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Aisling O’Reilly discusses Sustainability and Social Responsibility

ByEmily Stammers

Oct 9, 2019

In the current political arena in which Climate Change dominates headlines, the work Aisling O’Reilly and the Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability does has never before seemed so pressing or so pertinent.

In her role as projects co-ordinator for the Department, Aisling works to promote and deliver energy saving projects on campus that will help achieve the university’s goals of becoming carbon neutral by 2040, in line with Scotland’s ambitions of a low carbon economy.

Aisling is welcoming the 2040 carbon-neutral deadline undeterred by its challenges: “getting to 2040 there will be some difficult decisions. The university has a large estate and in order to get to 2040 not every decision that needs to be made will make financial sense, and so we may have to make decisions based on our carbon footprint not our payback period or economics. I am confident in our targets but we have a lot to do.”

The Department is considered as the first of its kind in the UK and is thought to be the largest sustainability department in any UK institution. For Aisling, it’s role is to “push the university to be as ambitious as it can be when it comes to topics related to Social Responsibility and Sustainability.”

Aisling says, “Even though we are one department it’s really important for us to collaborate with other people around the university; other departments, other leaders of departments, schools, staff and students. We work together to try and be the leader in sustainability in the higher education sector.”

This ambition and sense of partnership is not just confined to within the university, “we can’t just consider the university to be one isolated institution that happens to be in Edinburgh. We’re a huge part of Edinburgh, we have 50,000 staff and students across the city and with that comes a huge level of responsibility to give back to the community and to make sure what we are doing within the university has an important local benefit.”

Aisling remarks that everything the Department has done has been sector leading at the time it was done, confirming the Department as not just on trend, but on track. The Department’s four-year strategic plan, which comes to a close in 2019/20, has seen real success especially with the Sustainable Campus Fund which identified a lot of projects around the University where energy was being wasted when it need not be.

Working towards the next plan, Aisling predicts “the ambitions are going to be bigger” and points to more ambitious measures which are required to meet climate targets. The majority of the university’s heating system is still based on natural gas but it’s evident that proactive change and innovation is welcomed by the Department.

“We’re at a point where gas isn’t really good enough anymore. We can’t continue towards 2040 whilst still on gas. Some of the work I’ve been involved in is questioning what is the next step, moving beyond gas, how are we going to transition to renewable heating technologies, for example.”

It’s not just about technology changing. Aisling highlights a clear need for behavioural change, “we could spend millions upon millions building a zero-carbon building but if the people inside it don’t care about their energy use, then it’s not going to be zero-carbon, and it’s still going to be wasteful.”

Advising on what more students and as staff can do to re-evaluate our carbon footprint, she said, “I think a really important thing is being more aware of the implications of decisions that you make, so for example if you spend one pound, that one pound has a carbon footprint. It just differs on where you spend it.”

Aisling advises that by making sustainable purchases in the market, as opposed to spending the ‘one pound’ on companies linked to fossil fuels, you will reduce the amount of CO2 associated with this money.

“If everyone is making that decision then the market starts to change and being greener starts to become more important as well.”

More information on the Department and its work can be found through their newsletter and website.

The University of Edinburgh’s Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability is based in High School Yards, near the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.


Image: Aisling O’Reilly

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