By Luke Crisp
“As a leading higher education institution, sustainability is at the heart of everything we do. It’s not just a secondary consideration, it’s built into the very fabric of our objectives, culture and community.”
This is how IE’s Sustainability Office describes the importance of sustainability at IE. Many steps have been taken by the university to be more sustainable, ranging from simple solutions to more fundamental changes. The university has for example almost eliminated printing and since 2019 has had no printers available on campus. From 2019 to 2021, this led to a reduction in CO2 emissions of 7754 kg and in 2022, the sustainability office estimated that paper usage had reduced by 92%. They also reported that since the 2019-2020 academic year, 74% of energy used came from a renewable source. Additionally, sustainability has been directly included in the curriculums, resulting in IE Business School being ranked first worldwide in terms of ESG and Net Zero teaching in the Financial Times MBA ranking of 2023. A more fundamental change is the construction of the IE Tower. This campus is LEED certified, meaning that the building was designed with sustainability in mind. It received the Gold certification and gained recognition for being “one of the first ‘carbon neutral’ universities in Europe.”
But then, where does the title of this piece come from? Everything IE actively advertises paints a lovely image where they are dedicated to protecting the environment and society. The problem comes with some inconsistencies in the assignments and opportunities offered to the students.
One such opportunity is the yearly trip to Saudi Arabia for the MENA Climate Week 2023. The emissions for a single person would be about 700 kg of CO2, and this only includes the flights (return trip from Madrid to Riyadh with a layover) and not any of the activities during the trip. However, the group of students is substantial. If you look at pictures from people at the event linked to IE, there were upwards of 70 people in the group and the emissions linked to flights would be at least 49,000 kg of CO2. This trip could be justified, if what the group of people from IE brings is truly important or valuable. Equally, though, could they have done the same with some zoom sessions? Admittedly, the experience wouldn’t have been the same and, IE likely wouldn’t have gotten as much publicity, but the environmental impact would be significantly reduced (Zoom calls have a carbon emission of about “0.0037kg of CO2” for an hour-long HD call between 2 people).
This trip is not the only example of IE University ignoring its own principles. Take, for example the IE staff who travel around to events in many different countries to promote the university. I myself am not innocent in this sustainability story; as I write this I am on an exchange program in the US, which required long flights and thus CO2 emissions. I also went on my school’s trip to Brussels and Paris, which despite being very interesting did not unlock any great benefit or advantage for me.
Examples of IE’s dubious sustainability are limited only by the amount of time you wish to spend researching them. We can think about IE having campuses in numerous locations, necessitating trips between campuses for students and faculty. And let us consider the IE Tower. Despite being described as “a beacon of sustainable architecture,” it’s creation still had a substantial carbon impact. Even with sustainability being a “key concern,” building something from scratch is never the most sustainable option. Assessing the specific carbon emissions from the tower’s construction is nigh-on-impossible without itemizing every item used in its construction, something IE may have done, but such data is not accessible from the outside.
Globally, the construction sector is responsible for 23% of global GHG emissions. We can assume that IE took precautions to keep the environmental impact of the construction of its campus under the normal average. Nevertheless, it did already have other campuses within commuting distance of Madrid. The question then, is how long would using these other campuses rather than building the tower have been more efficient, even if IE had to do maintenance on these original buildings? Similarly, could IE not have found a building to renovate or reuse rather than creating a new thing? This ideal of repurposing has been a key aspect of the sustainability movement ever since we became aware of the pressure being exerted on Earth’s limited resources, hence the popular slogan of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”
There are ways IE can offset carbon emissions linked to the Saudi Arabia trip and other trips. However, these programs are far from perfect, and they are carbon offset rather than the better option of emission reductions. Considering that its efforts to reduce printing, since the start of the program, cover less than half of the carbon emissions for the flights of the trip for one year, IE can’t rely on that measure alone to achieve any carbon zero objectives it may, and should, have. It would have to substantially decrease its emissions even more than it already has if it wants to truly be neutral.
IE is not alone in this hypocrisy, many companies do the same thing when they make trips abroad just for a meeting. Environmentalism is complicated, there is no easy solution. However, for a university which advertises itself based on its sustainability, to fly its students across the world for an event seems rather counterproductive. We live in a world today with many problems, IE hopes to be able to solve many by providing its students with high quality education and as many opportunities as possible. But what is the cost of this education and the opportunities, at what point should we say no? At what point should we prefer missing out on an individual opportunity if it benefits society as a whole?