucial. There is plenty of room for improvement: More than 40 percent of the executives we surveyed were dissatisfied with their company’s two-way sustainability engagement with employees.

Employees can be a great resource for keeping a sustainability story authentic, so engage them in identifying the issues that truly matter to your company. One business, for example, surveyed more than 17,000 employees globally over 12 weeks to help identify and describe the issues for which the company stood. This effort culminated in a purpose statement that reflected the views of those stakeholders.

External assurance … can strengthen internal controls and reporting systems, driving better decision-making based on higher-quality sustainability information.

Employees can also be powerful sustainability ambassadors, especially if the company’s message passes their gut check. They will ultimately carry out much of that sustainability story in countless actions and behaviors, so make sure to educate and equip employees to genuinely engage in the messaging and understand how sustainability links to business strategy. And don’t forget that employees can also be a great source for the language, stories and images in your sustainability reporting.

  1. Ramp up the use of external sustainability assurance services

External assurance gives investors (as well as business partners and regulators) confidence in your data’s accuracy, and it can improve your rankings with key third-party ESG rating firms. Indeed, The Conference Board’s surveys find that ESG rating firms and investors are the top two drivers of companies’ decision to obtain assurance. And more companies are opting to do so: Nearly three out of four of our survey respondents plan to obtain assurance or expand what they currently assure.

Gaining external assurance is not just helpful with others. It can strengthen internal controls and reporting systems, driving better decision-making based on higher-quality sustainability information. As this process can be expensive and time-consuming, you may want to increase the use of assurance services over time.

When getting started, find a path to build confidence. For example, before auditing, consider building a database system to prepare your sustainability data for pressure testing, and then pick the right partners to help scrutinize the data.

When determining what and how much to assure (as it can range from just a few indicators to the full sustainability report), consider starting by obtaining assurance for your biggest risks. But keep in mind that you may have limited discretion if your company is subject to regulatory requirements related to sustainability assurance, such as those recently proposed in the European Union.

  1. Don’t chase all the ESG rating firms

By some estimates, there are more than 600 ESG rating and ranking firms. And while there is some consolidation of sustainability reporting frameworks, ESG rating and ranking firms continue to proliferate. Our surveys find that the biggest problem companies have with these firms is the time and resources required to respond to information requests. To avoid becoming inundated, be strategic about which organizations you engage with and how you do it, while ignoring the rest.

One approach: Develop three engagement tiers for ESG rating firms. Proactively engage with the first tier (three to five companies); interact with the second tier of firms more passively — solely to verify data, for example (include a handful of firms in this group); do not engage with or devote resources to serving the last tier (all the other firms).

When evaluating ESG rating firms, look for the top three to five that give you the greatest coverage of sustainability issues that truly matter to your company. Also consider name brand and track record; ability to provide input into your materiality process; information timeliness; commitment to ongoing monitoring; and data accuracy, including the ability to engage with the firm to correct inaccuracies.

Next, consider prioritizing rating firms based on the level of effort required to engage, transparency (do you know what the firm is rating you against?), and accuracy (are they accurately capturing your information?). This approach should help ensure your engagement with ESG rating firms is productive and not burdensome.

With almost all S&P 500 companies issuing sustainability reports, it is clear that sustainability storytelling is mainstream and expected of large companies. But this practice is far from straightforward: information requests from regulators, rating agencies, investors and business partners are growing by the day.

Going forward, effective storytelling will rest on companies’ ability to strike the right balance between satisfying external requests for information and focusing on the sustainability issues that truly matter to the company. Doing so authentically means those stories should not only have the broad backing of employees but also need to be anchored in the company’s business strategy.