Campaign Case Study: Sydney Uni Campus Clean Energy

I wrote this case study in the hope that it will be of use to current student activists. It will be part of the content of the Centre for Sustainability’s “Leadership Rewired” online training course.

In 2005, students from the University of Sydney began a campaign to make the University Administration clean up their act on climate change. The campaign, called Green Campus Now, called on the Vice Chancellor to commit to purchasing at least 20% of its power from renewable energy, and to funding on-campus renewable energy research & development.

From the start, the student environment collective was very clear about its strategy: to make it harder for the University to keep its unsustainable practices, than it was to give in to student demands. This meant building power on campus, and then using that power to make the University change its policy.

At the beginning of the campaign, the environment collective formed a “green campus now” subgroup, and held a campaign strategy session that defined the target (Vic Chancellor Gavin Brown), secondary targets (University Senators), objectives, timeline, and preliminary tactics. The group listed its allies (including the Student Union, Student Representative Council, Facilities Management Office and outside organisations such as Greenpeace), constituents (students) and opponents (there were some on the University Senate).

Throughout the course of the 2-year campaign, Green Campus Now held many similar sessions to clarify and refine the strategy and develop plans to deal with new obstacles and opportunities as the situation changed. This was particularly important since new students joined the campaign, so they could understand and have ownership over the strategy.

The campaign strategy was divided into two general phases: building support and power, and using that support and power. At first, a lot of the students’ effort went into raising awareness of the issue and gaining support from University stakeholders.

As a result of this, the Deans of 16 University Faculties endorsed the campaign – a huge win to create legitimacy and force the Vice Chancellor to take it seriously. Secondly, Green Campus Now collected over 4500 petition signatures, showing that there was a substantial base of student support for the issue. This was done through daily stalls in public areas of the University, talking to – and then and circulating the petition through – packed lecture theatres, and walking around cafeterias at lunch time talking to students. Finally, Green Campus Now gained the support of groups and high profile individuals outside the University, such as respected climate scientist Dr Tim Flannery. The students began dialogue with the University early on in this stage – collecting information, outlining their policy proposals, and meeting with potential allies.

By mid-2006, most students, staff and administrators had heard about the campaign, and the campaign moved from just building power to using that power to place enormous pressure on the administration. During this stage, the group organised numerous forums, actions and events to put pressure on the Vice Chancellor and the University Senate.

In August 2006, the group held a “camp out” on the University front lawns with tents and banners to protest the University’s lack of response on the issue. Over 50 students set up camp, with hundreds more dropping by for several hours to show their support. The protest coincided with a meeting of the University Senate that looked out over the lawns, but the students were prepared for the long haul, with bringing tents, sleeping bags, cooking stoves, instruments and food supplies. A media release issued on the morning of the protest, stated “Sydney University has an opportunity to set an example to government and the broader community by switching to clean, renewable energy. Climate change isnʼt going away, and neither are we.”

However, late that evening security guards and police forced the students off the lawns. Green Campus Now moved on to the next stage in their campaign – organising the first student referendum on campus since 1979. Finding a clause in the Student Representative Council’s constitution that allowed a student referendum, if enough students petitioned to ask for one, Green Campus Now collected enough student signatures to instigate the referendum. Whilst they knew the results wouldn’t be binding on the University, they would garner media attention and increase the pressure on the Vice Chancellor.

Green Campus Now kicked into election mode. With a well-organised roster of students speaking to lecturers, leafleting between classes, decorating the campus with posters and messages in chalk on the ground, they were able to reach thousands of students each day to promote the “YES” vote. The referendum was to be held at the same time as the Student Representative Council elections, and the group convinced all of the student political parties to endorse a “YES” vote. The support on campus was tangible – even the University Gridiron football team took a photo holding a “Vote YES” sign.

In the middle of the election campaign, on September 5th, respected environmentalist Dr David Suzuki was scheduled to give a public lecture on campus to University alumni. One of the students from Green Campus Now jumped up on the stage while the audience was waiting for the event to start, explained the campaign, and asked the audience members to sign the petitions that other students were circulating throughout the hall. That evening, David Suzuki publicly endorsed the campaign, and many University alumni and donors also pledged their support.

On the two days of the referendum, Green Campus Now supporters mobilised in yellow “Vote Yes” t-shirts. Almost 3,000 students voted, with the results as follows:

  • 90% of students believed that the University has a responsibility to act on climate change
  • 93% believed that the University should reduce its energy consumption in order to reduce its impact on climate change
  • 90% believed that the University should purchase a minimum of 20% Greenpower
  • 81% believe that the University should declare its partnerships with the fossil fuel and nuclear industries.

Because of the student campaign, the Vice Chancellor announced he would invest 1 million in renewable energy research and development – an enormous victory.

The referendum received widespread media coverage. The number of journalists calling the Vice Chancellor for comment placed more pressure on the University to act. Below is an article from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Following the referendum, negotiations with the University continued. Green Campus Now used both an insider and outsider strategy. Allies within the Senate, such as the student representative and sympathetic Senators, advocated Green Campus Now policy inside meetings and relayed information back to the campaigners; whilst Green Campus Now held peaceful protests outside each Senate Meeting.

Eventually, the University committed more resources to sustainability and energy efficiency, and implemented its pledge of $1 million dollars into renewable energy research and development. However, the campaign did not win its demand of 20% of the University’s energy coming from Green Power. Today, current students at the University of Sydney continue to pressure the University on this issue.

Resources from the campaign

About annastarrrose

Author & environmentalist
This entry was posted in climate change, learning, theory of change, youth. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Campaign Case Study: Sydney Uni Campus Clean Energy

  1. Pingback: Link Loving 29.03.11 « Casper ter Kuile

  2. ernmalleyscrub says:

    Dear Anna, Thanks for a thoughtful and conscientious article. I saw your appearance on ABC TV QandA program, and admired your intelligent and articulate response to the questions. If you can impress a bitter and cynical climate change sceptic like me, you must be doing something right. All the best for your future efforts in making the world a better place.

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