Green dreams on British campuses

Academia is making moves to tackle climate change, but are universities going far enough, fast enough? Some are finding it difficult to move out of their comfort zones, writes Bibi van der Zee, who sees no margin for complacency.

Following planes and scooping up their emissions, making buildings out of carbon, weighing rubbish and getting staff on their bikes: these are just a few of the ideas that British universities are coming up with to combat climate change, according to a recently published report. It all sounds wonderful, but it’s hard to believe that this is the full picture.

And, of course, it is not. The report, Greening Spires – Universities and the Green Agenda, is a showcase, put together by the lobby group for higher education, Universities UK, and it paints an extremely rosy picture of an academia gone crazy for greenness. There is no doubt that in some areas British academics are leading the world.

In Leeds, for example, the report highlights research into contrails, the aviation vapour trails from planes that cause disputes about how to measure emissions from aircraft because no one can work out if they intensify the greenhouse-gas effect of flying, and if so, by how much. "Part of the problem is actually getting at them," explains Dr Piers Forster. "You could possibly go up in a balloon, but air-traffic control wouldn’t like it. One of the techniques being used at the moment is flying behind the plane in another plane and kind of scooping up the contrail." His research may offer crucial answers.

At Southampton, students and staff have worked together to design a new eco-friendly professional services building. At Derby, they’ve been trying out a pay-per-weight rubbish system, and have shown after eight years that it really does work: Jo Anne Hasbury, the university’s environmental manager, says they’re emptying 50% fewer rubbish bins. At St Andrews, they’re energetically pushing green travel for students and staff, to the extent of repairing old bicycles and setting up a bike-loan scheme for staff, while also operating a ride-share programme, sorting out bus discounts for students and putting up bicycle sheds.

At Greenwich, Professor Colin Hills is trying to make the leap from theory into reality with his Carbon8 system, a method for turning construction waste and carbon dioxide into small pellets that can be re-used as building aggregate.

But the problem is that while all this certainly takes us in the right direction, Universities UK’s glowing report fails to mention the nagging anxiety in the sector that things are really not moving far enough, fast enough. One might like to believe that academics would be the first to embrace uncomfortable new scientific truths, but some universities appear to be finding it as hard to move out of their comfort zone as the rest of us: vice-chancellors are afflicted with the same short-termism – slow leadership — that hobbles politicians.

The Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA) has been monitoring global temperatures for over 30 years now and was one of the first places in the world to grapple with climate change. Its director, Professor Phil Jones, comments wryly that progress towards environmental awareness within his own university has been “slow, to say the least. It took me years, for example, to convince them not to turn the heating on one day in autumn, and just leave it on until spring. There have been plenty of climate-change sceptics, even here.”

The past two years appear to have begun finally to galvanise academia: the Stern report for the British government on the economics of climate change and regular reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have focused minds. Also, the publication in 2005 of an action plan for sustainable development by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) asked universities to start integrating the environmental message into their courses and to look at their own consumption of energy and water, and their own transport habits.

Steve Egan, Hefce’s deputy chief executive, says that an upcoming strategic review will “identify the key opportunities and challenges in sustainable development. We welcome the lead that many higher-education institutions have taken in integrating sustainability into their roles as educators, researchers and leaders in their communities and through their business operations. We also acknowledge that the sector has to rise to an increasingly challenging agenda and help others to do the same.”

The areas that must be focused on are estate management (universities are huge and wasteful beasts), encouraging research into monitoring and solving environmental problems (this is moving along quite nicely), and education itself.

The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) has been agitating for action for 12 years now, and is optimistic but also frustrated at the gentle pace of change. “The sector thinks it’s doing quite well, but clearly it could do a lot better,” says the executive director, Ian Patton.

As an example, he cites the University of Southampton’s Professional Services Building, an initiative that brought together students, staff and green-building professionals so that a simple building project ended up becoming an educative tool. “You would imagine that this sort of thing would be happening all over the place, but actually it’s seen as incredibly pioneering,” says Patton. “We really struggle to find other universities integrating the education and the theory in the same way. There are some standard-bearers — places such as Warwick, St Andrews, Gloucester — where this stuff is in their DNA; it’s who they are. But these places are the exception, not the rule. We need to get a move on; we’re living on a planet that has limited resources, and we need to start dealing with that now.”

Fortunately, he points out, students are starting to take action for themselves, with campaigns including student organisation People & Planet‘s Green League 2007 table last summer, which ranked universities according to their environmental awareness. The results were surprising. Oxford and the London School of Economics (LSE) both got “fair” ratings, while York and Glasgow scraped by below them. The three top-ranked universities were Leeds Metropolitan, Plymouth and Hertfordshire. “That really shook a few vice-chancellors,” says Patton. “I imagine that resolutions were made not to come that far down again.”

But the biggest problem is that, in the end, this is not just an issue for universities. This is going to be a problem for all of us. Paul Allen, development director at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales, is very anxious about the blindness of the academics. “Do they realise that we need to have a huge re-skilling for Britain, that in the years ahead we are going to have to learn how to do things very differently? Are they planning courses that are going to re-educate our young people? No. They’re teaching young people in buildings where the lights are on all the time, in buildings where the energy is badly managed, where no one has even thought about approaching green electricity providers.”

EAUC’s conference this year is focusing on skills for sustainability. If the architects, engineers, designers and scientists have not been armed with the necessary skills, the necessary carbon descent cannot be achieved.

So, as Greening Spires suggests, things are moving forward, yes. But is it fast enough? Climate change does not leave any margins for complacency.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008

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